As the years go by it seems that the number of possible winners of La Grande Odyssee Savoie Mont Blanc increases. This year for the first time ever two former champions and two former runner-ups were starting the race. Each of these “favorite four” had a real chance to be the 2010 champion and each had only one plan in mind: In 2008, the struggle for victory was between two teams: Karlsson and Inauen. In 2009, 3 teams were close to the top: Havrda, Inauen and Sorlie. In 2010, there are 4. And those teams know the race and have trained and geared up for it.Others could have a shot to stand on the podium. Jo Are Brennodden is here to get that place on the podium after his 4th place in 2009. Jiri Vondrak, the 2nd Czech, 5th in 2008, is another one to follow. Last but not least, Arnt Ola Skjerve, who won the 3 long distances races he entered in Norway in 2009, could be showing his skills.The trail hasn’t waited a long time to speak. At the end of the first stage (60km), 3 of the 4 fantastics are on the podium. No surprise so far. The surprise came from the 4th of them. Robert Sorlie, the silver fox, is out of the race—such was the rumor that wandered through the staff gathered at the finish line of the stage. Unfortunately, it was true. Because of a torn muscle in his thigh, the most famous long-distance musher had to quit the race early. When the leaders got the news, they were really sad but certainly also relieved. If that first stage has shortened the number of contenders, it hasn’t made the race easier. (Benoît Gérard, Sorlie’s handler, was allowed to run the team from the second stage but he will not be able to compete for the victory as he received 150% of the slowest time on that first stage and will always be ranked after the last musher who would have run all the stages. The race committee has allowed this because of the long way traveled from Norway to France and because the dogs were in great shape and deserved to run the race.Inauen won the first stage, but nothing is really to be told on that. All the main teams are in front, running in similar times. The first week is steeper and more technical than the second part of the race. The Swiss likes that. And he shows that his dogs are fit but also that he is fit. “A musher that would not be fit in La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc would make times 20% slower than a fit one.” Inauen is aware of that and is for sure one of the fittest.The second stage will be a key point in the race. A mass-start opens that 60 kilometers stage where changes had to be done due to excessive quantity of snow on a high pass. This stage turns out to be very fast and flat on the first part then has really steep uphills on the last part. Many mushers acknowledged that they started way too fast, excited by the mass start or simply willing to get out of the crowd as fast as possible. If you do so, you could burn the energy of your dogs before reaching the uphills. That’s what many did and when it came to go up, the fitness of Inauen might have been pretty useful. On that only stage, Emil has made a minimum of 10 minutes on every one of his contenders.If you were a newcomer to the race, you could think that it looks like Inauen’s year has arrived at last. But that would be forgetting that in 2006, he was struggling with Jacques Philip and Ken Anderson for the lead when he had an accident, as last year when he was Havrda’s most serious contender and when he had an accident again. Every year from the 2nd edition, he has been one of the fastest right from the first stages. This edition looks like the others for the Swiss, maybe a little bit stronger. For sure this year, his field of dogs is way deeper. He now runs mostly dogs out of his own breeding. Never has his team been so strong, but never have the contenders been so strong also.And they haven’t surrendered yet. Havrda, especially by winning the 3rd stage (43km), shows to everybody that being the first two-times La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc Champion might be in his mind and in the legs of his team. Karlsson takes the 2nd place of that stage confirming that Havrda’s idea could be his also. Inauen grabs the 3rd place and remains in lead. During that stage, he tried to change the light bulb of his headlamp as he was going downhill, ending up almost in an accident. Maybe, it is a sign that it will not happen this year.On LGO, as everybody calls the race, each musher enters with a 14 dog pool. He can change dogs between stages. Every team has to have at least 8 dogs on the line at the start of a stage and maximum 10, which allows some strategy to take place. But so far, in the previous years, the main teams never took less than 10 dogs. Nobody dared to rest some dogs and risk having less power. Inauen has changed that this year. He started the first stage with nine dogs