Evolution of a route

As athletes get stronger year on year, organizers must get more inventive with the route to challenge them to the limit.

Toma Coconea (ROU) hikes during the Red Bull X-Alps in Salzburg, Austria on July 2, 2017
Toma Coconea (ROU) hikes during the Red Bull X-Alps in Salzburg, Austria on July 2, 2017
Honza Zak

When the first Red Bull X-Alps was held in 2003, there was just one mid-race Turnpoint between the Dachstein mountain and Monaco, a pass over Verbier. 

Such a straight-line course looks easy by today’s standards, but it still took 12 days for the winner to make Monaco – and only two other athletes made goal. 

Back then competitors would have seen themselves as adventurers first and foremost, rather than performance athletes. They wore hiking boots, carried 20kg on their back, and flew wings with a glide ratio of 9:1. It was a different era. 

"44,600 vertical meters, equivalent to five sea level to summit ascents of Mt Everest."

Today, the equipment has changed beyond all recognition. Everything has got lighter, faster and better. Athletes carry as little as 5-7kg on their backs. On the ground they’re speed hiking and running while in the air their wings have got 30% more glide. 

But the biggest change is in the athletes themselves. Year on year, they’re getting stronger, fitter and technically more able. Just look at the performance stats of last edition’s podium winners: 

Chrigel Maurer’s flying prowess may be legendary but he’s an incredible athlete on foot as well. During the 2017 race he clocked 44,600 vertical meters, equivalent to five sea level to summit ascents of Mt Everest!  

The same race Benoit Outters ran and hiked an insane 102km on Day 8! Just to put that in perspective, that’s two and a half marathons, after one week of racing (with virtually no sleep as he’d pulled a Night Pass) and doesn’t even include vertical meters. 

Paul Guschlbauer, who came third, clocked an incredible total flying distance of 2,400km – that’s Paris to Moscow. 

And let’s not forget Toma Coconea’s legendary 2007 race in which he hiked 1,021km, almost the same distance as San Francisco to Seattle. (And he still came second.) 

Faced with these kind of super-human efforts, organizers have to get more and more creative with the route – finding ways to make it more challenging, for example by forcing them to land at certain Turnpoints. Or making it impossible to hop aboard obvious aerial superhighways like the Pinzgau and Rhone valleys. (Both run east-west and are famous for their reliable thermals.) It also means positioning Turn Points on both north and south sides of Alps, forcing athletes to cross the main chain multiple times. 

"... we all want them to face mountain climbs, glacier hikes and big mountain crossings. It’s not only about the most economical and fastest route from Salzburg to Monaco.”

Things started to get spicy in 2009 when five mid-race Turnpoints were added. By 2013 the distance was increased to 1,031km with eight mid-race Turn Points and three crossings of the main chain. But even that was still a mostly linear course, the only deviation being the first leg from Salzburg to the Dachstein.

Fast forward to 2017 and the route is the longest in its history, 1,138 km. It kicked off with a monster out and back to Slovenia’s Julian Alps. By the time athletes reached Aschau im Chiemgau, a total straightline distance from the Salzburg startline of 55km to the west, they’d crossed the Alps twice and raced 336km. And that was just the start. 

It’s tempting to wonder what the 2019 lineup would make of the original 2003 course. But it’s likely it would all be over in a few days. 

As Race Director Jürgen Wietrzyk previously said: “The Red Bull X-Alps is more than a paragliding competition, it’s an adventure race. Organisers, fans, and athletes – we all want them to face mountain climbs, glacier hikes and big mountain crossings. It’s not only about the most economical and fastest route from Salzburg to Monaco.”

The route will be revealed on March 12th. Only one thing is guaranteed. It’s going to be tough, technical and demand every bit of strength and skill from athletes and their teams. We can’t wait for the showdown to begin.

Mark your calendars for the Red Bull X-Alps 2019 Route Announcement on March 12, 2019!

Photo © zooom / Honza Zak

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