The rain just stopped. A lanky Frenchman from Briançon is standing outside the Zegama townhall waiting for the press conference that should be starting in a few minutes.
He looks calm, lean and confident. Last years race is still present. Michel completed the legendary course in 4th place, only loosing out to Kilian, Luis and Tom Owens. We talk about last years world-class field and how so many of the foreigners struggled in the mystic haze and dirt of the Basque elevations.
This year’s race misses the big names from the United States. But with Miguel Heras, Tòfol Castanyer, Tom Owens and Andy Symonds out Michel’s main contest seems to be down to two guys - Kilian and Luis.
“Will you win on sunday?” I ask him. He grins. “There is a little guy. He runs fast!” He clearly means his travel partner Senior Jornet. Kilian is strong, so is Luis. But after Transvulcania two weeks ago they might be tired. Michel is in shape and hasn’t raced much so far. Excitement fills his face and words when he talks about Zegama. We talk about gear and shoes.
“Poles?” “No.” he replies. “They are a huge advantage but you need to train with them.” He won’t use them despite the extremely steep parts.
“Shoes?” “I will wear the Sense with a special sole. It is key on this terrain to have grip. The conditions are worse then last year. It has rained for so long. Sunday will be dry but that doesn’t really matter, as the ground is soaked!“ Michels puts his hands on the flat stone floor of the plaza and laughs out loud. “This was the profile of Joe Grant’s sole last year!” He recalls the problems and says “Joe was the worst. He had to run with the hands!”
Michel goes on “When I was standing at the start line last year I was looking around and they all had no sleeves. When we came to the top. They looked at me as they were freezing. I had sleeves…” The temperature difference between the peak and the start is immense.
One can feel that Michel means business. Last year he executed the race in perfect manner. Running the first part of the course slow. Slower then the rest of the top dudes. “It takes me a bit of time,” he laughs. “I need two hours to warm up.” Maybe that is the huge advantage of Michel. Especially on a course like this.
“What about the quality field of local runners?” I ask him as the race features the biggest talent of the basque country. “I know the top local guys. They are very strong. The local runners are the ones you have to watch out. You never know. They know the course so well.”
The sun just found its way through the fog. You still cannot see the Aizkorri covered in clouds. Michel and I are have to go inside as the rain starts again. At the end it is Zegama. If there is one thing for sure. It is the rain.