Inline Downhill Race Report
It was a battle of youth and athleticism versus age and superior equipment in the Inline Downhill event at the Zolar Mammoth Downhill Festival in Mammoth Lakes, California on Saturday, July 31 and Sunday, August 1.
Inline Downhill is similar to the Alpine snow ski racing Downhill event. The difference is that racers compete using inline skates instead of skis. Courses are on paved mountain roads instead of ski trails. Another important difference is that, unlike in snow ski racing, four to six racers start at the same time. Thus drafting and passing are important aspects of the race. Inline Downhill is a lot like gravity fueled stock car racing--except there are no metal wrappers to protect racers from pavement.
Though the turnout was small, all four racers in the Finals at Mammoth had X-Games or Australian X-Games experience. A surprise entrant in the inline event was Travis Tripp, an experienced luger who has placed well in several luge races. He was also at one time and, perhaps, is still, the world record holder in the gelandesprung.
For those who don't ski, gelandesprung is a jumping event done on alpine skis off kickers of piled up snow. Knowing about Travis's gelandesprung record (323 feet!) helps you understand how he, a novice skater, could put on a pair of borrowed six wheel skates and attack a hill on which he'd never skated and which can produce speeds over 45mph.
For the Zolar Mammoth races, street lugers, speedboarders (a fast variety of skate boarders) and inliners raced on the same section of the Scenic Loop road. Though riders of the different vehicles were never on the course simultaneously, all shared the same timing equipment, hay bales, course workers and other resources. The course is about a mile long with several gentle turns. It has wavy pavement through one flat stretch and had, this year, a lot of fresh and sticky tar in the cracks in the pavement. No one had a speed gun on the inliners but top speeds were probably around 50 mph. A good start, effective drafting, well timed passing and legs capable of maintaining a low tuck for a minute and 20 seconds are the keys to victory here.
Also racing were Scott Peer, Isaac Oltmans and George Merkert. Scott raced on five wheelers. Scott's frames for this race were made of carbon fiber and were 19 inches long with lots of space between the wheel in the middle and the two wheels on either end of each frame. Scott wore a protective suit of kevlar along with leg fairings and a Hickey helmet.
Isaac was on six wheels--all mounted close to one another. He wore leathers and a Hickey Helmet.
George had a new yellow rubber speed suit to put on top of his leathers. He wore StreetSkis and had the leg fairings that he'd scavenged from John Hembel at the Australian X-Games last December. This model of StreetSkis have frames about 3.5 feet long with two wheels on either end and two wheels in the middle of each frame. Marker ski bindings attach ski boots to them. His head protection was a conventional motorcycle helmet--in black to complement the yellow speed suit. George's set up looked cool and rolled fast.
Training on Saturday yielded some fast runs by both Peer and Oltmans. They took several runs during which they drafted and passed one another multiple times. Merkert ran third and out of the pack for all of Saturday's training runs due to difficulty starting fast enough to get into the draft. He had some whiny excuse about being tired but nobody paid any attention to it.
Peer and Oltmans, with their speed skating style starts, both got off the starting line for training runs very quickly. Despite the pins holding his leg together and a schedule that includes ACL surgery in the near future, Oltmans, a former speed skater with a national ranking and an experienced downhiller, set the standard for quick starts. Peer was close behind.
Saturday ended with a time trial. Each racer ran individually. The results were:
- Scott Peer 1:26
- Isaac Oltmans 1:27
- George Merkert 1:28
Travis Tripp did not run the time trial.
On Sunday morning, July 31, Amy Kentner and Biker Sherlock of Extreme Downhill International, the very able organizers of the luge, speedboard and inline races, scheduled a training run for inliners. For this run Travis Tripp joined the field on six wheelers borrowed from Scott Peer. Tripp was, literally, a last minute entrant as his luge heat concluded only moments before the inline training run was to begin.
The fastest qualifier from the time trial got to choose his lane for Sunday's training run as he would for the Final. Therefore, Scott Peer chose the far left lane. Isaac Oltmans, second in the time trial, chose to start immediately to the right of Peer. George Merkert started on the far right. For Sunday's training run, his first time ever down any downhill course on skates, Travis Tripp chose to start behind the pack.
Having turned 48 on Saturday Merkert needed a plan to be competitve. He was racing against Isaac Oltmans (a silky smooth athlete in his 20's and in previous years a nationally ranked speed skater) and the wily and athletic Scott Peer (winner of many ski races and an inline downhiller with both X-Games and European experience). Part of his plan was already in place. Merkert's yellow speed suit, leg fairings and StreetSkis gave him a set up that was slippery through the air and stable on the pavement. Once underway the speed suit and StreetSki set up is unquestionably faster than the kevlar suit with leg fairings and five wheel skates favored by Peer. Merkert's set up is also faster than the leathers and six wheel skates set up of Oltmans.
