Risoul Deval (turns out the deval IS in the detail…)


Across the world, the end of the ski season is marked by weird races thought up by, usually drunk, ski bums who don’t really want the snow to melt, but if the inevitable’s going to happen then they might as well have fun doing it. Hence the “Peak to Pub” multi sport carnage which takes place annually from Mnt Hutt to Cairngorm.

Risoul’s been running the Deval for 9 years now, which involves an off-piste ski from 2500m down to the resort at 1800, then a 10km ish enduro bike down to the River Durance at roughly 900m where the wild card of an 8km river canoe is added to the competition. Competitors descend in teams of between 2 and 6 with pretty much any form of snow and bike equipment allowed. The ever competitive Jan knew this was the race for him, and I wasn’t quick enough to think of a way to say no…..

A lot of gear in a very small car, it's a road trip.

Our 5hr drive from Chamonix to Risoul in a VERY laden small car started perfectly when I lifted the lightest bag I had to put it in the boot and tweeked my back. By the time we arrived I was barely able to walk upright and had to hobble into registration like an 89 year old and sign the documents proclaiming full fitness for competition without looking the official in the eye.  After discovering that Risoul is actually very very small, we ate some pizza, and returned to our gite in the zombie proof fortress of Mont Dauphin Fort.

We were up bright and early, or at least early, on Saturday for the qualification. There wasn’t a huge amount of information before the race about this, though we knew that it was purely a ski stage and your performance dictated your start time. With a lot of narrow singletrack on the bike section, which was where we expected to perform best, we needed to get an early start number to avoid being stuck behind slower riders. Expecting an offpiste timed descent we discovered it was a gate race mix of DH, giant slalom and slalom radius (here’s a go-pro from one of the other teams if you’re interested  ). With a belly full of ibroprofen and fairly normal skis I’d be ok, but Jan had fully rockered, 112mm underfoot Katanas. Things were looking even worse when some of the locals turned up and looked decidedly like they were actual ski racers….

Milling about at the first of many race briefings

Either way, we did our best, got a clean run down the track, tried to ignore the gnawing desire to find out where we qualified and went to get changed before the compulsory VTT track inspection. This was when you realise just how much effort goes into the organisation of the event. The bike park was a carpark, secured and guarded by the local mohicaned gendarme with entry only on presentation of your race bracelet. For every stage away from the town itself, you had a drop bag which would be waiting for you at the next stage with your change of clothes or equipment.

Spare tyres, that was space well used.

Taking it easy to avoid damaging the bikes or ourselves, we set of on a leisurely descent of the mountain. The first few hundred meters were on easy road, then a hairpin right, steep muddy slope and…………snow. Lots of snow, knee deep, soft and completely covering the trail. A path had been cut through by use, but there was no way it was going to clear before the race. We experimented with riding, running, walking and swearing, but in the end fastest (or perhaps least slow) progress seemed to be by holding onto the bike and sliding down next to it using your trainers as skis!

Thin snow cover early on the bike section!The snow easing off so we could ride at last

Eventually the snow eased off and we could ride the trail, and very enjoyable it was too. Lots of nice singletrack through trees, a good mix of surfaces and the occasional fireroad section that would be vital for overtaking on the Sunday.

Eventually the gradient slackened off and the last kilometre or so were flat with short, but painful, climbs. We were both feeling pretty smug with dropper posts and pedalable bikes, a lot of the field were either on XC whips or full DH rigs.

Lots of bike wash points

After checking where our transition cage was for changing from bike to canoe we used the bike wash, handed over our bikes to the transport team and got on the bus back up to Risoul where the qualification sheet was up.

No bad

4th. Which we were pretty happy about. Looking at the times there was about 8 seconds separating the 2nd to 6th places, but 1st was the all girl team of twentyforty a country mile ahead with 12 seconds clear on 2nd place. That would be the GS racer and her trainer then! Feeling fairly happy with our performance, we marched off to the bike park to check on our competitions steeds. Spirits were further lifted by finding a mix of XC and DH bikes, with only Gachette Heureuse on matching top end Cannondale Jekylls. This concerned us, but there wasn’t much we could do so we started on our race strategy.

On race day, teams start at 10 second intervals from the top of the hill. Although the Deval is won or lost purely on time, the first team across the line in the canoe has always had the fastest time, so basically we needed to get to the front and stay there! We hoped that as all the teams infront had local knowledge, we could just do our best to stay with them and let them lead us through the ski section, then do everything we could to get past them on the bike. As for the canoe, well, I’d at least been in a canoe before, Jan had seen a picture in a book once, so we would just have to work it out as we went along.

