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San Francisco Gravity Sports Festival
U.S. Inline Downhill Championships
November 9-10, 2002
SURPRISE WINNER AT THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL
INLINE DOWNHILL SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS
by Rob Wurgaft
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
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
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
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 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.
Crossing the Finish Line
"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, 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 more information about this event contact Rob Wurgaft at
1st Place - George Merkert
2nd Place - Sebastien Laffargue
3rd Place - Warren Focke
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