What are the athletes most looking forward to when the race finishes at 11:30?
The Red Bull X-Alps 2021 was the longest yet, with a brand new route that, instead of being a one-way trip from Salzburg to the sea at Monaco, took the athletes 1,238km across the Alps from Salzburg to Mont Blanc, and then back again. As Tom Payne commented, “The depth of skill of the athletes is very high this year” and the first half of the course was a very close-run race with a group of seven or eight athletes regularly swapping leads.
It started with the Prologue in Wagrain-Kleinarl on 17 June in very hot conditions. The prize for the top three was an extra Night Pass to use during the race. Chrigel Maurer (SUI1) said beforehand, “I want to be in that first group to the top, because when people start flying every minute will count.” Conditions on launch were difficult, with a backwind blowing and pilots going down in the stable conditions and having to relaunch. Maurer finished first, followed one minute later by Maxime Pinot (FRA1) and then 20-year-old rookie Tommy Friedrich (AUT3), the youngest competitor in the race. Maurer and Pinot used both of their Night Passes during the race, but Friedrich’s Red Bull X-Alps debut was to end early when he had a hard landing on Day 4 and had to pull out of the race.
The first day of racing was midsummer’s day, 21 June and Austria was in the midst of a heatwave. Not only was it incredibly hot, but it was very windy on top of Gaisberg with gusts up to 60km/h. The question was, would the athletes have to hike to Wagran-Kleinarl or could they fly? Tommy Friedrich arrived at Gaisberg first to be crowned King of the Gaisberg, and all the other athletes arrived in quick succession and gathered on top of the hill. Over the next couple of hours the wind dropped allowing the athletes to launch. Spectators enjoyed the beautiful vision of a big gaggle of white and red paragliders above the Gasiberg. Suddenly, a group broke off and moved off together in the direction of the first Turnpoint, Wagrain-Kleinarl, like bees moving nest; others, including Friedrich, were left behind.
Again, stable conditions prevailed on day 2, and the athletes split, choosing different solutions to the problem of getting around Zell am See airspace. Some chose to recce the Schmittenhöhe, the final Turnpoint in the race. Several athletes made it beyond TP3 Kitzbühel Hahnenkamm and even as far TP4 Chiemgau Achental by the end of the day. This turned out to be a difficult Turnpoint, as it requitred the athletes first to tag a cylinder within a 3km radius of the Chiemsee, before landing at a signboard in Marquartstein 10km to the south. This difficult move put athletes on the ground and meant they had to hike.
Markus Anders (GER2) was first to reach TP 4. Maurer signed in third, just seconds behind Simon Oberrauner (AUT2). Race reporter Tarquin Cooper asked Chrigel whether he would make TP5 tonight and Chrigel replied, “Santis!” That’s TP6 and it’s in Maurer’s home nation of Switzerland.
By day 3 the field was already spread out over nearly 200km. Tom Payne said, “This is turning out to be the most exciting Red Bull X-Alps ever. Sure, Chrigel has the lead, but we have never seen him pushed so hard by such a strong field”.
Andrei Mashak (RUS) was the first athlete to be eliminated when the axe fell for the first time on Day 4. Meanwhile at the front, Maurer and von Känel hiked up above the snowline on Krachelspitze (2,686m) but the day’s flying conditions weren't as good as hoped for and by the end of the day most athletes had their ponchos on and were hiking in thunder, hail and lightning . Aaron Durogati (ITA1) overtake the leaders in a smooth move as he crossed the wide Rhöne Valley in the air, but Maurer was back in front by the end of the day. The race was turning out to be seriously intense and close at the front, with at least eitht or nine athletes in seriout contention for first place.
Day 5 was wet and slow, but Maurer was still achieving the 100km a day target he calculated would be necessary in order for arrival at Zell am See within the twelve days. The
Neck-and-neck racing continued through day 6. Now back in French territory it was French athletes Pinot and Benoît Outters (FRA2) who were Maurer’s biggest challengers.
The next day was a lteral turning point as the race leaders tagged Mt Blanc and started heading back the way they had come passing and waving to athletes coming the other way. Mont Blanc (4,810m) is the most symbolic, most scenic and most challenging Turnpoint in the race. Although Maurer flew the furthest with just over 400km logged, when asked he said it had not been easy flying. He and von Känel VK ended the day in Brig in the Rhône valley.
Next day was the day that changed it all – when Maurer made his magic move. Athletes had to choose one of two routes on their journey back east: north, the way they had come in the big mountains, or south, through Italy. Everyone except Maurer chose the southern route because of the forecast föhn conditions that looked as if they would make flying impossible to the north. Then they had to watch in horror as Chrigel flew all the way to TP10 Piz Palü, even live-broadcasting on his social media as he rounded the turnpoint. By contrast, it was slow-going through Italy with little flying. When interviewed afterwards Chrigel said that he had encountered strong winds, but that he did not think it had been foehn – it was smoother and much less gusty. The move gave Chrigel a 166km lead on the chasing pack of
Outters, Oberrauner, Pinot and von Känel.
The next day, day 9, Maurer flew in to Zell am See, landing on the raft at 18:00 to take the win for the seventh time. His official time was 8 days 6 hours and 30 minutes. His fantastic final day had seen him expertly negotiate airspace and daringly flyover the Hohe Tauern national park.
The chasers came in the next day, with three athletes: von Känel, Oberrauner and Pinot in a nail-biting battle for the remaining podium spots. The lead swapped more than once, and there was a short footrace in the middle between Von Känel and Oberrauner to tag the Schmittenhöhe Turnpoint. In the end it was Von Känel who landed on the raft first to take silver, with Oberrauner following 11 minutes later to take bronze. Their official times were Von Känel: 9 days, 2 hours, 7 minutes, 30 seconds; Oberrauner: 9 days, 2 hours,18 minutes, 25 seconds.
The world then watched as Pinot also made a perfect landing on the raft for fourth place: all three arrived in goal after 1,238km of racing, less than an hour apart. Maxime’s time was 9 days, 3 hours, 1 minutes, 14 seconds.
Meanwhile a cold front came in from the west, grounding many athletes who were still further west on the course.
Day 11 was Outters’ day. A Herculean effort saw him arrive in goalk at around 20:30 to take fifth place, and the last athlete to make it in before the end of the race. His last ‘day’ was forty hours long. He had hiked 170km, most of it in the rain, with 7,700m of height gain and just two hours’ sleep. “An ultra trail to finish the Red Bull X-Alps!” Benoît said.
Day 12 meant close race for the remaining top ten positions. Manü Nubel (GER1) had a fabulous day, sweeping through the field from thirteenth to sixth place. Most of the remaining fifteen athletes out on the course, including Nübel, who still had one pulled their Night Passes. Nübel used his to hike all through the night, and continued to battled through the morning of the final day. He did not make it to Schmittenhohe before the clock stopped, but finished beneath the dominating Grossglockner, 39km from the finish in sixth. Paul Guschlbauer put up a good fight, trying to overtake Nübel at the last minute, but in the end he finished just 4km behind him in seventh place.