My European tour started off with the King of the Alps Extreme race in Northern Italy. (A 6.5km marathon section down class 3-4 rapids with a mass start of 120 kayakers; followed by the finals, racing on a 300m class 5 rapid.) Another wonderful place to visit and race while making many new friends along the way. A nice warm up before the Extreme Slalom World Cups.
Two hours of stand still traffic and a missed ferry wasn’t the best start to the trip but with sunrise in Brussels and sunset on Fern pass I stopped in Innsbruck for the night. In the morning I was heading over the beautiful Jaufen Pass with the most spectacular views above the clouds arriving in Saltaus, Italy, by lunchtime.
Meeting the Brits, we lapped the marathon section twice to loosen up and familarise ourselves with the water. The next few days consisted of laps, practising the race lines and testing my two boats. Rest is an important part of training so we headed to Merano to relax at the hot pools. There was plenty of swimming, jumping in and even singing in the saunas; followed by a BBQ.
With only 2 days until race day I went to inspect the finals section again. My first run went without a hitch, the top section was bigger than anticipated; crashing through waves and clipping rocks was to be expected. The Cannonball (a slide that shot you out with great speed) leads into the Intimidator - I was nervous and needed to pick the right line over the big rooster-tail rock into the waterfall awaiting the far side. I took off from the rooster-tail and disappeared into the waterfall’s mist, re-emerging and continuing through the waves. Stoked to have stuck to the line I went up for a second lap. The top was cleaner but on the Intimidator I missed my stroke and came off the rooster-tail sideways. Landing backwards in the waterfall I instinctively navigated the rapids backwards.
Being not so pleased, I analysed the footage to maximise my training and ensure I didn’t repeat the previous performance. My lines were getting better and better, my times faster and faster; now was time to make my first descent in a Ripper! It went far better than I anticipated considering the flat stern. I flew off the rooster-tail with my weight forwards and everything went smoothly. I was super stoked until I was informed the Ripper wasn’t an eligible race-boat.
I arranged with Team Exo to demo the T-Rex and timidly went for a few laps. It was plain sailing, the boat ploughed through the waves with its displacement hull and skipped out of the drops quickly with its rocker.
Race day was here and we were up early, ensuring everything was ready and enough time for a good warmup. The race start was a shambles with a false start and while lining up again the whistle went. Everyone started crashing down into me, I turned and set off in about 50th. Battling hard down the first rapid I made up several places but I had my work cut out if I was to qualify. 1.5Km in, I overtook the British boys (Lyndon and Jake) who had a better start, ‘if I had a better start I could be qualifying’ I thought. Nevertheless, I was slowly fighting my way up the field.
As we entered the final kilometre I was between 18th and 23rd. My arms ruined, burning with lactic acid trying to hold my paddle. Just 500m to go I caught an eddyline and the guy behind sailed passed; we had battled all the way. Coming over the finish line I was gutted, I should have done better. I cooled down and reflected on the race before checking the results, 21st; one place outside of qualification! One paddler then withdrew so I qualified, and racing the number one seed who has just won the marathon; local favourite Daniel Klotzner.
That afternoon the team race was prior to the finals; I went first, Lyndon hot on my heels all the way, pushing hard. We nailed the compulsory upstream on the Cannonball. Coming towards the Intimidator nose to tail the concern was; Lyndon landing on me off the rooster-tail! Thankfully I hit the line, sending it straight off the middle! I flew through the rapids to the finish and cheered for Lyndon. We held first place for a while but in the end finished 6th; top British team.
Now the head to head quarterfinals began. I did not fancy my chances against Daniel, I knew it would be a hard race. I did not know his time or what I had to beat as I set off, dropping off the 10ft+ weir and down the top section. I hit several rocks on this section but I gave my all to beat him. Shooting out of the Cannonball like a bullet towards the Intimidator I heard the commentary and the Brits cheering. I came off the rooster-tail landing with my eyes on the finish, instinct driving me through the rapids and over the line. While congratulating Daniel on a good race I heard a roar from the Brits on their feet. I had beaten Daniel, I don’t know how but I had, I was so happy I was through to the semi-finals; winning the heat by 0.14 seconds. This was not the only disturbance to the expected results with other favourites (including Michele Ramazza) knocked out in the quarterfinals.
I was first boat in the semis, I was off to a flying start but at the Cannonball it started to go wrong. I lost an edge brace heavily and losing time so I pushed hard to make up time on the Intimidator but as I took off from the rooster-tail things went from bad to worse. I landed in the waterfall upside-down; there was a sudden moment of panic; the Kiwi that dislocated his shoulder; the Brits that swam. It was the semi-finals I could not swim, I stayed calm and rolled up quickly, setting off paddling again. And then it hit me, literally, my blade swung round into my head and I saw my shaft had snapped in two. I was devastated but kept going knowing that I had to make it to the finish line, with one blade. Snapping my shaft had cost me my place in the finals and I had to settle for 10th overall. With mixed emotions I went to watch the finals and was interviewed by the commentator as to what happened.
The final was quite exciting with more broken paddles and some rapid times being set. The winner of the Men’s King of the Alps 2018 was Mario Leitner, not only had he done well in the marathon in the morning and won the finals by 3 seconds but he had also competed in a slalom competition that day as well.
That evening we all partied till the early hours participating in many games including kayak skating, a longboard attached to a kayak with a broomstick as a paddle.
The following day was our last day as a group so we walked down the gorge to swim in the ice-cold river. It was nice and relaxing after a long week of training and racing; the water doing wonders for my muscles. We then BBQ’d the remaining party food and ate like Kings and Queens, eating our weight in ribs before going our separate ways.
Overall it was a quality week of training and racing against some fantastic boaters from round the world. I may not be remembered for winning but I sure will for breaking my paddles! Due to my injuries this was the end of my European tour part 1 so I headed further into Italy sightseeing for a few days; spending 2 days in both Verona and Venice. The scenic driving was unreal and the cities were full of outstanding beauty and architecture.
Word by Gareth Farrow