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Derby de la Meije

Words: Zeger Dox

Images: Zeger Dox

For the past 30 years, skiers have been hucking themselves off of the mountain La Meije at high speeds in the small French village of La Grave at the Derby de La Meije. It’s not the kind of giant slalom ski race you might have seen on television. The Derby race sees skiers descend over 2000m from the top of the téléphérique, the tip of the gondola line that sits at roughly 3600m, down to the bottom of the adjacent valley that still remains almost 1500m above sea level. Following the purest racing framework, the objective is simple – fastest to the bottom wins. 

La Grave doesn’t have pistes, let alone gates to ski through. Skis, snowboards, mono-skis, telemark skis, sleds… if it can go, it will go! Contenders start in groups of six but are very likely to be on their own for most of the course as each grouping is never short of some that get lost on the way down. Some legs are guaranteed to turn sour though, as thundering down through the untamed terrain is never short of the chance of a collision – either between riders or obstacles like an unforgiving tree trunk.

It is all about smiles and goods vibes though – with everyone dressing to impress, an original costume will probably earn more high fives than any finishing time. Particularly the older lady on a mono-ski that has sown her own dress from the racing numbers of her past entries is surely a frontrunner to take the cake.

During the rest of winter, skiers and snowboarders travel here from around the globe to ski on the wild terrain that is uniquely accessible via the lift system. The village has still remained a hidden gem for decades and somehow manages to maintain it’s heart amongst the popularity and demand. However, it must be said that these slopes are not for the novice skier, nor the faint of heart. The local crowd mostly consists of experienced and motivated ski bums, adorned in duct tape covered jackets, their backpacks packed with the ropes necessary to rappel down to the iconic runs.

By winter’s end, the Derby de La Meije comes as a celebration of the past season spent at high altitude. And once the after party begins to fall silent, all to remain standing is likely to be the pink cabriolet swimming pool in the centre on the dance-floor.

Her majesty La Meije beholds and abides.