Why supporters are the unsung heroes of the Red Bull X-Alps
They share the pain and are equal partners when it comes to decision-making, yet they rarely get the glory. Why the supporter is the most important part of an athlete’s race plan.
Nelson de Freyman (FRA3), the youngest athlete in Red Bull X-Alps, makes a bold claim: the supporter is the most important member in each of the Red Bull X-Alps teams. They are like the head, he says, and the athlete is the legs.
“At the start of the race the athlete is in good condition, but after three days they’re finished,” he says. “They get really tired and can no longer think clearly. That's why the supporter is so important.”
De Freyman knows what he’s talking about. He was supporter for Antoine Girard (FRA2) in 2013 and says the experience was so challenging he’s not sure he’d do it again.
“On the last day, during the last hours of the race, I made a bad decision and we lost second position because of it,” he says. “You see your friend flying in the mountains, taking risks all throughout the race and then at the last moment it's by your mistake you lose a position. The race is on your shoulders.”
Martin Muller, himself a veteran Red Bull X-Alps athlete, is supporter to Samuel Vurpillot (SUI2) and says the athlete-supporter duo is “a little bit like being in a union”.
“I’m motivator, I’m his mum, his dad, cook, meteorologist, driver and sometimes the guide. I’m also team-mate, masseur and Sherpa – I carry a lot, like water and clothes for example. Of course, it can be a clash sometimes but we are really good friends and with Samuel we work well.”
He says the supporter’s role is invaluable, providing much more than just help and assistance. “Fabian Zuberer saved my life. In the 2009 race I crashed and he came to help me and called the helicopter.
“It’s the little things,” he adds. “Boris Aellen used to make a fire by the bivouac and it was a way to reconnect in the flames, not just eat and sleep. Stephane Voeffray used to play the guitar. It helped me a lot to go fast last time – it meant I had a good vibration in my body to reach Monaco! Julien Andrey used to always tell me a good way in the mountains.”
Of course, one of the most successful partnerships is that between Chrigel Maurer and Thomas Theurillat (SUI1). Theurillat’s role in helping to secure three wins for Maurer should not be underestimated.
Not only is he an alpine mountain guide and able to lead Maurer over challenging, glaciated terrain but he also has a masters in psychology and is able to use that knowledge to help Maurer recover and prepare at the end of each day with relaxation techniques.
During the 2013 race, he gave us some insights: “Sometimes, as his friend, I want to say to Chrigel just to have a rest, but as his coach, I need to motivate him. Sometimes I need to pace him, be the tactician, fulfill the roles he can't. It's a fascinating dynamic.”
Maurer says winning the Red Bull X-Alps would be impossible without Theurillat.
“Thomas is much more than just a spaghetti cook and driver. His skills as a psychologist and mountain guide are invaluable. We first combined our skills in 2009 and were able to progress quicker than other teams because our skills complemented each other’s. Today we are even stronger because both of us know exactly what the other is capable of.”
During their first race the pair took teamwork to a new level. Stuck on a mountain glacier near Monta Rosa, Italy on day 7 and unable to take off, they came up with an ingenious solution – Theurillat turned human powered tow (a practice since prohibited by race rules). He ran down the mountain pulling Maurer on the rope to give him the lift he needed to take-off. It was enough to get Maurer airborne and the Swiss flying ace took care of the rest.
“I felt very sorry for Thomas,” Maurer later said. “He had to go all the way back himself, including climbing 2,000m down to reach the car.”
It’s therefore satisfying to see that standing next to Maurer for the defining winner’s photo on the landing float in Monaco is Theurillat, sharing in the glory and showing that the Red Bull X-Alps really is a team event.