Christian Maurer (SUI1) won for a remarkable sixth time
If there was theme to the Red Bull X-Alps 2019 it was performance – performance on the ground and in the air. From the 9000m of vertical ascent athletes completed in Switzerland, to the long-distance flights across the main spine of the Alps, the level this edition took a leap up. As race veteran Tom de Dorlodot (BEL) said when he crossed the line at the end, ‘The level is so high now. It was not like that before.’
The clues were there from the start. Christian Maurer (SUI1) who has now won this race six times in a row said he’d lost three kilos and was ‘in the shape of my life’. He proved it too, by coming joint first in the pre-race Prologue. He joined France’s elite-level adventure racers Benoit Outters (FRA1) and Rookie Maxime Pinot (FRA4) in a run to the top of the 1991m Griessenkareck. They completed the 1153m vertical climb in 55 minutes.
The win gave all three winners an extra Night Pass – useful in the race ahead. In the end Maurer only used one of his, while Pinot and Outters used two each.
With an unfavourable forecast for flying the cool weather on the first day of the race favoured the runners in the pack. And Maxime Pinot again showed his strength on the ground – getting to the top first and being crowned King of the Gaisberg.
On take-off the wind was perfect for launching, and all athletes were in the air within an hour. Maurer wished his clear nearest rival Pinot luck and then stepped right in front of him, laid out his glider and launched perfectly. The race psychology of leader and chaser had already started.
Day one saw athletes head south to Turnpoint 1 at Wagrain. Three athletes pulled their Night Passes, which allowed athletes to hike through the rest hours of 22:30-05:00, that first night: Benoit Outters (FRA1), Kaoru Ogisawa (JPN) and Helmut Schrempf (AUT3). In the end though, Toma Coconea (ROU), the Romanian Running Man, made the Turnpoint first.
On Day 2 good flying conditions turned on, allowing the race leaders to cover nearly 300km. Positions at the top changed regularly. Maurer, Pinot, Coconea, Patrick von Känel (SUI2) and Outters were among those jostling for position.
Maurer summed it up best, calling it a ‘great day!’ and listing his statistics: ‘Ran 19.5 kilometres, flew 277.3 kilometres’. This took him from Turnpoint 2 at Wagrain-Kleinarl, to two-thirds of the way to Turnpoint 4, Kronplatz. The next day he arrived at the Turnpoint first, top landing to autograph the signboard. He was awarded the prestigious Salewa Trophy for being the first athlete to reach the Turnpoint.
Already around 100km separated the front of the field from the back. Rodolphe Akl (LBN) decided to use his Night Pass, allowing him to move past two competitors and up from 32nd position to 30th overnight.
By Day 4 the front of the race was established. Maurer (SUI1) was top of the leaderboard, just a few kilometres ahead of Pinot. The pair started their day with a brisk hike along the valley to find launches on the south-facing slopes, halfway between Turnpoint 5 Lermoos-Tiroler Zugspitz Arena in Davos and Turnpoint 6 Davos in Switzerland.
In the air the gap between them flexed. At one point Maurer led by 40km, but Pinot caught up when Maurer made a small mistake, landed short of Turnpoint 5, and had to hike up to relaunch and fly again. ‘A mistake in focus, I think’ Maurer said.
Aaron Durogati (ITA1) was the closest chaser, 40km behind Pinot, but there were four more athletes within 40km of him. Paul Guschlbauer was in fourth position, but ready in place on a south-facing launch early on Day 4, waiting for the thermals to begin.
In short, there was all to play for.
By the end of Day 4 Maurer had made it Grindelwald. In a simply stunning piece of flying he swept through the race like a grandmaster. His coup de grace was top-landing at the race’s halfway mark and highest Turnpoint, Titlis. Landing within metres of the signboard at the 3238m Turnpoint, he took a breather. Ahead of him showers and bad weather were forecast. After a short rest he flew down to the valley, landing within 90-minutes’ hike of Turnpoint 8 at The Eiger.
Behind him, the weather closed in. Rain forced athletes out of the sky and onto the ground. For Maxime Pinot chasing hard it was brutal. ‘I feel every time I am 10 minutes too late,’ he said. Maurer was the only athlete in the front pack to reach Titlis from the air. The rest had to hike.
For them it meant a marathon session over two days, in the rain. Pinot hiked 9000m vertical over 48 hours – like climbing Everest from sea-level. Many others had to do the same.
But still he hung on. Pinot was 45km behind Maurer and had opened up a 70km gap between himself and Guschlbauer behind.
At the back meanwhile, Rodolphe Akl (LBN) had been cut, the first athlete to fall victim to the rule that sees the back marker eliminated every 48 hours. Behind him, the next athlete in line for the axe was one of only two women in the race, Dominika Kasieczko (POL).
Maurer finished Day 5 halfway to the Turnpoint 9 at Mont Blanc and had just 450km to go to Monaco. The gap between front and back had widened to 400km. The axeman got his victim: Kasieczko was forced to bow out with a total of 654km covered, 275km of it on foot.
