July 31, 2006 -- Endurance will be firmly in the spotlight at Aachen as the opening contest of the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) this August. Riders will set off on their 160-kilometer journey before dawn from the mass start at the show grounds at Aachen Soers. Approximately 12 hours later, tens of thousands of spectators are expected to watch the riders cross the finishing line in Stadium 1 of the showgrounds.
Organizers of the endurance event, which covers a route zigzagging between Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, believe that this will be the most competitive world championship ever held.
"With more than 40 countries taking part, this will be an interesting and strong contest. The route is similar to Compiègne (host of the 2000 FEI World Endurance Championship) in that it is very deceptive," said Carol Bunting of Great Britain, Technical Delegate. "Everyone is saying Aachen is going to be easy but it is not. People looking at a map might think it looks very flat but it rises and falls gradually and there are some climbs. It's going to be a very testing course...riders will have to pace themselves."
Bunting said that substantial changes had been made to the route and organization since the first trial run three years ago.
"Because the route is coming out of a city and covers a very densely populated area, there has been a lot of work by route organiser Klaus Gulden (of Germany) and vetgate manager Johan van den Brande (of Belgium) to open up new tracks," said Bunting. "The local farmers have all been very helpful and have cut their harvest early so that we can take the ride over their land. We have managed to get the amount of road work to under 10 percent of the route and given that we had to take the ride from the city and back into the city, this was difficult to achieve."
Ride organizers have faced the challenge of managing the event in the midst of a heavily crowded tourist region in the peak of season. In addition to the constraints placed on the participating countries in terms of the number of riders who can take part--five per country instead of six--the level of crewing on the 160-kilometer route will be restricted to just one crew car per rider. On each loop there will be just one or two crew points with the rest of the stops being water points supervised by the ride stewards. A separate crew will be needed for each rider at the vetgate at Vaals, a major tourist centre.
"Any rider or team who breaks this rule will be severely penalized. Keeping traffic down has been a major challenge for organizers and it was felt that this was the only way to keep it down," said Bunting.
Organizers are also ready to stage the endurance event in extreme heat. Orders have been placed for ice and cooling equipment and there will be close liaison between vets, ride officials and the chefs d'equipes of participating nations both in the days and hours before the ride and on the day of the event itself when it is possible that adjustments could be made to vetgate hold times.
Bunting, who has visited Aachen 10 times in the past three years will hand over responsibility for the ride to the ground jury an hour before the first horse inspection. Ruth Carlson of Canada will head up the officials as president of the ground jury. Dr. Kieran O'Brien of Ireland will lead an impressive line-up of the world's leading endurance veterinarians as President of the Veterinary Commission. Franz Artz of the Netherlands will be the Foreign Veterinary Delegate at the competition.
The going, given the heatwave across Europe this summer, is expected to be very hard underfoot in places with the best section of ground over the final 16 kilometer (9.9 mile) loop.
First loop: 28 kilometer (17.4 mile) yellow route, vetgate Vaals. After heading out from Soers through the suburbs of Aachen, the route circles north of the city. The route is twisty and technical. The track crosses the border into The Netherlands near the village of Mamelis and climbs to the highest point in The Netherlands, the scenic spot of Vaals which will be the vetgate for the first three stages (Yellow/Red and Blue loops). The vetgate at Vaals will see much of the decisive action in the race as riders have the tough challenge of descending from this high point and climbing back up again to the vetgate on loops two to four.
Second loop: 27 kilometer (16.8 mile) red route, vetgate Vaals. The riders head out southwest from the vetgate at Vaals crossing immediately into Belgium for a few kilometers. This heavily wooded route takes them first over the northern tip of the Preuss Wald. After a short distance they cross back into Germany and circle the famous Aachener Wald forest which skirts the southern tip of the city of Aachen. Riders will see their crews twice on this section at road crossings near Ronheide and Kopfchen.
Third loop: 33 kilometer (20.5 mile) blue route, vetgate Vaals. The longest loop of the day is likely to be contested by riders in the middle of the field at the hottest part of the day. This Belgian section of the route takes riders across the wooded Preuss Wald towards the small town of Kelmis (La Calamine). The first of two crew points on this section is in the forest close to the village of Chapelle. The route then winds out into the Belgian countryside taking riders south through the village of Montzen where there is a water point. Riders next see their crews shortly after the village of Plombieres as they wind back to the vetgate at Vaals. There is some road work on this route crosses and recrosses the N608 in the approach to the vetgate. Back up into the hills, the track follows the border between Belgium and The Netherlands for approximately 10 kilometers.
Fourth loop: 27 kilometer (16.8 mile) red route, vetgate Vaals. Riders retrace their steps through the Aachener Wald. The familiarity with this section could help many horses at this stage, especially those that are traveling alone.
Fifth loop: 28 kilometer (17.4 mile) green route, vetgate Soers/Aachen. The green loop runs back alongside the first yellow route. The early part of the section is twisting and wooded before riders break out into open countryside. There are two crew points on this route, the first in the middle of Holsetterbos in The Netherlands. Riders then begin their descent towards the German border and circle north of Aachen. Their crews will be waiting for them at the point where the route passes back under the main A76 road before riders return to the venue on the northern edge of Aachen.
Sixth loop: 16 kilometer (9.9 mile) orange route, vetgate Soers/Aachen. Undoubtedly the nicest section of the 160 kilometer route, this takes riders over the track for the three-day eventing competition. The going will be good here and this final loop could prove decisive with those front-runners whose horses have conserved their energy for a fast sprint for the line. For riders in the middle and end of the ride this will also be an exciting finale to the competition with team placings being decided in many cases by the finishing position of the second and third-placed riders.
There will be four riders per team with the best three scores counted. The French team will be looking to repeat its victory at the 2002 WEG in Jerez with Jean-Louis Leclerc, Virginie Atger, Phillippe Tomas, Cecile Miletto and Philippe Benoit working hard to secure the title.
Italy, the current world champions, should present a strong challenge. Australia has a good record of traveling well and enjoying success in Europe and took the world championship title at Compiegne, France, in 2000.
The UAE, yet to win a team world championship, will be looking to build upon individual successes in recent years. Sheikh Mohammed has listed reigning world champion Georgat, whom he purchased from French rider Barbara Lissarague, as his possible ride.
Belgium, winners of last year's European team and individual titles led home by Kristel Van Den Abeele with Chanice du Tilleul, will be among the favorites for top medals. Van Den Abeele has a new ride for the championships, Ismael du Florival.
The Netherlands, again on home territory, will be hoping to build upon their bronze medal at the FEI European Championships at Punchestown in 2003.
The Americans, who have an impeccable team and individual record going back to the early world championships, will be led this year by double world champion Valerie Kanavy who takes on the role of chef d'equipe for the first time.
Watch EquiSearch.com for in-depth coverage by Nancy Jaffer of the 2006 WEG endurance competition on August 21.