The season seems far too short. Resorts shut their lifts while there is still tons of snow on the ground and just as the days are getting pleasantly long. What to do? Ski or snowboard touring? Bwah too slow! Well there is one band of snowsports gonzos that have discovered how to prolong the season. The road-gapers.
The principal is straightforward. Find a road pass and simply wait until spring when the highways department pass with a snowplough to open the road. Voila, you have a self made jump that you can access directly from your car. Check that the landing zone has sufficient run out with no rocks, trees or walkers. Build a kicker to give you a bit of élan. Add stunts to choice.
A rare snowboarder
Jumping roads has long been a rights of passage for young freestylers and ‘wildcat’ gaps have been a feature of European and North American road passes for many years. Bands of skiers and boarders usually organize the events in great secrecy. The sight of skiers flying through the air can be quite perturbing for the old folks and wannabe Lance Amstrongs who think that a holiday touring French road passes is a good idea for a break. Timing is everything. Both to make sure that you neither undershoot, nor overshoot the landing strip and to leave before the Gendarmerie arrive on the scene like a swarm of angry hornets.
For the last couple of years Alchimy Association (pronounced: al-she-me) and the Maurienne ski resort of Valloire have been organising a road-gap in mid-May high on the frontier between the Savoie and Hautes-Alpes departments. This event has the blessing of the highways department and the police and the emergency services are on hand to pick up the pieces.
The event is more than just a gap in the road, there are hand rails and a big air kicker. Spectators are well catered for with a hospitality tent serving food and some excellent beer at a pretty reasonable 2€ a glass. The sessions are rounded off with a DJ and mega sound system with a party down in Valloire on Saturday night.
We watched the skies anxiously in the days before the event. 60cm of fresh snow fell over the first weekend of May but our spies over in the Savoie told us not to worry as it was almost possible to reach the Galibier Pass, the scene of the event, from their side of the valley. A trip up to the Lauteret pass revealed that the highway department were well advanced with clearing the road to the newly refurbished Galibier road tunnel. So long as the sun was there all would go to plan. We decided to relax and take a day out to cycle up to the mythic Tour de France stage finish of l’Alpe d’Huez where we saw, of all people, Lance Armstrong on a secret training ride.
Not far to go
We arrived early on Saturday afternoon. Already the parking on the Savoie side of the Galibier was solid so we stuck our car in a small space by the tunnel. The choice was either to wait for the shuttle bus service or yomp the couple of kilometres over the col. We decided that the walk would do us good and give us a good overview of the event. Given that a Dutch tourist was killed by an avalanche a couple of days later on the same walk it is probably a better idea to wait for the bus. Some spectators were chancing it and running the 300 meter unlit tunnel. Given that there is barely room for a car this also seems a poor idea.
Bend zee skis
The road gap is just after the exit from the tunnel on a left hand hairpin. Riders start high above on the Galibier but can’t actually see the jump as their run follows a steep corkscrew curve around the mountain. By the time they arrive there is no going back. Viewed from the perspective of the jumper’s the start ramp and reception form a smooth continuum. You don’t actually see the 12 meter drop into the road until you are airborn. We are told that building the kicker and reception is an art. The road itself cuts back into the landing strip so the organisers have strung a double line of safety netting on this side. More than one rider took too much air and ended up caught in this like a fly in a spider’s web.
We recognised a few faces in the crowd from sites such as skipass.com then got down to watch the action. Cars would be stopped then rider after rider would fly across the gap. At first they would just content themselves with getting to the other side but as they got the gauge of the jump they would throw in 360s, fakies, mutes and other strange sounding tricks. A few misjudged things, landing either on backs or shoulders. We saw more than one pair of skis come adrift in mid-air. Strangely snowboarders were thin on the ground, preferring the rails that had been built into the slopes down below.
There are no ski lifts here, the resort of Valloire is far down below. Instead riders were collected by a various modes of transport. 4x4 pickup trucks and lorries and looked like a motley band of mujahideen heading up into the Hindu-Kush to do battle.
The sun made an appearance for the weekend. More so for the Sunday when many spectators forgot that they were at 2600 meters and suffered sunburn. The heat seemed to have affected the first aiders who could sometimes take an interminable time to arrive after a big pile up. It was bad news for any posers in soft-tops who thought a day out impressing the chicks was a good idea. Anyone who went by with the roof down had to run a barrage of snowballs launched by the hundreds of spectators watching the events. However due respect was accorded to the many club cyclists struggling up the hill, fellow travellers on the battle against the mountain. We tested a snowskate, a kind of skateboard with a mini-ski attached to the base via a pivot, it looks easy but certainly is not.
A big cheer for the young team from Alchimy and Valloire for the organisation. They promise even better next year. They could do to improve the shuttle bus system and parking… but popularity is always a danger with events such as these. Finish the web-site, oh and shoot the deejay!