Looking back at the fastest, wildest and most record-breaking edition in Red Bull X-Alps history.
It began with a Prologue that gave a foretaste of things to come – a high speed race in that culminated with a final mad sprint between five athletes who fell over the line with just a couple of seconds between them. Things did not slow down from there.
Day 1 began with an ascent of the Hahnenkamm. Former biathlete Lenart Oblak (SLO) and Spanish athlete Jordi Vilalta were first to the top in 53 minutes. The gaggle was soon in the air to the delight of spectators watching from the top of the famous ski run. Who was going to be first to make a move? It fell to Hungarian flying ace Pal Takats to strike out on his own. Was it a bold move or destined to end in failure? “Maybe it was a little bit of a risky move,” he said. “Nobody wanted to go, and I was seeing the window that was supposedly going to be short, and I was like 'okay, let's use this’ so I took the risk.” It paid off. The 37-year-old was first into Turnpoint 2, Wagrain-Kleinarl and was loving leading from the front.
The gaggle stayed close together. By 20:15 they were still flying together, 15 athletes surfing the magic evening air towards Chiemgau Achental until one by one they started to come down. They all landed in the gorgeous evening night and looked upwards to see one athlete still flying. It was Markus Anders (GER1) on home turf, zeroing in on his Turnpoint.
“We just got our asses kicked,” noted Maxime Pinot (FRA1).
Sadly, the day didn’t work out so well for Ondrej Prochazka. Like Pal, the Czech breadmaker followed his own line. It didn’t work and it was a mistake that he never recovered from.
Day two saw frenetic scenes in Chiemgau Achental as athletes fell out of the sky like diving birds. They signed the board, hiked up to launch and were soon on the way to Lermoos, in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena. The big fear was landing out early. Athletes were told that they could only launch from official DHV sites, as per the rule in Germany. In the end, conditions were close to perfect, with a northerly breeze helping them soar along to the Zugspitze. Pal Takats was once again first to arrive at the Turnpoint at 15:35, followed in quick succession by Maxime Pinot and Aaron Durogati (ITA2) and the rest of the chaser pack. By now they’d covered one-fifth of the race in a day and a half – 279km out of the total 1,223km!
Remembering the cheeky launch on a grassy field discovered a few editions ago right behind the Turnpoint, Chrigel, Aaron, Pal and Maxime were soon in the air, thermaling. “It worked pretty well actually,” Maxime said. They were soon charging towards Turnpoint 5, Piz Buin. Both Chrigel and Maxime tagged the Turnpoint 5 before 21:00, with Pal and Aaron hot on their heels.
Tanguy Renaud-Goud (FRA5), who narrowly missed out on a podium in the Prologue, took an different line to Piz Buin, approaching from the south. At first, it didn’t look like he had pulled it off, but he was the fifth to hit the cylinder, at 21:46.
DAYS 3 & 4
Day 3 began with a hike to the top of the Klosterpass, 2,744m followed by a glide to the Klosters valley for Max, Chrigel and Aaron. They landed high and were quick to hike up to launch on the Gotschnagrat, 2,282m above Davos. “I’ve hiked nearly 2,000m and it’s not even 9am,” remarked Aaron on the way up. The three soon launched and soared the steep face until the thermals started coming through. They didn’t have to wait long. Then something appeared below the cliff – it made a hollering cry as it joined the gaggle. It was the irrepressible Pal Takats who launched from lower down. They climbed together, then set their course for Fiesch.
During this leg, Chrigel clawed himself back from the brink of disaster. Over the town of Thusis he lost almost all his height and spent an hour fighting to get himself back in the air, by which time most of the pack passed him. For anyone else, this would have been an unrecoverable mistake. Chrigel would later say later that he did not come close to landing. “I was at least 100m above ground,” he said.
The route then followed the two paragliding ‘superhighways’ to the Rhône, but standing guard were the two passes, the Oberalp and the Furka. And the Furka was not letting anyone pass easily. Maxime Pinot led the charge, but he got flushed and was forced to turn back, leaving it to the local, Patrick von Känel (SUI2) to find a way through. On landing in Fiesch, Turnpoint 6, Maxime told race reporter Tarquin Cooper that he wasn’t sure he wanted to get back into the air again. It was a reminder that while conditions were flyable – they were not recreational.
By late afternoon the lead pack had their sights set on the Lötschepass, the gateway to Frutigen. There was one athlete who wanted to get there first and he was taking no chances. This was Chrigel’s backyard and he wanted to get to Frutigen as leader. Just moments before the 20:00 deadline he pulled a Night Pass. Was it a tactical mistake? At the time race reporter Gavin McClurg believed it was – but it allowed Chrigel his magic moment with his home crowd – and gave him a few precious minutes ahead of the pack when the day started.
There were emotional scenes at the Turnpoint when he arrived at 6:40am on Day 4. At first Chrigel was lost for words and had to wipe away the tears before he could speak. It had been a dream to have a Turnpoint in Frutigen for 10 years, he said.
All day the chaser pack came through, hiked to the top of Niesen and launched – destination Mt Blanc. It was on this leg that Paul Guschlbauer (AUT2) pulled off one of the most sensational days of the whole race, tagging FIVE Turnpoints in a day – almost certainly a record. It began with him signing the board at Fiesch at 9:05 in 11th place. More than 12 hours later he was at the Col du Petit St Bernard in 4th place, arriving at 22:42. It was tough going for his supporters. His driver Serge Durrant, a former fighter pilot (who we can probably assume doesn’t drive slowly) recalled that he drove for 19 hours that day, stopped twice only to refuel, and still arrived two hours after Paul. Further back in the pack many athletes struggled with Martigny’s notorious winds. Tanguy Renaud-Goud had a terrible time of it and was lucky to land in one piece in a sports field.