Settled in our plan, we headed off to the evening briefing before more food, ibroprofen and bed.

Final race briefing, with added go-pro

Race day! An early start as we needed to drop off all our bags for the various transition zones, check the bikes were still working (you never know what gremlins can strike at night!) eat more ibroprofen, drink more water and get up to the top of the hill. There was some concern from the organisers that the rapid warming forecast was going to make the ski section too dangerous, however the start was cool enough that it could go ahead as planned, despite the avalanche risk rising to 4 during the day. A mild panic that we were going to miss our start time due to pre-race pee requirements proved unfounded and after our ARVA check we joined the throng of skiers warming up.

Pre-race photo, daft clothing obligatory if you wanted to do well.

And then it was on. We started with a brisk walk up the boot pack, trying not to beast the legs or lungs too much. By the top of the bootpack we’d made it to 3rd and clipped into the skis just behind the lead 2. Relying on their local knowledge we speed checked where they speed checked and held position into the first steeper section through gates. At which point we realised we were much much faster off piste than on! We tore past and headed blindly into the trees relying on the occasional gate and some go-pro footage from the briefing the previous night to guide us. Entering the village we were clear in the lead with no one in sight behind us. Unfortunately we now had to run about 500m through town on concrete in ski boots.

After changing boots and ditching a layer we started cycling back up the hill through town against the flow of skiers running down. Gachette Heureuse played a blinder on their transition (by cunningly freezing to death at 2500m in only cycling jerseys!) and we were splitting each other’s group. I don’t use a go-pro, but if I’ve ever wanted one it was for sprinting down the road out of town, leading the group, with a helicopter filming 50m infront of me flying sideways down the road!

After turning off the road and into the snow we discovered a local team had made a cunning shortcut through the town and got ahead of us. Fortunately we could fall out of control down snow whilst holding onto out bikes faster than them, and again 1st and 2nd was split between us and Gachette Heureuse. Jan pulled clear of the trailing Gachette Heureuse team member and once we were in the lead the 2 of us did our best to keep our excitement in check, whilst still pushing on. Our aim was to get clear of Gachette Heureuse in the hope that they would ease off when they couldn’t see us, but despite slowly increasing the gap, we couldn’t quite shake them.

We were there to compete, not participate, so no shots from race day. Here's a wee picture from practice to break the wordsAnd some more practice day page breaking

The final section of the bike was mostly flat or climbing. Knowing we weren’t going to need our legs for the canoe we gave it everything we had and gasped into the final transition with a reasonable lead. Alas we were now in the unknown. We got the wet suits on fairly quickly, but bibs under or over the buoyancy aid? Different officials shouted different instructions. Then my buoyancy aid had a missing strap and had to be fixed. We leapt into the canoe and headed off downstream, but something wasn’t quite right.

I was sitting very low at the back of the boat, with it slowly filling with water. We were paddling hard but still about ½ way down the river, Gachette Heureuse came past cruising serenely down the Durance occasionally dipping a paddle in the water. This wasn’t going to stop us and we kept pushing until I got bounced out the boat by a not very submerged rock in a rapid! Quickly back out the water (even with a wetsuit on it was cold) and it started to dawn on me what the problem was. We had the boat back to front! Too late to turn around before the next white water, we kept going, switch to the end.

Gachette Heureuse got across the line a well deserved 1st, we were just behind, then a bit back was Les Razmokets. The Deval’s a timed race though, so we wouldn’t know everyone’s final place until the prizegiving in the afternoon, so began the long wait to see….

Getting back to Risoul I wasn’t expecting Jan to turn round and tell me there may be a problem but, Jan turned round and said there may be a problem. The car was in Risoul. We now needed to drive down to the bike-river transition to clean and pack the bikes. The car keys were in the bike-river transition. Jan hopped back on the bus down to the valley and started the series of hitchhikes needed to get the keys back, I went and laid down in the sun watching the local gendarmes guarding the bike park, whilst having a BBQ and playing football. I can’t see that happening in Glasgow….

Breaking my summer beer ban with a celebratory demi

Jan made it back, we packed the car and went to enjoy the final bit of the Risoul package, free lunch on the terrace. The Snowboard Café deserves a mention here for having a rubbish name but a brilliant competitors package of starter, pasta main, dessert, beers and coffee. All this and on the slopes next to the prizegiving.

We wandered over and waited for the announcement. Sure enough the top 3 was as we crossed the line, 2nd overall 6.46 seconds back on Gachette Heureuse. Realising how daft it was to be disappointed in 2nd, we cheered up immensely, possibly because we now had a big cup and several kilos of Haribo.