Maxime Pinot started Day 6, the longest day of the year, around 50km behind Maurer. Exhausted by the vertical distance he was showing clear signs of stress and fatigue. He deployed one of his Night Passes but in the end didn’t use it for much, choosing to hike until midnight and then rest.
In front, Maurer made short flights between the rain, stitching together the kilometres. He tagged Turnpoint 8 at Mont Blanc and was well on his way to Turnpoint 9 at St Hilaire by end of day.
Behind Pinot, Guschlbauer, Durogati, Outters, von Känel and Petiot (FRA2) all made Turnpoint 7, Titlis, and the halfway point of the course. Markus Anders (GER2), Tom de Dorlodot (BEL), Simon Oberrauner (AUT2), Manuel Nübel (GER1) and Toma Coconea (ROU) had it in their sights by the end of the day.
At the back, Chikyong Ha (KOR) was struggling with blistered feet, but Alex Villa (COL) was not far ahead. The axeman had a choice. In the end Villa got the call.
The weekend saw full-on racing and good flying conditions at the front. Maurer was well on his way to the Turnpoint 12 Cheval Blanc. He had sailed over Turnpoint 11 Monte Viso on Sunday, flying at over 3,000m. Some 80km behind him was Pinot, with Guschlbauer 60km behind. Meanwhile, Outters was fighting his way through the pack. On home turf and taking a line over the mountains he looked determined to catch the podium pack.
Fellow Frenchman Antoine Girard (FRA3) meanwhile had been struggling with a debilitating knee problem. It meant serious hiking had become impossible, and, although he did his best to reach Turnpoint 7 Titlis by air he didn’t make it. He was forced to withdraw from the race on Sunday evening.
The field was now spread out across 500km. From Kinga Masztalerz (NZL2) and Chikyong Ha near Turnpoint 6 at Davos to Maurer at the front.
In the middle, the ever-smiling Rookie Juraj Koren (SVK) was in 17th and enjoying the adventure of it all. The young Slovakian summed up his experience saying, ‘I think the Red Bull X-Alps is better than it was in my dreams!’ Closing on the Eiger he was happy knowing he was on the second half of the course.
At the back, a whole different race played out on Monday night. Kinga Masztalerz and Chikyong Ha were full-out road-racing with packs against each other in an attempt to escape the axeman.
Despite sore feet the pair raced full-speed along roads to make as much progress in the direction of Turnpoint 7 as they could, each desperate to get ahead of the other and avoid the chop at 6am. It looked as if Masztalerz had the edge, but at 5am on Tuesday morning she got up and started running – along the wrong road. By the time she realised her mistake it was too late – she couldn’t catch her Korean rival and it was she who had the gutting telephone call to tell her she was out of the race at 6am.
For Maurer, Monday was a hot and sweaty day of hiking up and flying down, eking out any lift he could find in the stable high-pressure conditions, to make progress around Turnpoint 12 at Cheval Blanc and then towards the final Turnpoint at Peille. He used his Night Pass to walk in the cooler night hours, and as Tuesday got underway he had Peille in his sights.
Meanwhile Pinot was still in second, between Turnpoints 10 Monte Viso and 11 Cheval Blanc. Guschlbauer was his closest rival 35km back, and Outters 35km behind him.
Finally, as a heatwave continued to build across France, Maurer reached Peille. He arrived on Tuesday afternoon after a hot and sweaty finish, high temperatures and stable conditions having made progress slow in the southern French Alps. His time was 9 days, 3 hours, 6 minutes.
In the evening he flew down to the raft and completed the course. Clearly elated he thanked his supporter and team
‘My body worked well, my team worked well so I could race fast. And I’m very happy to be here. It’s a great feeling,’ he said.
‘It was was an easier start with the flying conditions, but in between there were some rainy days and it was hard to walk. The last two days were very nice weather but stable [not flyable]. It was a hard end to this adventure race.’
Behind him, Maxime Pinot was secure in his second place, finishing at 09:30 on Wednesday morning in a time of nine days and 21 hours. Maurer turned out to cheer the French Rookie in. Pinot had given Maurer a hard race.
Racing for third position Guschlbauer and Outters spent the day hiking and flying together. In the end, they teamed up and crossed the line together, securing joint third on the podium. It was a remarkable demonstration of sportsmanship and friendship that this race is so famous for.
After the four leading athletes, the race was on to see who could make Monaco. With good flying weather at the back allowing swift progress by air, suddenly goal seemed realistic for anyone with 150km or less to go. In the end, six further athletes made it. Flying through the mountains at up to 4000m most landed short of goal by about 40km. They hiked in, all pulling Night Passes where they had them. They could smell the sea.
Tenth and last in on the final morning was Tom de Dorlodot. This race veteran from Belgium has competed in seven editions of the Red Bull X-Alps. But he’d never made Monaco – until this year. He had nothing but praise for the athletes who had made it in ahead of him.
‘Really, the level in the Top 10 is so high. Chrigel Maurer is somehow in another league, but the rest of the field – we were changing places every day. The level is so high now. It was not like that before.’
Behind de Dorlodot athletes continued to hike and fly until the clock finally stopped at 12:00 midday. The Red Bull X-Alps 2019 was finally done.