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The Columbia Speed Flying Pro Les Arcs 2009

1 February 2009

Steam is still rising off their shoulders after the run. The best speed flyers in the world are already at the bottom of the Arandelières face, watching the last competitors descend. They encourage each other, comment on each other’s styles and their choice of runs. The expressions on the faces of those crossing the finish line; out of breath, as the wing collapses down on the snow exhausted, reveal the pleasure of their descent. Even for a beginner who doesn’t understand the subtleties of piloting, or the choice of a line, their faces express the whole story of speed flying, skiing with a boost, skiing accelerated.

Two days ago, in Les Arcs, 26 of the best speed flyers arrived from Italy, Austria, Switzerland and the United States. In the briefing room there is a consolidation of talent, victories and testosterone (and not just the bull’s testosterone from Red Bull cans). In the crowd you find the godfathers of this sport (Francois Bon, race director, Franck Coupat, David Eyraud, Loïc Jean-Albert), big names in paragliding (Antoine Montant, Felix Rodriguez, Jimmy Pacher) or in skiing (Baptiste Rousset, Romain Raisson).

As the images of the two days of racing scroll across the screen, Francois Bon lowers his voice and discreetly points out an Italian with a cheery face, "I worshipped him when I was young, it’s Jimmy Pacher, three times European champion, twice world champion".

Last year’s winner is sitting at the back of the room, cap over his eyes, Antoine Montant is the man, the fall guy, considered to be the best by his fellow competitors. Then we watch a video clip, less than two minutes long, which shows the enormity of his talent. A mountain face laced with seracs in the Mont Blanc range. A camera mounted on Antoine’s helmet shows his vertiginous viewpoint. His skis are slicing the snow’s surface at high speed. An avalanche erupts. Antoine flies off the mountain manoeuvring his wing. An enormous avalanche envelops the whole sky and its landscape. Antoine glides over the chaos he has just unleashed. This very extreme side of speed flying has no place in the Speed Flying Pro, but gives a good idea of what Antoine is capable of and the possibilities of this sport. Here, in Les Arcs, the best speed flyer of the year is going to be chosen from two different races; one is against the clock (the Speed Cross, a slalom), the other is judged (the Big Mountain). The first in the overall ranking will be crowned Speed Flyer of the Year 2009. And we all look at the man in the cap.

On the morning of the first day, cotton wool like fog is mingling with the sides of Aiguille Rouge and has filled the Arc 2000 bowl to the brim. The Varet-Génépi slope is covered in clouds and the race is postponed. In the bitter cold the volunteers who are checking the gates are jumping up and down to keep warm. At the top, the 26 competitors are standing on a snow carved ledge and are waiting for the sun to break through the clouds. There are long waits in between the first runs as they rest on stand by for a clear sky.

The Speed Cross is played out in duels, each competitor racing on the blue and then the red run. It’s a new format conceived here last year. We’re all expecting Antoine Montant in the final, but against whom ? But this is where the favourite makes a massive mistake: he crosses the wrong finish line. "I was late on my opponent at the last gate, I didn’t pay attention, I saw a finish gate and flew through it". He ends up third, allowing the rookie Michaël Régnier, competing here for the first time, whose talent equals his discretion (and his magnificent dreadlocks) to access the final against Yoan Castagnoli.

Yoan Castagnoli, a rookie, a little long in the tooth, impressed us last year with a daring freeride run where unfortunately he fell. He had just enough time to show us a taste of his technical mastery. Each of them wins a run, and twice they cross the finish line almost at the same time. After a minute of suspense, the chronometer gives its call; Yoan is ahead with a 21 hundredth of a second. He wins by a hair’s breadth. "I did a bit of alpine racing and I’m a ski instructor. I’m used to slaloms. I tried to fly as much as possible to be fast, but not too much to be able to touch down between the gates. It was a fine balance I found today. I lose time opening my wing at the start, as far as pure speed goes I’m better than Michaël. It’s a motivator to see your opponent in front of you", remarks Yoan Castagnoli.

The following day, Yoan will be doing his specialty: freeriding, and if he delivers a race in the same realm as last year’s, his overall victory is guaranteed. If Antoine Montant wins the freeride, Yoan can finish second or third to win overall anyway. The duel will be exciting and Yoan knows it won’t be easy: "I’m ready to give it all I’ve got, Antoine and the others won’t leave me any choice!"

