Racing history is made up of stories. There are big narratives and small narratives that tell the week-in and week-out battles, between riders, the clock, and the course. Few stories though are writ larger than the home win. To take victory at the sport's highest levels in front of your home crowd is the pinnacle of any racing career. For Fabien Barel, that pinnacle came in Les Gets back in 2004 as he clinched his first senior World Championship and a race that was ultimately decided by almost the last corner as his main challenger, Steve Peat, who exploded out of a corner, sealing the title for the Frenchman. It is a story that has everything any good racing story should have - skill, determination, speed, victory and defeat. So a reunion between that rider and that hill was always going to be a special moment.
In the twelve years since that day and the Mont Chery side of Les Gets had not seen another run against the clock until this weekend. And Fabien Barel? Well, he has not raced downhill on European soil since 2010 when he bowed out from professional downhill competition. This year something changed, though - for several years now, he has been quietly working on developing Canyon's new Sender DH bike. With the bike now ready and coming to market he feels he has something to prove once more - he wants to show the world that the bike he has been so instrumental in creating can hold its own at the highest levels of competition. To do that he has signed on to compete in the downhill races at all three stops of the Crankworx tour this year - in races where the field looks not too different to the sharp end of the World Cup circuit. Round one this year in Rotorua did not go to plan for him as he crashed in his race run. So coming into this weekend he did not know if he still had the speed to mix it up with riders who are for the most part ten years younger than him. It was also a very emotional weekend for him as he returned to the very spot where he waited, heart in mouth, those twelve years before to see if his time was going to be good enough...
We spent the weekend with Fabien to take a look behind the scenes at how one of the sport's most meticulous athletes deals with such a big weekend.
The day starts with breakfast with the Canyon crew - it's still very relaxed and fun at this point.
While Fab finishes eating, his mechanic, William, is out making the final checks to the bike - tyre pressures, suspension pressures and any little specific touches for the day.
One final check of the kit and the bike and it's time to head off for practice.
Despite the bad weather, the views out from Mont Chery are not too bad...
Dropping into the first run of the day. With one day of practice done it's straight up to speed on the first run of the day.
The road gap is the first big hit of the day - no worries there.
A quick check of the bike with William and then it's straight back up for a second and final run for morning practice.
Fabien is meticulous in his practice runs, analysing what he was happy with and what he wasn't and working on it for the next time.
After a couple of hours rest, a good jet-washing for the bike and some lunch, it's time to head up for qualification an hour before his time in the start gate.
Here in Les Gets Fabien seems to know pretty much everyone, with plenty of time to get to the top he can stop and catch up with old acquaintances.
Between the two lifts it's time for a quick look at the section above the lift station to get a feel for how the ever-evolving track is coping with the weather conditions.
At the bottom of the hill it was sunshine, in the ten minutes it takes to reach the top station on Mont Chery the weather has changed its mind once more as it closes in once again.
The weather is moving in quickly across the valley.
Because Fabien is no longer a regular rider on the circuit he doesn't have one of the top plates, which means his qualifying run is some half an hour after the top-ranked riders. That kind of time at the top of the mountain brings much uncertainty with the weather.
Ten minutes to go and the weather makes up its mind - it has decided to rain. This is a big unknown for the qualifying run - will rain make the track greasier? Or could it mean it actually runs better as it stops the mud clinging to the bike so much?
As his start time approaches, it's time for a few laps around the top to get the blood flowing.
Followed by a few stretches to get the muscles warm and mobilised.
William comes with Fabien right the way up the start gate.
And qualifying is a go! Coming into this weekend, Fabien set himself a goal of a top ten result and if he did that he would come away happy but if he could reach the top five, then he would be over the moon.
With a seventh in qualifying and tight with the times for the top five, it is a result worth celebrating for Fabien and William.
There is more analysis too - Fabien has always been known as a rider who commits to whatever he does 100%, so the big question after qualifying was whether he would head up to hike the track in the afternoon. After his run, he knew he could make some more time in the woods, but there is also an understanding there that by obsessing over that kind of details he would get sucked back into the world of racing, let it take over his life once more. It's clearly a tough for call for him, but in the end, he resists... He is happy in retirement and does not want to pay the price for success once more.
Three-time world champion or not, your shoes aren't going to clean themselves after a run. It's one of those reassuring moments about the state of mountain biking - our champions still live in the same world as the rest of us.
Come race day morning and the weather has not played nicely through the night, raining for a good part of it, but stopped mostly by mid-morning - this opens up the worst possible scenario for the conditions. If it had dried over night the grip would start to come back, but by raining through the night then drying slightly until race time, it is a recipe for the stickiest, heaviest mud imaginable.
With the conditions changing as they are, Fabien breaks his usual programme and grabs three runs, rather than his usual two, in the morning.
Plastered from head-to-toe, but still smiling.
The weight of his bike before...
One last jetwash session to get everything prepped for racing in a few short hours.
While Fabien rests and eats, William puts the finishing touches to his bike.
After his strong ride in qualification, he gets a bit of a number plate upgrade for the race.
Here we go... race time. Fabien leaves his room over an hour before his race run to start his preparations.
First up is his take on the ubiquitous car park test - taking the bike for a quick roll up and down the streets to make sure everything works, is where it ought to be, feels how he expects it to.
As he heads for the lift, the weather is still not letting on what it plans to do during his race run.
For one final time this weekend, William accompanies him to the top of the mountain.
It's hard to know if Fabien would have looked this relaxed during the peak of his career, or whether he is enjoying himself more now there is no pressure other than his own high expectations.
The final leg of the final ride up the mountain.
Once more through his warm-up and stretches.
And he we are - the moment of truth for the weekend.
The split times were good.
Retired or not, nobody would expect anything less than complete commitment on track from Fabien once he crosses the start line, power towards the line in the slick mud.
Nobody else sprinted as hard as Fabien for the line, physics suggest that he shouldn't have been able to push that hard on that surface, but it all held for just long enough to cross the line before reality caught up and he found himself sliding to a stop on his side. Unfortunately, that tape around his bar tells the final story of his race run - he ran wide at the very same corner where Steve Peat went down some 12 years before - earning himself a disqualification.
First order of business was to congratulate Remi Thirion, who would go on to hold onto the hot seat and earn himself the victory in what is being talked of as one of the toughest DH races in many years.
The finish line here in Les Gets holds one of Fabien's clearest racing memories, which he recounts to Brett Tippie - the nerve-wracking wait on that afternoon in 2004 to see if he was fast enough...
DQ or not, it was all smiles from Fab and while his time may not have stayed on the results sheet, it was fast enough to have been fifth overall, exactly where he was aiming for. What makes his time all the more remarkable is that Fabien isn't training as such any more, of course, his ideas of not training involves far more time riding bikes and motos than most normal people, but for a rider closer to forty than thirty, to place like that among a field that included many of the top riders from the World Cup circuit is no small achievement. It also achieved his larger goal - he came to Les Gets to prove that the bike he has been so instrumental in developing can race at the highest levels of the sport, and without question, he succeeded there.