Another part of Merkert's plan was to avoid using up much needed energy by trying to maintain a low tuck during training runs. Tripp, who finished respectably close to the more experienced skaters, asked Merkert why he didn't win Sunday morning's training run with his clearly quicker equipment. "Saving legs," was Merkert's reply. All the racers may have had saving their legs in mind as Sunday morning's training run was a fairly leisurely affair.
Though the advantages are great, a disadvantage of Merkert's equipment set up is at the start. Even having ski poles to help push off the starting line doesn't match the benefit of being able to make the long, powerful skate strokes that speed skates allow at the start but StreetSkis don't. To maximize the advantages offered by his equipment and, he hoped, win the Final, Merkert hatched a plot. He created a mantra that summarized this plan for the Final to help him psych up. That mantra went like this: "Start Hard, Catch Draft, Rest, Pass At Finish". He repeated this mantra to himself and visualized each stage of the race going according to his plan for the two hours between the training run and the Final.
With this plan firmly encoded, Merkert approached the starting line for the Final with unaccustomed confidence. "I may not be as strong as these young guys," he thought, "but I can definitely afford faster equipment."
Though you could argue that Scott Peer is not significantly enough younger than Merkert to account for there being much difference in strength, there is just something about that guy. Peer seems young and strong. He's got to be close to 40 but betrays no diminished athletic prowess at all. Founded in a realistic assessment of his competition or not, it was time for Merkert to test his plan in the main event.
The time to start the Inline Downhill Final had arrived. "Start Hard, Catch Draft, Rest, Pass At Finish," chanted Merkert silently as he stood at the starting line.
Minimize the Advantage of the Speed Skaters' Naturally Faster Start. Merkert determined to start as hard as he could with the equipment he had. Having observed a luger shouting energetically with each paddle of his leather-gloved hands during the start of a luge time trial, Merkert determined to invoke chi energy for his start also.
Immediately after the starter hollered, "Go", for the Final, Oltmans and Peer shot quickly into the lead as expected. Unlike in his starts for training runs, however, with each pole push and skating stroke Merkert added a shouted "kee ai!". The additional power of the chi (and maybe some of the nervous energy that had stored itself in his legs for the Final), enabled Merkert to stay reasonably close to the leaders. After he stopped pushing and skating and settled into his tuck he saw that he was only 40 yards or so behind the two leaders.
This Is The Critical Moment. Because of his slower starts (and whiny "tiredness" excuse) Merkert had been unable to catch the draft of the pack in any of the training runs on Saturday. Because he also skated slowly to save his legs during Sunday's time trial, Merkert had no idea whether his equipment set up was actually fast enough to overtake Peer and Oltmans. However, unless Merkert used his superior equipment to great advantage at this point of the race, the race was over and Merkert was in third place--maybe fourth place.
Amazingly, Travis Tripp, who had minimal previous skating experience, was in third place after the start of the Final. Merkert tucked up and passed Tripp without entering his draft. As he passed Tripp and headed around the gentle right hand turn at the top of the course, Merkert's right hip suddenly seized in a cramp. He stood up briefly to stretch it out and then settled back into a low tuck. Mercifully, the cramp did not return.
Here the advantages of Merkert's fast set up really paid off. Despite Peer's and Oltmans' 40 yard lead and a brief stand up to exorcise a butt cramp, Merkert soon rolled into the pack right behind Oltmans. Just as he'd visualized before the race, he'd caught the pack's draft.
Competing Against Younger, Stronger Legs Daunted Merkert. Therefore, his strategy was to take advantage of his superior equipment to catch the pack. Then, safely pulled along by the pack's draft, he could stand up a little to rest his legs yet not lose any ground to the leaders. Resting in this way would enable him to store some energy in his legs so he could use it to hold a low tuck later in the race.
As soon as he entered Oltmans' draft Merkert stood up and gave his legs a drink of blood. Standing in a loose crouch with poles in front of face, like an Alpine Super G racer might do for some moderate twistys, left Merkert still overtaking Oltmans quickly--too quickly. Merkert stood up higher to slow down. Some sticky tar grabbed Merkert's left StreetSki, pulled it backward and twisted his body to the left. Terror ruled. An emergency move to a lower, more stable body position allowed Merkert to regain his balance but, again, caused him to gain ground too quickly on Oltmans.
The outcome of the race turned on Merkert's decision in response to this event.
PASS AT FINISH
Remain In The Draft, Rest Legs, Use Rested Legs To Tuck Up Tight And Pass Pack At The Finish Line And Win Race. This was Merkert's original plan. It was the plan he'd rehearsed in his mind for two hours prior to the Final. It was the sober, thoughtful plan of a man who must use his greater life experience to devise a way to defeat younger and stronger athletes. Make a plan. Stick with it. One of the most important lessons young adults learn. Shoulda been second nature for a middle-aged adult.
