Saturday, October 18, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Chamois

Paragliding, hiking, mountain biking and roller blading. There can be few races in the world that combine all of these sports, but the annual Raid Chamois, now in its fourth year, manages it. Starting from the picturesque French alpine town of Thônes, halfway between Annecy and Grand Bornand, this unique race sees competitors using varied modes of transport to complete a challenging but beautiful 50km circuit around Lake Annecy before the final sprint back to base at Thônes.

Having discovered and done reasonably well in the event in 2007, I returned in 2008 with my non-flying but very fit friend Stephen March to have a crack at winning it. We collected together my old Gin Bongo tandem, a couple of lightweight harnesses, mountain bikes from here and there, and our roller blades to arrive in Thônes early on Saturday morning with a car full of toys. A mixed bunch of about seventy people, in teams of two or three, bustled about on the start line. Everyone from honed ultramarathon runners to father-and-daughter teams was there, and with a quick countdown from the starter we were off!

A short sprint to the bikes, and we leapt upon them. The first stage was a 12km mountain bike section from the centre of Thônes to the village of Alex. Instructions were simple: follow the Police car through the village, and when it stops, keep going on the track following green splotches of paint! The pace from the start was full-on: clearly Stephen and I weren't the only ones in it to win it! The wide forest track soon gave way to narrow, twisting trail and I struggled to maintain speed on the muddy ground. Dismayed to see others already zooming ahead, I focused on riding as hard as I could, albeit seeming a snail's pace compared to the other competitors, reassuring myself that the bike was my weakest discipline and that we'd make time back up on the hill.

We finally exited the forest and I welcomed the smoothness of cycle path and road to the church in Alex. Here we dumped the bikes (to be collected on our way back), hastily unpacked our walking poles and set off up the first climb of the day.

Pushing hard up the back of the Dents de Lanfon, the familiar limestone cliffs perched above us were our next destination. The lethargic sunshine was slowly burning off the low cloud to reveal a perfect autumn day. We knew that our first rest would be the flight across the lake. Game on!

Stephen, carrying the heavier pack, set a brisk pace up the hill; I scurried behind, cursing the vicious cold I'd been fighting that had left me unable to eat a proper meal all week. We were in fourth or fifth place, not where we wanted to be! The focused climbing started to have effect, and we quickly overhauled one team. The temperature in the autumnal woodland was perfect and the blue skies above beckoned us up the steep forest track to the first take off. Bantering with a fellow Raider, we broke through the tree line to be greeted by a secret hanging valley, well hidden from the distant clamour of real life below. A kilometre or so ahead we could just make out the lead team with their sacks and as we chased them we glanced over our shoulders to see who was chasing us. We had breathing space, but not much.

We crested the Col des Frêtes, now having hauled ourselves into fourth place, to see the first wings inflating and lobbing off on glide. There's an enforced ten minute wait at each take off to give you time to prepare safely. So, after about 35 minutes of biking and 1000m ascent in 1h20, we were ten minutes behind the leaders. The organisers on take off handed us a welcome chocolate bar each and Stephen and I quickly set about our pre-planned tasks, Steve unpacking the harnesses while I readied the wing. We were clipped in and ready to go on the dot of our ten minutes allotted time and launched immediately.

This was our first breather, our first real moment to admire the cadre of the natural amphitheatre hosting our sport. To our right the imposing vertical limestone precipices of the "teeth" rose out of the high alpage, slowly shedding its summer greenery. At our feet the forests were in full turn, a splendid mix of fall colours from green to brown to yellow to red. In front of us the still deep blue lake waited, and the familiar silhouettes of the Northern Alps marked the horizon in all directions. Steve handed me a chunk of chocolate bar and life was good.

Here was the first strategic decision of the race. We had to fly over the old château at Dunigt, but after that we had two options. Either land at Duingt and continue to the Doussard landing field on roller blades, or try to fly directly to Doussard. Stephen spotted a couple of wings scratching at Entrevernes, but the air looked stable so, rather than risk a long walk if we landed short, we headed to the declared landing field where our skates waited.

We arrived with loads of height, and with the leaders visibly packing up below us I threw the Bongo into a deep spiral to gain time and Steve leaned inwards to help. Idly I wondered whether the skinny lightweight mallions would take the increased G-force but they didn't budge. Squeezing the old bus into the landing field I missed the 4m radius target, but put us down briskly but comfortably inside the 8m radius, thus avoiding the four minute penalty but picking up the two minute.

As planned, we split tasks in packing up the wing and harnesses, and strapping on our blades. There were refreshments to be had here, but we didn't wait. We were still in fourth place, and other teams were now landing around us, no rest for the slow! One fellow, having spot landed on the target and thus avoided the time penalty, was now ahead of us, and we were delighted and amused to see that he was going to do the next 6km stage to Doussard on a mini scooter! After what seemed like an eternity our two minute time penalty expired and we shot off. The blades were a welcome way to cover ground quickly, even with the bulky paraglider kit on our backs, and we soon overtook first the mini scooter fellow and then another team to move up to third place. Working together really helped here, with Stephen taking the lighter bag and me slipstreaming behind him. Steve had been practising his blading, having only started this year, and it was a real morale boost to gain places on this section.