There wasn’t a high profile duel on the Arandelières face, but the Big Mountain race cleared up any doubts: speed flying is improving and the level is truly impressive. Antoine Montant steals the show, once again, but his successors are equally talented: Michaël and Yoan, are second and third respectively in the overall ranking. The podium sums up this new creative discipline.

The Arandelières face, where the Big Mountain challenge takes place, is a vertical maze of rocks and snow. This land-mined terrain is where the speed flyers must find their way through, whilst at the same time being aesthetic, fast and dynamic. Advice on dangers and prudence are heavily emphasized during the evening briefing given by François Bon: “we’re here to have fun, so prudence”. Each must deliver a solution for reaching the finish line and to mark points with the judges. A jury composed of a skier, several paragliders and a parachutist/skydiver score the chosen route, its dynamism and fluidity. A combination of sports rolled into one: air and snow, and of course gliding.

“For flying there’s the paragliding, where most speed flyers originate. Speed flying, more than anything, is skiing, skiing boosted by a wing, and we’ve really noticed the progress on the quality of skiing”, considers Dino Raffault the organiser. We saw two trends emerge last year: speed flyers, which use their skis for flying and those who use their wing for skiing. The second style, incarnated by Antoine Montant, rules this year, the skis stay glued to the snow. “Speed flying is using the wing as an accessory to improve the skiing, explains Antoine Montant. It plays the same part as a pair of poles does to keep your balance; it gives an aerial force, which helps stabilise the top half of your body. The aim is to keep the skiers posture and exploit the snow cover to the max. This isn’t paraglide skiing, it’s really skiing improved by the wing. The third dimension in the world of freeriding”.

Antoine Montant was aiming for first place on the Aiguille Rouge. After opening his wing under the ridge, which was disturbed by the wind eddies, he skied the first part of the face keeping maximum contact with the snow, searching to trace as much of the snow as possible. His enveloped himself with the wing which kept him rooted to the ground (and therefore making it easier to manoeuvre), “he was at one with his wing” a competitor commented in admiration. As well as this Antoine added originality to his line, aesthetics for traversing the slope, engaging with impressive yet controlled speeds. The strongest element of his winning run was a delicate “s” shaped passage, “very technical between two rocky strips where there wasn’t a lot of room for the wing. You needed to ride slowly. I didn’t manage it last year, but this year I did”.

The outsider Michaël Régnier sets off just after Antoine. He shows his worthiness compared to his pier, staying on the snow in the steepest section, when suddenly on leaving the great gulley he flies up above a rocky strip and goes over the top of his wing in a fast rotation. An unexpected barrel roll perfectly executed which releases cheers and whistling from those in the arrival zone. Michaël keeps up his speed and on the last strip, he does a second barrel roll, a lot closer to the ground, disguised as an exclamation mark for his run. Is this a new dimension for speed flying? The future will tell. Today, it was most notably one in the eye from a talented speed flyer.

The last up is Yoan Castagnoli, who won’t be putting the pedal to the metal. “My number one mission was to get to the bottom; to finish two sections and have a result at the end of it all. Last year I was sick to the stomach to have fallen in the middle of my run when I was well on the way. With my first place yesterday I wanted to keep it today, yeah of course I played the podium”. He finishes eleventh, too far away to bother Antoine and therefore gets his third place ranking overall.

The wings are folded back into their packs, the multicoloured lines are carefully plaited, helmets placed neatly on the ground like empty shells on a beach. It’s tough to leave, we keep chatting, we already want info for next year’s edition. “A few years ago we were a group of mates, we dreamed that one day there would be a great competition with high levels and competitors with Antoine’s style, I mean that live for skiing, almost the ‘un-skiable’, who jump strips, fly the minimum, play on slopes even with hardly any snow. And here we are! The level of speed flying has escalated massively, the 2009 edition has proved that”, summarizes Franck Coupat, one of the fathers of the discipline based in Valfréjus. Between Antoine Montant’s demonstration of strength and Michaël Régnier’s enthusiasm, speed flying has a bright future with mesmerizing flights to look forward to.

Text: Guillaume Desmurs / Columbia Speed Flying Pro Les Arcs 2009

Les Arcs