Though at this juncture he'd rested his legs for only a few seconds by straightening his legs a little while in Peer's and Oltmans' draft, Merkert soon discovered a thrilling fact. The rubber suit and StreetSki set up was not only faster than the other racers' equipment-it was a lot faster. Even in a relaxed tuck he could hardly stay behind the racer just ahead.
At this point of the race Merkert made a fateful decision. Instead of continuing to rest his legs while being sucked along by the draft, Merkert immediately stood up enough to slow down and drift to the back of the hole punched in the air by Oltmans and Peer. Then, Merkert tucked up tight, gained ground quickly and slingshotted out to the right. Merkert blew past Oltmans and Peer like he had a jet engine on his back.
Confident that his pass had been so fast that neither Peer nor Oltmans could catch his draft--and gloating about how surprised Peer and Oltmans must now be--Merkert did not despair 20 seconds later when he felt his legs begin to wither. The legs he'd so carefully planned to preserve until close to the finish line.
Ten seconds later those legs began to burn unmercifully. Dare he stand up a little to relieve them? The finish line was in sight now merely a hundred yards away.
Suddenly, Merkert's legs screamed for more blood and threatened to give up entirely if they didn't get it...NOW! Merkert's only choice was to stand up or go down-hard on the pavement at 40 mph or more.
Rising to a Super G crouch--a wobbly, exhausted crouch--and a little abashed that he wouldn't roll over the finish line in a tight tuck, Merkert rushed towards victory. Merkert saw the timers at the finish line looking on. He was close enough to see the surprised look on their faces. "Didn't think a guy with gray hair could win this race did you, motherfuckers?" he thought to himself.
Then, without warning, a flash of blue appeared in Merkert's peripheral vision down and to the left. A blue jay? Hallucination? Exhaustion works strange magic on brains hammered by too much LSD 30 years before. Ignore it.
"OH NO!!!!OH SHIT!!!" By some unimaginable fluke Merkert suddenly found himself looking down on Scott Peer's blue kevlared back as it rolled past him at sensational speed. Peer's back paralleled the pavement and his hands poised in front of his helmet's face shield in perfect wind splitting position.
Unbeknownst to Merkert, Peer had captured Merkert's draft when Merkert passed him earlier in the race. Somehow Peer hung with him all the way to...30 yards...now 20 yards from the finish line.
Because he had deviated from his plan to rest his legs by passing the pack too early, Merkert had actually enabled Peer to use Merkert's faster equipment to Peer's advantage. Catching Merkert's draft enabled Peer to roll at a speed faster than Peer's equipment was capable of without aid from the hole pierced in the air by Merkert's body. Though Peer couldn't pass Merkert when Merkert was in a tight tuck due to Merkert's faster set up, Peer could lurk in the draft long enough to take advantage if Merkert faltered.
When Merkert's legs suddenly refused to do their work he was forced to rise to a comparatively high body position. The increased wind drag on Merkert's body reduced the speed advantage conferred by Merkert's equipment enough that Peer could accumulate momentum by rolling from back to front of Merkert's draft and then slingshot past Merkert. This tactic would only work if Peer could hold a very tight, aerodynamic tuck. Calling on an energy reserve in his legs that Merkert didn't have, Peer did just that.
As they flew over the last few yards to the finish line, Merkert watched Peer's blue clad butt get smaller and smaller as it faded into the future ahead of Merkert. One panicky hope left to reclaim the top step on the podium. To tighten his tuck Merkert bent his legs lower...then lower still until they were at an angle just above the angle that guaranteed 100% quadriceps failure and a painful, humiliating slide on his face shield across the pavement. Not enough quad power left. No way to tighten up and catch Peer.
All Merkert's carefully hewn dreams of glory exploded less than a second later when Peer rocketed across the finish line in first place. The canny, seasoned veteran, Scott Peer, had found a way to win the Inline Downhill event at the 1999 Zolar Mammoth Dowhnill Festival.
Here are results from the Zolar Mammoth Downhill Festival events in chart form. Results listed below for events other than Inline Downhill are unofficial, may contain mistakes and are provided only as interesting information for readers of this document. Contact Extreme Downhill International for official luge and standup results.
Saturday, July 31
Inline Qualifying (short course):
- Scott Peer 1:26
- Isaac Oltmans 1:27
- George Merkert 1:28
Sunday August 1, 1999
Downhill Inline 4 Man Finals:
- Scott Peer
- George Merkert
- Isaac Oltmans
- Travis Tripp
Speedboarding 4 man:
- Manut??? (France)
- Biker Sherlock
- Todd Lehr
Luge 6 man:
- Steve "Grumpy" Fernando
- Travis Tripp
- Michael "Biker" Sherlock
All Contents Copyright 1999 George Merkert