LA GRANDE ODYSSEE 2009

It could start like a joke. A Czech, a Swiss and a bunch of Norvegians are in the Alps…Since the first edition of the race, 5 years ago, La Grande Odyssée has always been full of suspense, emotion and great times of mushing. But never it has been so tight between the mushers. Never the level was so high. Never the race was as great as this year.The race was sure to be interesting, the podium from last year was ready to struggle again. Petter Karlsson, Emil Inauen and Ketil Reitan are back and for sure their teams are stronger. The Czech Radek Havrda, 4th in 2008, is also back. But the attention is focused on the rookies from Norway. The first one of them is Robert Sorlie, maybe you’ve already heard about that name? The others are Sigrid Ekran and Jo Are Brennoden, two other strong teams from Norway.The question is: Can the Norvegians, long-distance specialists, hold the fast pace of the race? Will Robert Sorlie, especially well known for the ability of his team to run very long with short rests, be able to fight for first place?It’s not a long time before the answer is given. At the first stage, those three newcomers are in the top five and Sigrid Ekran set the fastest time. She explained at the finish line that she hasn’t changed much in her training because she will run long-distances races later in the season, so she didn’t know how fast would the dogs go. Well, they’ve been fast for sure.The trails are awesome, hard and fast. They look more like sprint races trails than long distance ones. And the dogs seems to have appreciated it. The pace is fast for every team. Even Jaco Alex Ullman, last year’s red lantern has been way faster than one year ago.In that first part of the race most of the trails are fast and steep. Pretty new for two-times Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie: “It was something different than what I’m used to. I’m an old man. Steep hills! Big curves! I thought I would die sometimes. But I’ve never done such good trails before and the dogs loved it. So we had a lot of fun. I thought I would die but I’m still living!” The old man is still living. You’ll think about that later in the race.So the race is on. There are 8 contenders intending to stand on the podium. The first 4 mushers from 2008, 3 new Norvegians and one young French guy: Jean-Philippe Pontier. He has changed many things in his preparation since last year, and his team seems pretty fit.The race is tight. During this first week, the leader changes almost after every stage. Emil Inauen wins 3 stages, Sigrid 1 and Radek one. The Swiss, 2nd last year, is definitely the guy of that first part of the race. But he knows that nothing is finished: “I have tried to do my best. Robert gave me a hard time, but he is also tired.” He says with a smile on his face. In fact, Inauen is the only one of the three fastest teams from 2008 to keep his rank. Due to a disease his dogs brought from Sweden, Petter Karlsson is not able to fight for the first places. He knows that he’s out of the game and already talks about next year. Reitan has to face two problems. His dogs didn’t want to eat when they arrived in France maybe because of a straight drive from Norway. And half of his team is suffering of shoulder problems. He will never be able to run more than eight dogs on the line until the end of the race. So both of them are out, but the Swiss is here and the Czech is strong. His team is the most good-looking at the finish lines. The Vets are impressed.When the teams put their paws in Haute-Maurienne for the second part, Emil Inauen is leading but with only 1 min 28 sec on Radek Havrda after more than 300 km! Sorlie has lost only 15 minutes. Another game starts. Here the stages are longer and the Norvegians might be even more at ease.In fact, in the last four stages, that’s what happened. The old man is still alive. Sorlie wins 2 stages out of four and take 2 second places. Jo Are Brennoden wins one. But the big boys are still Inauen and Havrda. They are still the fastest. Inauen shows that he can hold the pace. Radek Havrda does not slow down as last year. He even wins the first long stage (129 km) with a camping night in the middle. The Czech knows that this night out on the Mont-Cenis Pass at 2000m altitude can be a key moment. For sure, the dogs of the Norvegians are more used to this windy and cold weather than his hounder dogs. You should have seen him digging deep holes in the packed snow. When you looked at the stake-out, you would see nothing but a line and every two meters some straw coming out from a hole, but no dogs. Some more tiredness for Radek but a good night for his dogs and it paid off.As those who raced La Grande Odyssée know, everything can happen in this race. And this year has the record of lost sleds. In that stage, in the middle of the white-out that often happens there, Emil was surprised to see Robert’s dogs arriving and staying behind him without Robert asking “trail.” One minute later, he looked back and… there was nobody on the sled! He stopped the two teams and waited until Jo Are Brennoden arrived with Robert with him on the runners. Fair-play between front teams is always nice to watch. Two days later, Brennoden also lost his sled but because he was joking to spectators. Hopefully, one of them managed to stop the dogs a few meters later. There are many ways to lose your sled!“Many things can happen on the trail.” That’s Inauen’s most common saying when he’s being interviewed. In the last but one stage, things happened. First he had to load one dog in the sled, and when he was trying not to lose time on Sorlie and Havrda, he had an accident in a downhill. In a bend, the sled went out of the trail and his knee hit a tree. He tried to keep on going but the pain was too big and his leg didn’t want to go anymore. He had to scratch when he was still second behind the Czech and still on the fight for the win. He had a big pain in the knee but the pain in his heart was way bigger. He’ll be back next year and he’ll be as strong as any year.Now the facts are clear. There is a duel between Radek Havrda and Robert Sorlie. One of these guys will win the race if nothing major happens. And as you know, many things can happen on the trail.I asked Robert if he was still thinking about catching up with Radek. His answer was straight. “I never give up. Long-distance mushers never give up!” That’s clear. He tried hard to make some time on the Czech, but he couldn’t use his common pattern – long runs, and short rests. He had to be fast. Do you know what happened? Robert Sorlie was fast. His dogs were smoothly loping on those long stages. At the end of the day, he was faster than Radek on each of the last three stages and got 20 minutes back… but he was still 15 minutes away.Radek Havrda has been the strongest and the steadiest and he deserves his amazing victory. I don’t think that many would have bet on him. He might have used last year’s experience to strengthen his training. Congratulations to Radrek and congratulations to Robert Sorlie, who has shown that a great team is a great team in the Iditarod, in La Grande Odyssée and in the Femundlopet (600 km race in Norway that he has just won for the 6th time). Sigrid Ekran takes a great third place. Congratulations to the 13 teams that completed the race and will share the $100,000 purse.With great trails, a lot of snow, a tight and never as high competition and an organisation that is now doing an amazing job to set up this unique race, the 2009 La Grande Odyssee Savoie Mont-Blanc has been an amazing edition. This year has shown that pure long-distance mushers are doing great in the toughest stage race in the world. You have got to be able to run long and fast to perform here. These are the qualities required by the new way to run long distance races. As the teams go out of the race strong and not burned, they usually do great in the next year of the season. That should bring new faces to the next edition.Hopefully there are only 10 months remaining before La Grande Odyssee 2010. I’d like to be there already! ●

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