Dave Watson was the first person ever to gap over the Tour de France on a mountain bike in 2003. The Canadian, who was 27 at the time, soared over the peloton during Stage 8. Watson was in the area racing World Cup DH, and only had a couple days to prepare for the giant huck. The clip appears in Freeride Entertainment's New World Disorder IV: Ride the Lightning. We caught up with Dave 16 years later, after yet another mountain biker jumped over the Tour de France peloton
earlier this week.
Why did you decide to jump over the Tour de France peloton in 2003?
Put simply, lift access mountain biking was in its infancy, riding MTB was my passion and I wanted to help springboard our rad sport to the world to help it grow and get more kids riding. Collectively what ensued was a spearhead of sorts for the sport that showcased to the masses this budding style of Freeride Mountain Biking in traditional sports and lifestyle media. And it worked when Sports Illustrated, Rollingstone Magazine and countless other International media and magazines wrote and published Scott Markewitz ‘s photos of the jump. It was well enough received that even The Guardian honoured us with The Alternative Athlete of the Year Award. Also, remember this is years before social media, and even YouTube.
How did you prepare for the jump?
The idea was collaboratively brainstormed when in Europe earlier that season filming for sponsors and with Freeride Entertainment between competing in what would be my final event in a World Cup before transitioning to Big Mountain Freeride events and a few early Slopestyle’s. On that trip, over a few pints with the Frenchie’s of Big Bike Magazine came the wild idea to possibly jump the Tour. The acclaimed photographer Scott Markewitz may have had the original concept and as I'd been a Tour fan since a kid watching the likes of Lemond, and Kelly who hung on my walls growing up I was immediately interested when it came up.
The World Cup round was being held not far from the infamous Alpe d’Huez in France, so the next day myself and a few local French media from Big Bike Magazine and Freeride decided to recon if it would be possible. 2 weeks later I was headed back on a plane. Preparing for the jump wasn't easy, even though I'd aired a number of gaps in that range and was very confident on my side, it was on the maximum size of my comfort level at that time and the moves still needed to be built. There was a smaller option down the valley a way, but the back drop was not as surreal.
We arrived on site, a couple days early, (Scott, Rob, Carey, Big Bike Crew, etc.) thinking that was enough time to build the jump, landing, and safety plan. However, there were already a ton of fans in the valley camping, and it was in a wide-open alpine scree slope. The legendary skier Candide Thovex’s lens-men even aborted shortly after arrival as he thought it was too risky. We’re only scratching the surface here as the element of risk was high and there were challenges, but we were able to get the jump well built on day 1, but day 2 was landing zone build day and we could no longer get near the lower slope without drawing attention. To my chagrin, it didn't even get a rake, or scree scrub, so though it was naturally very steep it would still be quite renegade. Moving about the mountain side discretely, we tightened up our safety plan as droves of people continued to flood in for race day the next morning.
Were you at all worried about crashing into the peloton or race spectators and injuring someone?
No, not once settled in. I, and those helping and documenting the event took every precaution to assure the safety of the riders and fans and had a tight plan of taping, spotting, radios etc. Some even tried to talk me out of it, as at that time it was not only highly technical but huge. But I was set on it, and focused on making it happen if the circumstances allowed. In fact, the 1st jump I cancelled pre-run in, and thought it was a no go, sitting down, and calling it off on the radio.
I’d hoped to go over the lead group, but there were numerous black hawk helicopters filming for OLN, and combined with support cars with bikes on the roof and fans all over the run in, it was difficult to get near the jump with enough speed or hit our safety marks, not to mention the Free Tibet fans that were now congregating near the take off. However, a later group arrived, and the fans thinned out.
From the onset - we took precautions based on pre-plans, kept it tight, and kept in touch via radio and spotters, so as not even knock a pebble on the road that could affect the riders. The pack of riders I eventually aired would hug under the cliff which was also why we chose that location. There were still some worries, like the virgin landing that was not built. My favorite Red Bull Rampage line the year prior was similar virgin terrain and non-macked and this was a good fall line - so, it seemed OK, but far from ideal. Also, in the back of my mind was if a support car swerved at the last second to the shoulder, I could potentially clip a bike on the roof. I recall keeping a hard eye on this.
It was intense, but I was ready, fit, and just plain hungry to air it once it was in my head and had calculated all I needed to calculate to feel safe in my approach with zero hesitation. Looking back, it was quite a technical air and my adrenaline was ramping.
What happened when you landed?
I whipped it lightly into the pocket to control my speed, but the height drop was mega and on touch down my prototype shock exploded from the velocity, shearing the internals and the strut bolts. Remember this was +15 years ago, and some coil over shocks were miniscule! Next thing, I was bucked into a slow-motion endo.
Often, on big slams things really slow down in your head, and I vividly recall thinking, oh man, I can't stack on this and fought hard to ride it through on my front wheel and get my back wheel back down. I just got a handle on it when my front wheel rolled into a soft patch on the steeps and I was pitched into a front somersault, slamming very hard, before bouncing up and running it off.
Once I’d run it off, I recall grabbing my bike, giving a thumbs up to our crew that I was OK, then taking a seat on a boulder. It all happened pretty fast, before I was swarmed by on-looking fans, that for the most part had no idea what had just happened and wanted to be in the know.
What was the scene like with the people on the ground when you landed?
For the most part most had no idea what just went down, and a lot of race fans didn’t even notice. It was over so fast, not many people saw someone had just jumped the Tour as they were watching the race, and the jump happened quite discretely in a flash, in a tight lane we tapped off for a few minutes. I speak French, so once settled I was able to communicate with the 1st batch that came to speak that I'd intended to jump the Tour, and that all was OK – “like a publicity stunt – which they under stood”.
Some even thought it was part of the carnival. France is very liberal and later the Gendarmerie who ran to speak with me were mostly concerned that I was OK, and to eliminate any safety issues around the moving race. The race, and the onslaught of fans kept moving on wards towards the decent and the next climb of Alpe d’Huez. My intent was to stomp it, and ride single track back to the Valley floor, as we had no idea how the security would react to this stunt and meet up with our crew - but sometimes things don’t always go as smooth as envisioned. We got the shot, and the rest is history as they say. Viva la France!
What do you think about the recent riders who have jumped the tour?
It’s a nice nod to the sport of Freeride, and it’s cool to see other rider’s interpretation of gapping the Tour. This most recent one this week looked sizeable at 15m and over the yellow jersey – I just hope behind the scenes they’re taking precautions to keep it uber safe for everyone. Our team were all professionals – so as long as they’re Pro, and people are stoked, I think it’s rad. It’s a free world!