The US National Inline Downhill Championships in San Francisco produced a surprise winner this year. Inline Downhill is like a cross between Alpine Ski Racing Downhill and NASCAR. Instead of racing on skis down snow-covered ski runs, however, racers compete on inline skates and roll down paved mountain roads at speeds that approach 60mph. Since up to five racers are on the course simultaneously there is a lot of drafting and passing like in NASCAR racing. Unlike stock car drivers, though, Inline Downhillers have no metal crush zones surrounding them when they crash.
The San Francisco Gravity Festival unfurled on Saturday and Sunday November 9th and 10th. The International Gravity Sports Association (IGSA) sanctioned all events which included races for all gravity fueled vehicles.
The main event, though, was the US National Inline Downhill Championship. The 2/3 mile course was located on John F. Shelley Drive in McLaren Park in the southeast corner of the city. Twelve downhillers brought their inline skates, leathers, courage and skill to San Francisco in hopes of becoming the National Champion.
Although rain was predicted, Saturday dawned clear and cool and stayed that way all day long. The course began with a 14% pitch leading into a 180 degree right hand turn. The exit from Turn 1 led to another steep grade that propelled skaters into Turn 2 at speeds of nearly 50mph. Turn 2 was a left hand sweeper that fell away to the right. Following was a short flat and a brief uphill section leading to a sweeping right hand turn and the finish line.
Qualifying commenced early Saturday afternoon. Each downhiller got two opportunities to post their fastest time without the distraction of other racers on the course. The fastest time of the two qualifying runs determined who he or she would share the course with in the elimination heats. In the quarter-finals, semifinals and final heats four skaters raced head to head.
In the qualifying Sebastien Laffargue, a 24 year old multi sport athlete who traveled from his home in Paris to compete, quickly established himself as the man to beat. Sebastien--who is second in the International Inline Downhill Association world rankings and third in the IGSA world rankings--posted the fastest qualifying time with a 48.606. That time was an amazing 3.375 seconds faster than the next fastest skater. To put Sebastien's qualifying time in perspective his was the third fastest qualifying time of the day for any vehicle. Only two competitors riding the vastly more aerodynamic Gravity Bikes and Street Luges posted faster times.
Warren Focke, who is fourth in the International Gravity Sports Association world rankings this year, qualified second. Qualifying third was [Orbit guest author] Scott Peer who holds first place in the IGSA world rankings this season.
Another contender was Rob Wurgaft (ranked fifth in the IGSA) who is the speediest of all the Monday Night SK8 Fiends and is also the promoter of the San Francisco Gravity Festival. Rounding out the field were Bruce Stephenson (the gymnastic San Franciscan of Friday Night Skate fame), Don Orlando (a dedicated and fast Monday Night SK8 Fiend), Keri Tishner (tenth in the IGSA), Thomas Vick (another Monday Night SK8 Fiend), George Merkert (last year's National Champion), Gregoire Pinto (a Parisian who is 22nd in the IGSA), Dave Lambert (a fast MNSK8 Fiend and 31st in the IGSA rankings) and Erek Shaffer (a multi roller sport athlete and a gifted skitcher)
On Sunday morning the sky was gray and threatening. After two practice runs, Marcus Rietema, Chief Steward for the IGSA, announced that rain was on its way.
Shortly thereafter the deluge began. Though the heavy rain lasted only an hour, cool, moist air prevented the water from evaporating from the roadway after the rain stopped. The racers agreed to race on the wet surface and the quarter-final heats began.
The racers who worked their way through the elimination heats to the Final were Sebastien Laffargue, Warren Focke, Rob Wurgaft and George Merkert. All eyes were on Sebastien when the starter shouted "Go!" for the Final Heat which would determine the National Champion. Sebastien sprinted away from the field with another of his breathtaking speedskater starts. George-despite the best start of his life-still trailed Sebastien by 20 feet going into the first turn. Warren and Rob were close behind. Sebastien took two crossover steps through the first turn which added ten more feet to his lead and then settled into his tuck.
All four racers took the fastest line they could down the steep slope into the second turn. The treacherously wet pavement seemed determined to yank someone into the hay bales on the outside of Turn 2. But, despite gravity's best efforts, none of the skaters succumbed to disaster.
As the racers hit top speed in the transition to the flat at the end of Turn 2 George gained ground on Sebastien. Asked about it later George said, "Sebastien is an awesome athlete. Since his start is so much better than mine I had to hope that my greater body weight and a disciplined tuck would add up to enough speed that I could catch him." George's strategy worked as he caught Sebastien in the flat, pulled into his draft for an instant and then rolled past him at the top of the uphill section.
"All I could think about through the last turn," George said, "was that Sebastien was in my draft and would use it to slingshot past me at the finish line. I stayed tucked as tightly as my tired legs allowed and hoped for the best." Perhaps it was his yellow speed suit, his greater body weight, the aerodynamics of his tuck or a combination all three that got George across the finish line first. His win in San Francisco made George, who at 51 was the oldest athlete in the field [my hero!--Liz], the US National Inline Downhill Champion for the second consecutive year.
Warren Focke and Rob Wurgaft finished in a near dead heat with Warren just barely edging Rob for the bronze medal.
For another exciting downhill story, read George's description of his experience at the 1999 Zolar Mammoth Downhill Festival. -- Liz