when all the other main contenders left with ten. For him, the dogs are so excited at the start of the race that one dog doesn’t make a big difference. But this rested dog will be fresh for the next stage and that could make a difference. It worked. He won the first stage and decided to bet on that strategy on the second stage and it worked again. The others watched him and then one by one they started also to rest dogs. This bet from Inauen has increased even more the strategical interest in the use of dogs from the pool.It seems that he learned a lot from last year. On the third to last stage in the year he had his accident, he had a problem with one of his dogs quite early in the stage and finally had to load him. This year, the Swiss has applied a new rule to his racing habits: Better a smaller but strong team than bringing some unsure dogs in. He applied this strategy again on the 4th stage when he dropped 2 dogs at the first checkpoint and left only with 8 dogs for the 90 kilometers remaining.The 4th stage, 130 kilometers divided in 3 parts, was for sure a new important stage for the top teams. In that special stage, the mushers start with 8 to 10 dogs they have chosen but they cannot change them at the checkpoints. They can drop the ones they like, but those can’t be replaced. That is exactly the kind of stage were the stronger teams arise. Especially as the mushers and their dogs had to spend the night out like on a long distance checkpoint. Straw and water are provided to the mushers but they cannot get any help from their handlers. It got even more long-distance like on the next morning when it was snowing and ten centimeters of snow covered the usually groomed trail. Now, who’s the best in this kind of conditions?With only his 8 dogs remaining, Inauen won his third stage and the first part in Les Portes du Soleil. He took the yellow bib after the first stage and is still wearing it after 4 stages and about 300 kilometers. Behind him, Radek Havrda, the reigning champion, looked also very strong as Karlsson the 2008 champion. It looks like only one other musher is able to take part in the struggle for the podium. Jiri Vondrak, who took the 5th place in 2008 behind Karlsson, Inauen, Ketil Reitan and Havrda, looks really strong too. He has grabbed one third place and the second place of the long-distance 4th stage.In the competition for rookie of the year Per-Olav Gausereide was leading before that 4th stage but he lost the trail and a lot of minutes because of the mistake. Arnt Ola Skjerve, a young upcoming Norwegian long distance musher, was now in the lead for top rookie.After his 3 stages victories, Inauen is still hungry. The famous Megeve – Notre Dame de Bellecombe (43km) is one of his favourites. Maybe because as a former climber he has to be the fastest to pass right under the highest mountain in Europe, the Mont Blanc 4810 meters (15,780 feet.) Benoît Gérard who’s getting used to the Grande Odyssee’s trails and better connected to the dogs takes a great 3rd place on that steep stage. His legs are getting better for sure. The first days were tough for him as he had not prepared himself for such a challenge.Radek Havrda did not look great on that stage. He lost almost 9 minutes on Inauen, when in the same time Karlsson lost only 51 seconds. The Swiss is showing that he wants to allow nobody but him to lead the race, but for 2nd and 3rd place, the race is way more open. If Havrda doesn’t look as strong as last year, Vondrak confirms his progress by grabbing a great 4th place.The next stage is 127 km. It is divided into a 41km first part and a 86km second part with a bivouac in the middle on the Mont-Cenis pass at 2000meters altitude (6,500 feet). Jiri Vondrak is again very impressive and it looks like he will finally win his first stage. But, Inauen is still the fastest. Inauen takes the 127 km stage by just 10 seconds over Vondrak! It shows how well prepared and how fit those teams are. Behind those two, Karlsson and Havrda are trying to hold the pace. But they’re lost 9 minutes and 10 minutes 30 seconds. On the two last stages, Karlsson has been faster than the 2009 champion.On the morning of the 7th stage (47km), Karlsson said that nothing should happen today and that the last stage will decide the podium. And he did… the exact opposite. Never trust a competing musher! Karlsson is always a top contender and it was obvious that he has notched this stage. He was working really hard behind his dogs to try to get as many minutes as possible on Havrda. It worked well as he ended up winning the stage, but only two minutes in front of Havrda. After that stage, it looks like Emil Inauen has decided that he has won enough stages. Now, still running a healthy and fast team of dogs, he seemed to have decided to control the race.The second mass-start of the race is always a thrilling