Building a 250-ton ice track in the middle of Marseille in balmy Mediterranean temperatures far above zero is by itself no small feat. But the organizers have risen to the warm-weather challenges to create a man-made ice track over 340 downhill meters that will be the centerpiece of the first Red Bull Crashed Ice races of the 2016/17 season on Friday and Saturday.
The midday sunshine in France's warmest city has proven to be more of a problem than the temperatures of up to 14 degrees, creating afternoon puddles on top of the 10-centimeter thick sheet of ice that was created layer-by-layer over the last two weeks. But as soon as the sun sets the puddles freeze up again thanks to the three container-sized chillers operating 24/7 to keep the 1,900 square meters of ice in a deep freeze - enough frozen water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
"The biggest challenge is the sun and even in January it's quite strong during the daytime," said Christian Papillon, Red Bull Crashed Ice sporting director. "The ice system can handle temperatures all the way up to 18 degrees. But when the sun hits, the top 2 or 3 cm soften up so we have to cover up the track during the daytime."
In the racing, athletes from 22 countries will race down the obstacle-filled track four-at-a-time at speeds of up to 80 km/h, cheered on by huge crowds of thousands of spectators. The first two racers to cross the finish line advance to the next round as the field is gradually whittled down through one round at a time from 128 to a final 4.
Unlike all of the previous 40 Red Bull Crashed Ice races over the last 16 years that were in winter resorts or frozen cold cities far to the north, the race in Marseille is the first ever in a warm-weather location. It is a testament to organizers' efforts to expand the world's fastest sport on skates to new regions without frosty weather closer to the equator.
How the track was built in Marseille
The operation to build the track - which is eight meters wide at the start and finish as well as about five meters wide through the middle sections - was another mammoth enterprise carried out with precision. A total of 35 truckloads of building materials for the track was deposited in the heart of Marseille over the last several weeks: 12 trucks loaded with steel, four trucks with lighting and sound equipment, three trucks with the sidewalls, three with the ice system and 10 other trucks with other equipment. A total of 30 workers spent about 2,300 hours building the track.
"The ice systems have limits but those limits are there to be pushed," said Papillon. "We're testing the limits in Marseille. The quality of the ice is really good and it's a very aggressive and challenging track for the first race of the season."
The athletes were also surprised by how difficult the track is - especially a frightening 60-degree drop over about 10 meters just before the mid-way point of the track. "It's the steepest ever, it's unbelievable," said Papillon.
Canada's Scott Croxall, the 2015 world champion and last year's runner-up, was catching some sun after an early morning training run as he looked down at the track. "It's really fun with some really fast sections," said Croxall, one of the title favorites this season. "It's a really technical track. The temperatures drop enough at night so the warm weather during the day shouldn't be a problem at all."
France's Pacome Schmitt added: "This track is a lot of fun to race on. It's a lot trickier than we thought it was going to be. We thought it would be a smooth track. It's definitely an interesting track."
Canada's Dylan Moriarty said he was also surprised that the track turned out to be more difficult in real life than it looked to be on paper: "There's no time to rest on this course," he said. "You're either pumping or hitting bumps everywhere. It's more technical than I thought it would be."
Watch it Live
Red Bull Crashed Ice Marseille will broadcast LIVE on Red Bull TV on January 14th at 8:30 PM CET (7:30 PM UTC).
Red Bull TV is available on connected TVs, gaming consoles, mobile devices and more. For a full list of supported devices visit about.redbull.tv.