That Unmistakable Family Feeling at XTERRA France

Ten years on since he first lined up on the shore of Lac Longemer, Doug Hall looks at how the power of family and community continue to lie at the very heart of one of Europe’s biggest off-road events.

Written by
Doug Hall
·
7
min read
Summary
01

‘I don’t have friends, I have a family’ – Dominic Toretto

One of my guilty pleasures is the Fast and Furious franchise. If you’re not familiar, let me quickly bring you up to speed. A shiny-headed American leads his crew of advanced drivers on a series of missions against a stereotypical bad guy plotting to take over the world. 

The story lines are terrible, the acting abominable, and almost nothing makes sense - just my kind of trash to switch off from the stresses of real life and watch some overly dramatic explosions for 90 mins straight.

But through the extensive list of ethically questionable decisions Dominic and his team have made, the one thing I always find relevant is the family bond these characters share and how their family-first-ride-or-die mantra is maybe something that most off-road athletes can get behind. After all, on race day Mother Nature is the common enemy we’re all up against.

It's not just a superlative though, walk into any XTERRA venue and you’ll feel it. In amongst all the pre-race nerves and excitement is an atmosphere of family and togetherness. And nowhere is this more evident than at XTERRA France, where every year a sold-out field assembles on the shorelines of Lac Longemer to take on the awe-inspiring yet unforgiving terrain of Xonrupt-Longemer. 

I first attended XTERRA France as a fresh-faced wanna-be pro athlete in 2012. 

I remember being in awe of Lac Longemer stretching out in front of the tree-covered mountains reflecting in the glass-like surface, wondering if I had accidentally slipped into a French version of the Matrix designed by Nico Lebrun. 

I was pumped. Ready and full of excitement, dreaming of how much prize money I would win when in reality I was well out of my depth - struggling all weekend and relying on the generosity and support of fellow athletes to get me to the start line, let alone the finish line. But I made it and learned so many things along the way that would help me finally crack France in 2019, placing 11th in the Elite field. For a mediocre athlete like me this was a big deal!

Doug Hall, pictured at XTERRA France 2019.

Fast forward 2 years, with a pandemic break and a retirement from elite racing, I was excited to head back to Xonrupt in 2022 with a journo cap on to explore this concept of family and community further.

"Sure, once the starting guns sound, friendship is paused for 40 mins. But as soon as that finish line is reached, it’s high fives and hugs all around."

The first thing you notice when arriving at XTERRA France is the bike park. For weeks ahead of the race, an army of carpenters build a wooden roller coaster of dreams. Twisting and turning in every direction imaginable to elevate both the track and the spectator experience beyond what you thought was possible at a triathlon race. 

Sounds like great fun, doesn’t it? 

Well, in reality, not many people have ridden a pallet-based sky highway so there were plenty of folks nervously looking for the best way to ride it. But sure enough a couple of veterans rolled the dice and tested the waters before helping and assisting strangers with how best to approach the tricky sections, opening the floodgates to a continuous stream of riders whooping and hollering with massive grins on their faces. 

Giggling to myself while remembering my first experience on the pallets (or off the pallets if you will), I headed over to the campsite conveniently located just meters from the transition area in search of a couple of friends who had made the trip from the UK. 

Strolling through the campsite I saw dozens of families, all competing in events over the weekend. But no resting or recovery was going on. Adults had pulled together makeshift tables and chairs, sharing bottles of wine and fresh food as kids played on their bikes, racing each other between the pitches. One group from Dijon had already been on site for 5 days and would continue to stay in Xonrupt for a week beyond the race for a full fortnight of family bliss.

"Adults had pulled together makeshift tables and chairs, sharing bottles of wine and fresh food as kids played on their bikes, racing each other between the pitches."

Quickly enough Saturday arrived and with it a chance for those kids to shine. 

Over 200 young XTERRA superstars kicked off the weekend with two distances available depending on the ages of these future champions. It was quite remarkable to see the wave of parents rushing around the outskirts of the course to encourage their offspring to swim, cycle and run to the best of their ability. It was also quite far removed from my own experience of road-based kids’ races, with parents constantly shouting  “OVERTAKE” “TRY HARDER” “YOU’LL NEVER WIN GOING THAT SLOW!”

Instead it was the complete opposite. Every man, woman and child had the biggest smiles on their faces as the kids made their way around the short loops (including the pallet skyway!) The distance might be short, but the race is real! 