Ahead the battle had become a duel between Chrigel and Maxime. Would this be a repeat of 2021? Maxime pulled a Night Pass. Would he be the one to get away? The plan did not work out. Chrigel managed an evening glide to the edge of Aosta airspace. Maxime could not launch and was forced to use his Night Pass to merely close the gap at the end of the day.
This was also the day of the first mandatory elimination. The axeman came at 06:00 and to his surprise found Ondrej Prochazka at the back after Junming Song (CHN) ran 60km in the night.
The race now entered the homeward straight across northern Italy via Dufourspitze and Cima Tosa. Conditions were far from ideal with strong northerly winds that athletes had to battle. Further back Kinga Masztalerz (NZL) recovered from her night in the open, after being forced to bivvy on the northern side of Rote Furka. “Absolutely loving it, adventure at last! In the morning my supporter Chris came by with food and warm clothes and dry socks,” she wrote. Accommodation wasn’t much better for Patrick von Känel. He was forced to catch up some sleep in a toilet. “It was new and didn’t smell too bad,” he recalled.
Things got interesting for the leaders as they crossed the Italian lakes. But the day really belonged to Damien Lacaze (FRA2). In the morning he hiked up to the Col du Petit St Bernard, arriving at 08:30. He then hiked 800m to launch and took to the air. He would stay in the air for the next 11 hours flying an incredible 266km all the way to the Sondrio valley. It was an extraordinary performance, all the most so as he had almost nothing to eat or drink all day. “It was a hard fight,” he told race reporter Tarquin Cooper on landing.
Despite both Damien and Max overtaking Chrigel on the evening glide the previous evening, their lead did not last long. All three chose separate launch sites. Chrigel picked the best one, launching first. While the two Frenchmen were forced to land mid-afternoon, the 7-time champion was able to stay in the air, flying almost all the way to Turnpoint 13, Drei Zinnen. He wasn’t able to make the base of the climb in the air, but he reached the upper car park by foot, just 10 minutes before the mandatory rest period kicked in at 11pm. Chrigel is known for his calculation in the air, but this showed his impeccable calculation on the ground too. It left him in perfect position for the day ahead. When you put it this way, it sounds as if they could tag it in the air.
It took Chrigel an hour to race to the top of the Paternkofel via ferrata. He was so fast he left behind the media crew trailing behind him. He then wasted no time to get off the mountain, descending through the old first world war tunnels to launch beneath the Drei Zinnen hut to Sexten, Turnpoint 14. With the two Frenchmen now 40km and 60km behind him, it looked as though his victory was all but sealed. All that was left was a final crossing of the main chain of the Alps. There was still a sting in the tail for the soon to be eight-time champion. He met the northerly winds which prevented him flying over the Hohe Tauern and was forced to hike over the ridge before he could take to the air again. But once he was able to glide across, his victory was all but sealed.
With an evening glide from the top of the ridgeline Damien Lacaze succeeded in getting ahead of the pack. He then hiked through the night, arriving at the top of Schmittenhöhe just after 03:00am. With Maxime just a few kilometers behind – and hiking fast – he chose to hike down to the finish line. Unfortunately, there was only one way for him to get to the float – by swimming. Despite having hiked 80km, he stripped off and took to the waters to seal his second place on the podium. Just over an hour later, Maxime flew down to secure his third place.
Over the course of the next nine hours a record 17 athletes would land on the finishing float, each with their own stories and epics from the past few days. Never before has the race been so close.
“2023 will go down in history as a year of records,” says race analyst and former athlete Tom Payne. “The fastest, and closest racing between the absolute best pilots in the world, culminating in seventeen pilots arriving within 24 hours of our legendary champion. Historical firsts like the first woman in goal, an incredible performance by rookies and veterans alike, and the most athletes ever to land on the float – after the longest, and most hard-fought battles. With the 2023 edition, the race has reached new levels of speed and professionalism.”
For many it was a truly emotional experience. Tim Alongi (FRA4) was one of several athletes lost for words. “I wish I had a word for this feeling of happiness,” he said. For him, it was a truly sweet moment – in January he broke his back skiing and he was not even sure if he’d be able to do the race.
Simon Oberrauner (AUT1) said on landing: "It's awesome. I'm happy we all survived. It was a crazy race, it was so fast, it was so intense, I experienced so much. It's just unbelievable. You cannot describe it in words.”
“What a race,” Paul Guschlbauer (AUT2) said: “1,200km and then everybody comes in at the same time. It was incredible."
Tommy Friedrich (AUT3) said: "No words. Finally here and I can't believe it yet. In the end I was just happy to make the goal. Everything else doesn't matter."
“It was tough,” Aaron Durogati (ITA2) said on landing. “The last days I was not really lucky and I was up and down psychologically, but I’m super happy now to be here. I think this was definitely my best Red Bull X-Alps at least from the feeling. I’m really happy.”
Over the next few days the remaining athletes came in with Japan’s Emoto Yuji making the finish just hours before the race ended. The only athlete still left on the course who had not retired or been eliminated was Jordi Vilalta (ESP), who finished his race near Sexten.
Top image © zooom / Adi Geisegger