moment. In front of thousand of spectators, two hundred dogs jumping in their harnesses, still willing to go after one week of a tough race, is a show nobody should miss. If Karlsson has been faster than Havrda on the last three stages, it was time for Havrda to try holding on to his second place. As we saw it many times during the race, Havrda and Vondrak worked together to keep a steady fast pace. It worked great as Havrda wins his second stage (62km) and Vondrak takes second in front of Karlsson and Inauen. If Havrda holds that speed until the end he should stay on the 2nd step. Now the question is more about the ability of Karlsson to resist Vondrak. As he said a few stages ago, the last stage will decide the podium On the same stage, Per Olav Gausereide, who is trying to catch up with Arnt Ola Skjerve, the leader of the rookie of the year contest, had a special accident. When seeing a caution sign on the trail, he set his snow hook, but he put it right on a rock, which stopped his sled violently. As he was heading to this arrival, the speaker, who saw a low headlamp beam, assumed Per-Olav was hiding behind his sled. In fact, he was leaning on his folded sled. When his snow hook met the rock, the sled stopped violently and he was thrown against his handle bar. The sled broke in two pieces. Per-Olav folded and strapped his damaged sled and kept going. The tall norwegian drove his “sled” this way during 15 kilometers holding his snow hook lines. That’s quite a feat!The last stage is again divided in two stretches (77km + 87km) with a bivouac on the Mont-Cenis. Those two legs will unveil the podium and much more. On the first one, the Czech was again going hard. When he reached the Mont-Cenis pass bivouac, Vondrak had made a 13 minute gap on Karlsson and took the 3rd place from him. After a good first part, Vondrak is running an amazing second part. Another great gap is the one done by Per-Olav Gausereide who ran those 77 kilometers 24 minutes faster than Arnt-Ola Skjerve, also passing him for the Rookie of the Year award. Maybe he is interested in getting the BEWE sled offered to the top rookie…After a freezing night at the pass in their igloo tents, the mushers left the Mont-Cenis pass for the last time. Karlsson had problems with new leaders he had to use after two main leaders had to rest in the truck. He planned to try two new leaders again for the last leg. But it seemed that there was not a lot he could do against Vondrak. The Czech finally won his first stage on the longest one of the race. With a new 28 minutes gap on Karlsson, he confirmed his third place on the podium. By grabbing the second place, Havrda showed that he was the main contender to Emil Inauen. The Swiss Inauen finished the race smoothly. He ran very strong during the first stages, only letting up slightly in the last part of the stages when no big gaps could be made anymore.Never in La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc, has a musher led from the first to the last stage of the race. Six years ago, when he took part in the first LGO, Inauen fell in love with this race and made the plan to win it one day. At that time, he was starting his kennel running dogs he bought from top kennels. In the 2010, most of his dogs were out of his own breeding. After all he had endured during those years, his victory is a great relief and a huge accomplishment. Emil Inauen has won the toughest LGO ever. Radek Havrda and Jiri Vondrak ran a great race, giving a great highlight on Czech mushing. Among the Norwegians, Jo Are Brennodden has been the strongest and steadiest team. Even if he’s been disappointed by the lack of response of his dogs in key moments, his 5th place is a great accomplishment. The first French team of Jean-Philippe Pontier also did really well. This steady and solid race shows that we’ll have to watch him in the next years.Race Awards: Best Dog Care (Vet team choice): Emil Inauen and his handler Samuel EisenhutGolden harness: Leda (Inauen lead-dog)Rookie of the Year: Per-Olav Gausereide (got a Bewe sled)Sportsmanship Award (mushers choice): Robert SorlieFriendliest musher (LGO staff choice): Benoît Gérard Best Siberian Husky Team : Isabelle TravadonRed Lantern: Jaco Alex UlmannThe 2010 edition has been amazing. Each year, the mushers and their dogs seem to be more prepared and more fit to challenge the Alps. And each year, it’s the same pleasure and the same passion that push the mushers to pull out the anchor and the dogs to jump in their harness. See you on La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc 2010! You can re-live the whole race with blog, pictures, videos and much more on Branquart is La Grande Odyssée sports communication manager and owner of Grand Nord Films a film production company specialised in movies about sleddogs.


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