The finish line was super special with elite athletes, hundreds of spectators and the legendary Chun on the mic announcing their arrival to give the young athletes a real taste of what it means to be part of the XTERRA family.

Even after 8 races, XTERRA Short Track is still a strange new beast. An ultra-competitive race curated specifically for spectators and television coverage can present some challenges for the elite athletes lucky enough to take part. However, from the moment the series was launched back in 2019, the elite athletes have worked together to crack the format. 

Typically, in elite sport, you’ll come across some people who would use their granny as a bike ramp if it meant getting an edge over another in pursuit of a gold medal. But it’s different in XTERRA. Athletes will share their insights, strategy, their ideas and equipment choices. 

Everyone just wants to race against everyone at their best without disadvantage. Sure, once the starting guns sound, friendship is paused for 40 mins. But as soon as that finish line is reached it’s high fives and hugs all around. There are a lot of sports presenting their athletes as idols or aspirational characters to their audiences, but XTERRA doesn’t have to. Our elites are already world-class at it.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations you are halfway through the mammoth weekend that is XTERRA France.

Denmark’s Jens Emil Sloth Nielsen is a crowd favourite and always brings a big crew of athletes to race or support, so it’s not normally a surprise to see his sister Nina on race day. But this time she was in for a slightly different experience!

As a thank you for always being on the sidelines, Jens had decided to reward his sister with a chance to suit up and race. It may be the first time I’ve heard of a race entry being used as a Christmas present and maybe a slightly cruel way to thank someone, but it was pretty cool to see the roles reversed! Nina smashed it too with a 13th place finish, commenting afterwards that maybe she’ll do more in the future.

Nina Sloth Nielsen, pictured at XTERRA France 2022.

Roger Serrano was up to his old tricks too. Occasionally first to the finish line but always last home from the party, Roger has always been a big part of the XTERRA family. 

Initially in Xonrupt just for Short Track commentary duties, Roger went from the commentary booth straight to registration to scramble a last-minute entry. And still the class act he’s always been, I can’t say I was surprised when an Instagram video appeared after the race featuring Roger sacrificing a win to let a number of talented junior athletes catch up, then running with them to encourage and motivate them to put together the best race of their young careers. 

I imagine one day these young up and comers will pay the favour forwards and do the same for others.

In the big race of the weekend, you didn’t have to look far to see the community come together. Assistance with mechanicals, stretching out a cramp, pace making and countless other stellar examples of the XTERRA community were clearly on show.

"I imagine one day these young up and comers will pay the favour forwards and do the same for others."

But I want to focus on the Forissier brothers – because this was special.

Arthur and Felix Forissier at the finish of XTERRA France 2022.

I was first aware of Felix Forissier at that race back in 2019. My first thought was ‘oh god there is another one.’ Arthur was already tearing up the field and the last thing any elite needed was yet another fast Frenchmen (still a thing). But sure enough, fast forward a few years and on his day the younger athlete has become the faster of the pair, evidenced by Felix winning XTERRA France 2022 with Arthur close behind. 

If you think of siblings in triathlon, you automatically think of the Brownlee Brothers, two guys with a special bond simply tearing the field apart. Similarly, the French athletes achieved a perfect one-two finish this year, delivering a master class in patience, grit and sheer excellence as they headed the field in what turned out to be one of the (if not the) most competitive XTERRA races I think any of us have ever seen.

I spoke to them afterwards to see if being siblings affected the race at all.

“Being close to my brother, I knew from just looking at him that he was feeling very good,” explained Arthur. “Once we started running, even though I was so close to him with just 3km to go, I knew that without a disaster happening he was going to win, I just knew it. I’m proud of him and the race he put together, I’m happy with second, but at least there is still a Forissier on the top step.”

And the love and respect from Felix was mutual. 

“I was running so scared! I was fortunate that I had good legs today, I know that I can compete with my brother so when I saw he was staying in front of Serrieres I was confident I could hold onto first place. I have so much respect for my brother and what he has done and can do in this sport, so it was fun to be at the front with him.”

And so we come back to my Fast and Furious analogy.

The importance of family is the overriding theme of every single film released and the success of the franchise is simple – keep the cast largely the same but change the locations and the bad guy. And in many ways, I see this as not so different from the XTERRA community, where a close-knit family continues to bind together as they face off against a common enemy in every new location. 

So here’s to XTERRA France and the Fast and Furious. Let’s do another 10. 

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Author Bio

Doug Hall

Doug Hall is a racer, writer, and certified coach at XTERRA.

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