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Downfall of a Downhill Champion
By George Merkert
Southern California downhill skater George Merkert
was the United States National Champion in 2001 and 2002.
In this exciting and entertaining article he explains how he
lost that title to another skater at the
San Francisco Downhill Festival in September of 2003.
George Merkert regrets to inform his friends and associates that, after a two-year reign, he is no longer the US National Inline Downhill Champion. Dave Lambert will wear that crown for the next year.
Though I went into the US National Championships as a marked man I was confident I could win nonetheless. Having won the US Inline Downhill National Championship race for the past two years in a row, I wanted nothing more than to threepeat.
Many of the other racers are NorCals and so resent (in a healthy competition sort of way) that me, a SoCal, has beaten them on "their" hill the last two times we've raced there. The National Championship was contested at the San Francisco Gravity Festival in McLaren Park in San Francisco. Thus, the NorCal racers spent the last six months scheming up ways to beat me. As in speed skating effective teamwork often yields victory in the seemingly individual sport of inline downhill.
On Saturday we qualified. Each racer qualifies by taking two runs down the racecourse by him/herself. These runs are timed electronically. The one-kilometer course has pitches of up to 14 degrees, which generate top speeds of 47 to 48 mph. The fastest qualifier and the three slowest qualifiers are then grouped in an elimination heat together. These four skaters race against each other on the course at the same time. It's like a combination of the alpine ski racing downhill event and NASCAR except that we're on inline skates.
The second fastest qualifier is put into a heat with the next three slowest qualifiers...and so on. The top two finishers in each qualifying heat then move on to the next elimination heat while the racers who finish third and fourth are eliminated from further competition. The idea is to keep the fastest guys from eliminating each other so that they will meet in the Final while also giving the slower qualifiers a chance to advance. This format makes for very exciting races.
I had the second fastest qualifying time without using my aerodynamic gear, which include a rubber speed suit that’s real slippery through the air and leg fairings that minimize disturbance of the air. I also didn’t use my real fast ceramic bearings that Isaac Oltmans of Eulogy Wheels built for me. I was confident of beating the guy who qualified first, who did wear full aero gear during his qualifying runs, as I've beaten him on the SF Gravity Fest course several times even though he's a very good racer.
Contributing to my confidence, though no one goes all out in practice, was that I finished first in every practice run. On Sunday I won my first elimination heat by a large margin over the second place finisher without starting hard or tucking tightly.
However, racing in a pack alters the dynamics of an inline downhill race dramatically. And pack racing is the essence of inline downhill. In the Semifinal heat I was grouped with three fast racers. My pre-race task was to figure out which two of the three racers, or whether all three of them, would form a draft line to beat me. Drafting another racer (or two other racers) makes all the racers go faster—a lot faster—than an individual can go alone.
I reckoned that Donald Orlando and Kevin Sullivan, both of whom are good starters, would train up (downhillers call draft lines "trains"). Therefore, my strategy was to prevent them from getting their train together. Being a good starter myself I planned to adjust my start in the Semifinal so that I rolled out only fast enough to be in front of the slower starter and behind the faster starter. That would enable me to block the slower starter from tucking up close behind the faster starter to form their train.
Copyright 2003 Chris Duderstadt
My strategy worked like a charm. Donald started slowly. I trapped him behind me at the start so that he couldn't get to Kevin, who I assumed was his train partner. I congratulated myself silently for my brilliant strategy and flawless execution.
Now my problems were that I had Donald clamped to my draft like a barnacle (he would use my draft to pass me later in the race if I didn't figure out a way to scrape him off), Steve Everett was in front of me by about 10 yards and way ahead of him was Kevin Sullivan tucked up tight and streaking away like a jet. I figured I'd better get started on tracking down Kevin before he got so far ahead that I couldn't catch him.
I noticed a great opportunity as I closed on Steve. Though Steve was moving to block it, there was still about one foot of room between his body and the edge of the pavement on the inside of Turn 1. I saw that if I got to it fast I could shoot that gap and, with luck, scrape Donald off of my draft. I figured Donald, as ballsy as he is, might not follow me into such a tiny space because when you're drafting behind someone you can't see very well. Skating blind at 40mph is dicey when you get next to the edge of the pavement.
