Why athletes launch knowing they’ll have to land

It’s not about being hopeful, it’s about being fast, efficient… and winning the race hiking up and then flying down could be the worst nightmare for a recreational pilot. But for these elite athletes, it’s a useful tactic. We see them hiking early up to a launch site and then gliding down to the valley. This is because they always want to keep moving, and always want to be making ground.

Red Bull X Alps 2023 AUT2 SM 1

In the morning, all the air from the day before is cooling and coming down the slopes. It's called a katabatic flow and you can ride it down the valley like a river and get an amazing glide – longer than usual.

Normally a glider will move around ten-metres forwards for every metre it falls. We call this a ten-to-one (10:1) glide. By riding these invisible rivers, athletes can reach 30:1 glides – that’s 30km of distance from 1,000m of altitude and it’ll save them some serious time and energy.
Even without the katabatic flow, athletes can use this tactic throughout the day – especially if it’s overcast and shady like this morning. Just because the day is slow to start, doesn’t mean the athletes will be.

Red Bull X Alps 2023 AUT2 SM 2
All the air from the day before is cooling and coming down the slopes. © zooom / Sebastian Marko

The condition looked grey and slow to start this morning. Paul Guschlbauer (AUT2) used this hike-up-fly-down technique to cover distance quickly and get himself in a position he thought would be good for when the weather cleared. His supporter Werner Strittl said: “As soon as he's got good indications of the thermal window being open, he'll launch again.” Race Veteran, Gavin McClurg, said that using this technique is “a very easy way to make good distance”.

As the leaders enter challenging airspace, with thunderstorms predicted ahead, flying fast and efficiently could allow the chasers to catch up. For a race that has been so close up to now, things might just be getting even closer.

Top image © zooom / Sebastian Marko

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