Red Bull X-Alps

Supporters: this is why they rock

The Red Bull X-Alps really is a team race – this is why.

© zooom / Vitek Ludvik
 © zooom / Markus Berger
 © zooom / Vitek Ludvik

Supporters don’t always get a lot of love. Theirs is a thankless task but they’re as essential to the race as a paraglider wing. 

“The supporter is the brain of the athlete,” says Nelson de Freyman, who supported Antoine Girard in 2013 before competing himself in 2015. 

“After a few days your brain is turned off. You’re too tired to take decisions by yourself. There are so many things to think about, where to run, what valley to take, what’s the weather, can someone make me a pasta. The supporter really is your brain, but more than that he is like your father – he’s thinking of everything.”

The importance of the supporter was first demonstrated by the extraordinary partnership of the four time winners Chrigel Maurer and his supporter Thomas Theurillat, who as a mountain guide, pilot and sports psychologist was in many ways the perfect supporter. 

“Thomas and Chrigel were the first team to show that this was a team event and not a solo piloting race,” says Cross Country magazine’s editor Ed Ewing. “Thomas ran the ship and took all the stress off Chrigel. He had the iPad, the checklists and planned the route. Since then everyone’s copied that model.”

(This year will be the first time that Chrigel does the race without Theurillat so it will be interesting to see how he fares.)  

Another athlete who has done the race as a supporter is the hotly tipped Benoit Outters, who supported Girard in 2015. If it were a job description, the supporter’s roles would include at the least, driver, cook, meteorologist, psychologist and race strategist. 

“That's already a lot!” says Outters. “But it is true – the supporter has a lot of work during the race, he may even need to use a sewing machine or turn into a mechanic!”

“The most important skill is mutual trust,” he adds. “Physically he must be in great shape too. He sleeps only a few hours and he shouldn't make a mistake.

”But of course that can happen. When it does, teams are faced with two choices. They can either take the example of the late British athlete Steve Nash and his supporter Richard Bungay. As he told us after 2015: “We agreed as a team that whatever decisions we made – whether me in the air or Richard on the ground – if he sent me down a dead end, we would never criticise each other and we thrived.”

It doesn’t always work out that way however. There was one team who was already arguing before the race started. Unsurprisingly, things didn’t improve as the race wore on and sleep deprivation, exhaustion and the pain from costly mistakes kicked in. 

As the athlete told us afterwards: “We had some interesting screaming matches!” For the full story on this, click here