A beautiful setting for a brutal race: a punishing relay of rowing, running (up a mountain), paragliding and off-road cycling attracts world-leading athletes to a picturesque French mountain lake.
It's a Saturday morning in September, still summer here in eastern Alpine France, south of Lake Geneva and north of Mont Blanc. The kind of picture-postcard scene to be soundtracked by nearby church bells and very little else.
But when the time comes today, whirring helicopter blades, the report of a starter's pistol and the sound of 55 rowers propelling their sculls away from a pontoon at the village of Talloires signify the start of a uniquely challenging multisport event.
The scullers will race on a looped course marked by buoys, then get out of the water back in Talloires and run, with their boats on their backs, through the village streets and to the foot of Mount Tournette.
Here they will tag the second members of their four-man teams, the trail-runners. At the summit, paragliders will undertake the third leg of the race, flying down to mountain bikers who race up and downhill to the finish back in Talloires.
The winners of this race, Red Bull Elements, usually come home in about five hours; the team in last place take nine hours.
Among the 220 participants in this year's race are some the world's leading top trail-runners, paragliders, mountain bikers and rowers. “We're not looking for individual success here,” says Christophe Bassons, on the mountain bike for the Mag Aviron Champion System team. A former participant in the Tour de France, he knows all about pushing himself to the limit.
His team-mate Julien Bahain, who won bronze for France in the quad sculls at the Beijing Olympics, has a list of achievements as long as his boat. “You haven't got a lane here,” he says, of the challenge facing him on Lake Annecy. “There are more than 50 of us. It's a fight right from the off. You’ve got to get out in front.”
He stays true to his word, urging his boat forward with every stroke. Close behind in his wake, Bahain can see Dutchman Mitchel Steenman and Switzerland's Simon Niepmann, both of whom won medals at the last World Championships in South Korea.
These heavyweights are battling it out up front; further back, the competitors are rowing. “Given the competition, you don't try to ride too hard,” says Marc Fonta, a club rower from Marignane in the south of France. With the muscles in his arms on fire, he is struggling out on the lake as Bahain docks.
Fonta, like Bahain and all the oarsmen, still has 1,200m to run through the streets of Talloires before he can hand over the baton to his team's trail-runner. That's 1,200m with an 8m-long scull weighing 10kg on your back.
The trail-runners, having been given word of the rowers' progress, have been on edge for several minutes. Julien Bahain launches his team-mate Cédric Fleureton towards the Tournette summit. One of France's best trail-runners, Alexis Sevennec, heads off in fifth place for Team Scott.
A few strides on past the spectators, and the trail-runners chat breathlessly on the stony ascent that disappears into the forest up above Talloires. It's the beginning of a herculean climb of 11km in distance and 2,351m in altitude.
Kilian Jornet waits patiently in the waiting area. He should not be here still. The Spanish endurance racer, a former world champion of both ski mountaineering and mountain running, has seen more than half his rivals set off up the mountain.
By the time Jérémy Pouge arrives bearing his boat, Team Altitude Font-Romeu are down in 31st place.
Check out the rest of this feature, 'Braving the Elements', in the November 2013 issue of The Red Bulletin, the global monthly magazine. For access to the international issue, download the free app for iOS or Android now.