Also, I figured if I could surprise Steve by going through the small
space to his right fast enough I'd also be able to keep him from jumping
into my draft. This tactic worked like a charm as well. Leaving Turn 1 I
found myself going down the steepest part of the hill into Turn 2 all by
myself. I accelerated and gained ground quickly on Kevin. I knew that
I'd catch him well before the finish line.
As I rushed up behind Kevin I considered catching onto his draft and putting my arm out onto his hips—which would slow me down but would transfer a lot of my speed to him. That move would make Kevin and me a train. He'd bust a hole in the wind for me, which would make me go faster. I'd transfer my extra speed to him through the link of my arm and we'd get into that endless cycle of acceleration that makes skating in a train so thrilling.
Training up with Kevin would have given me two options. One option would be to push him across the finish line so that he would finish first in the heat and I would finish second. That would mean that both of us would advance to the next heat. The other option would have been to slingshot past Kevin at the finish to win the heat myself. Slingshotting is when you slow a little to move to the back of the draft and then tuck up tight, accelerate through the comparatively calm air in the lee of the racer ahead of you and then pull to the side at the last instant and use the greater speed you accumulated in his draft to pass that racer. Kevin's and my train would have been so fast that the two guys behind us, Donald and Steve, would have been eliminated for sure.
I pulled up on Kevin so quickly, though, that I decided to just blow past him and win the heat. And then it happened!! I assumed that after passing Donald and Steve in Turn 1 that they were no longer a factor in the race. I'd passed them both so easily in Turn 1 that I couldn't imagine that they would catch up with me. What I hadn't counted on was that it was actually Donald and Steve who had schemed together to train up to take me down. Kevin wasn't part of their plot at all! Donald and Steve had been so easy to pass because they were waiting for me to get out of their way so that they could form their train. My analysis of the competition's teamwork was totally wrong!
I only discovered this unlovely fact right at the finish line. Donald and Steve's train edged ahead of me by a few inches about 20 yards from the finish line. I tightened my tuck and was able to keep pace with them. While I couldn't gain on them at least I wasn't losing more ground.
Crossing the Finish Line
Then Donald, who was the caboose, broke the train and started to pass Steve with about 10 yards to go. As soon as Donald broke their train I began gaining ground on them. I would have passed both of them back had the finish line been 20 yards further on. But it wasn't. Donald and Steve both beat me by about the length of half of a skate frame. That meant that Kevin and I were eliminated and would not skate in the Final Heat, which would determine the winner of the race.
After the Race
In the Consolation Final I blew the doors off of the competition but who cares what happens in a Consolation Final?
It was a great experience and I look forward to the next race. Now that I know that my competitors have the skill to train up and beat me there won't be many trains that will.
All disappointment and competitive feelings aside, though, I must say that all four of the racers who appeared in the Final used their skills and wiles very wisely. They progressed through the elimination heats to the Final and I did not.
Congratulations to Dave Lambert who has practiced assiduously, increased his skills greatly and who skated a very good race. He is the new US National Inline Downhill Champion.
Congratulations also to:
Scott Peer who was the fastest qualifier and who finished second in the Final
Donald Orlando, who is a terrific natural athlete, a very fast racer and who finished third in the Final, and to
Steve Everett who finished fourth despite getting tangled up with Donald at the start of the Final, falling down hard on the pavement and then getting back up on his skates to finish the race.
Marcus Rietema and Bob Ozman of the International Gravity Sports Association, the official sanctioning body of gravity fueled sports, ran the US National Championship race, which was held on Saturday, September 20 and Sunday, September 21, 2003. The inestimable Robert Wurgaft and the Godfather of Skating, D Miles, promoted the San Francisco Gravity Festival which featured racing for inline downhill, gravity bikes, downhill skateboards, street luges and buttboards (classic luges).
2003 U.S. Inline Downhill Championships
01. David Lambert
02. Scott Peer
03. Donald Orlando
04. Steve Everett
05. George Merkert
06. Kevin Sullivan
07. Robert Surgaft
08. Bruce Stevenson
09. Mark Henleey
10. Kathern Kain
George Merkert Bio and Photo
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