Doussard landing field and time to dump the skates. We shouldered the packs and readied the poles for a 1km run on the flat before the climb up to the Col de la Forclaz began in earnest. We were only just ahead of fourth place, and second was out of sight. We learned later that the top two teams had swapped places on the blading section, no doubt partly helped by the fact that the faster team was made up of professional skiers!

The 800m climb up to the Col de la Forclaz from Doussard is about as pleasant as an ascent can be. At just the right gradient, never too steep, you gain height quickly, brushing a million fallen leaves aside as you go. Every now and then a small clearing gives you a glimpse of the lake and height you've gained. Here, for the first time in the race, I finally found my rhythm, no doubt assisted by a few mouthfuls of Isostar energy bar and a squeeze of Steve's carbohydrate gel. I must have been tired because it actually tasted good.

From the solitude of the forest you arrive suddenly at civilisation at the Col itself. Only a hundred metres or so remain, amongst farms and cafés, to the take off but those last few metres are steep and brutal in the blazing sunshine. Thinking ahead, I note that no-one's soaring around take off and so the second flight will likely be a top-to-bottom.

The Forclaz take off has just been refurbished and is now a paraglider's dream of astroturf at the perfect gradient. No time for us to admire the landscaping though, we've just seen the second place team launch so we're still ten minutes behind them. We're unlikely to make this up on the ground, but a good flight could make all the difference. The next goal is the mountain bikes back in Alex. It's about 10km as the crow flies, a trivial flight in the summer but now, it's now autumn, the thermals are weak or non-existent, and there's a high plateau to cross. Will we be able to squeak out enough of a flight to gain back a place?

The flight preparations are smooth and efficient and you don't need to tell Steve twice to run on take off. We're flying again with a perfect launch, heading directly for the bikes and the penultimate leg of the Raid Chamois. Flying straight, once again we have a moment to relax and see huge smiles on each other's faces as we continue on this magical adventure, flying though the stunning mountain scenery.

Lady Luck, however, seemed to have temporarily forgotten us, perhaps overwhelmed by the autumnal splendor herself. There are only two pips on the vario, not enough to gain height with the lumbering tandem, so the only choice is to fly straight, maximising our glide and racing our shadow over the ground. Below us on the ground I see another Raider, seemingly alone and separated from his team. I wave and he waves back, then I turn my attention back to our flight. It's touch and go whether we'll make it over the edge of the plateau, and as we approach I see that the edge is a mix of trees and power lines. No question then, I put us down in a large field on the plateau. From here it'll be a downhill run to the bikes, but it'll be a long run.

Everything packed away, I stare at the map, trying to plot an efficient route. Direct and over the hill or longer and around it? We opt for the second and we're half running half walking again. I've never been here before and despite our haste we notice scattered details: a babbling brook, an decrepit barn crammed with rusting farm machinery, a lone summer leaf caught in a ray of sunshine, green and gold against the russet backdrop. Another time I'd stop to explore but there's no time now. Our route takes us below the cliffs in front of the Planfait take off. Gliders scratch above our heads, clinging tentatively to the rare slivers of lift, but I know that the conditions in the air are too weak for us and we've made the right choice. Later we learn that another Raider, having landed near we landed, walked up to the Planfait takeoff and flew from there, for a third flight of the day. We, however, have ground to cover.

Steve races ahead, almost dancing down the path despite the ten kilos of wing on his back. Normally I'm the quicker one on the descents, but this time it's all I can do to keep up with him. We walk each uphill and jog each downhill, sweeping under the rocks at Bluffy, one of the best thermal triggers in the area in Summer, but unfettered with gliders now. A missed turning brings us out on the road, not quite where we expect, but fortuitously closer to our destination and after a quick check of the map we push on. My energy levels are zero but somehow I keep going. Steve looks as fresh as a daisy.

We arrive in back in the village of Alex, unfamiliar from this new direction. A lone volunteer has spent the afternoon keeping an eye on the bikes and we thank her as we collect ours. Those doing the short route landed near here after flying from the Col des Frêtes hours ago. We, however, are doing the long course and are still in third place.

Swooping downhill on the bikes with the wind in our hair, our eyes water after the self-propelled effort of the run. The speedometer peaks at 40km/h, and it's great to be covering ground so fast. We swap leads, taking turns to slipstream each other. Approaching Thônes, the route turns off road and on to wide track again. It seems like a hundred years ago that we were frantically pedalling in the opposite direction, but it was only this morning. My legs are empty lead pipes and I cry in frustration as I will myself to go faster and my body responds with mute refusal. There's only one stage left.

We hang hard left at the roundabout, following signs for the Adventure Park. Plunging into the park we skid to a halt at the foot of a tall tree and we're handed a climbing harness and a via ferrata kit. We haul ourselves up the hanging rope ladder and clip into a huge aerial slide that whisks us across the river with whoops of joy. A second slide takes us back across and we hand back the harnesses and jump back on the bikes for the final sprint to the finish.

Riding as hard as we can, we retrace our earlier steps to base and cruise over the finish line to third place. Waiting for the prize giving we enjoy a massage from the on-site physios and share our experiences over a beer with our fellow Raiders. What a day!

All photos courtesy of Tristana Crespo, find out more about the Raid Chamois at, and maybe see you there in 2009?!