The supporters behind the champions
One is a psychologist, mountain guide and founder of a coaching method for elite athletes and business professionals. Another is a former paragliding world champion. We talk to the supporters of Maurer and Pinot.
In all the coverage of Maxime Pinot’s successful 2019 race there is one detail that escaped much attention. His supporter is a paragliding world champion himself. When it comes to flying ability Lager is every bit as capable as Pinot, winning the world championships in 2013, the year before Pinot. Theurillat meanwhile returns to team Maurer this year as official supporter for the first time since masterminding Maurer’s first four consecutive victories 2009-2015.
For most athletes, the role of supporter is often filled by friends, girlfriends, family members and fellow adventurers. Nick Neynens was famously supported by his mum and brother last time; Ferdy van Schelven is supported by his wife. But the top two athletes benefit from advice from the best.
“In the end it is not hiking and flying that is important – it’s about making good decisions.”
Theurillat is an elite sports coach who has also worked with single-handed round-the-world sailor Boris Herrmann. He likens the role of Red Bull X-Alps supporter to F1 and the America’s Cup or Vendee Globe, where the driver or skipper is supported by a whole team of professionals, often working all hours behind the scenes.
“I think the role of the supporter is very interesting because of all the jobs you have to do — it's more or less endless,” he says.
When Theurillat and Maurer first appeared in 2009 they wrote the rulebook on how to do the Red Bull X-Alps. They war-gamed the whole route and applied some ruthless Swiss efficiency to equipment with the result that Maurer turned up on the starting line with a pack weighing 50 per cent less than anyone else’s.
“You win when you make it smart.”
But Theurillat says that all they did was apply the lessons of psychology common in other sports such as golf. It comes down to having the ‘right process’, he says. “Winning is not the smart goal because you forget to focus on the process. If you want to win an architecture competition, you have to have a process, innovation, to have enough brains in your company. If you want to be very good in the Red Bull X-Alps, you have to have a clear process. It’s a tough to say but often you can see the winners at the start of a race.”
He adds: “In the end it is not hiking and flying that is important or about being the toughest – this is not a CrossFit championship – you win when you make it smart. It’s about making good decisions and I think this is what I can bring.”
“If you want to be very good in the Red Bull X-Alps, you have to have a clear process.”
Lager says his main role is to help Pinot do exactly that, make good decisions. They talk throughout the day and will spend an hour and a half in the evening going through all options. “We flew a lot together in the world cup, I know him very well, we are very friendly and we decided to do the race together,” he says.
“I help with technical decisions, flying tactics, the weather forecast and everything. We talk on the radio or via very short texts. I give my opinion. but I don’t know all the conditions, I’m not under the wing, I don’t see everything, so he makes the final decision. It’s important he makes the last choice even if he’s very tired.”
“It doesn't make a big difference whether you eat good pasta or poor pasta – you eat pasta.”
Officially, every athlete has one dedicated supporter, but in reality, they will often have several members of the team. But that can also cause problems, says Theurillat, who supports Maurer with just one other helper. “You can have a coach, someone to do the stretching, someone to do the navigation but then you have more communication, you have several cars and it gets more complex. We try to stay very lean. That means we don't have time to make the jobs perfect but it is good enough. It doesn't make a big difference whether you eat good pasta or poor pasta – you eat pasta – but if you make a very good position, that does make a difference.”
As to what advice he would give to other supporters, Theurillat takes an analogy from airline safety. “They say in case of low pressure, you put on the oxygen mask first, before helping others. You’re useful only if you have enough oxygen.” That means taking time to yourself, even if it’s only five minutes to dive into a lake or fly down. He also advises asking yourself why you’re doing it – then sticking it on the car’s sun visor so you can see it often. “During the race, when you're stressed, you can remind yourself.”
For Lager and the rest of team FRA1, the advice is to have fun. “You need to push all the time, to be as close as possible [to your athlete]. You have to be quick. But it’s very important to be friends all together. We were always laughing even when it was difficult and we were tired.”