When La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro starts Sunday on with the gruelling 525 nautical miles opening leg criss crossing the Bay of Biscay from Pauillac by Bordeaux to Gijon it will mark the opening exchange of what will be one of the most historic duels in the 48 year history of the famous French solo offshore race.
Jérémie Beyou and Yann Eliès – 31 participations between them – are going head to head to become the first solo racer ever to win the race four times. Besides Beyou and Eliès, three other skippers are triple winners, Philippe Poupon, Michel Desjoyeaux and Jean Le Cam. “It is not about winning a fourth time, it is just about winning at all.” Says Beyou who propelled himself around to third place, completing his first Vendée Globe in three attempts, armed with the maxim ‘better never stops’. That Eliès completed his first solo non stop race around the world in fifth one day and 20 hours later adds spice to this battle over four legs finishing on June 21st.
On paper alone Eliès has more leg wins than Beyou – winning ten stages over his 17 participations – to share the record for the most leg wins with Jean Le Cam. But the merciless pace and mental stress over the duration of the four stages and the level of four or five other skippers who have the talent and resources to win the race outright, means that in no way is it a foregone conclusion that it will be Beyou or Eliès atop the podium in Dieppe on June 21st.
In Bordeaux during the build up period the rivals – who grew up together sailing and racing in the same region of Brittany – have sparred playfully, profiting from the moments. “It is already a source of great pride to add my name to those of Jérémie, Michel Desjoyeaux and Jean Le Cam. If I could win for a fourth time I might be able to say that at one time I was a little better than them but as much as anything it would be a good way to introduce myself at the start of the Vendée Globe ready to battle again with Jérémie.” Eliès quipped. “For me it would simply be another victory in La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro. It is not about winning a fourth time. It is just about winning.” Beyou responds.
Beyou, 40, won most recently in 2014 and finished fourth in 2015 behind Eliès, 43. This year he is preparing to compete for his first time in the Volvo Ocean Race with Dongfeng. For him La Solitaire is unmissable. He says it has determined his life, hallmarking his life. “For me not competing in La Solitaire is like carrying around a wound which wont heal. It is physical and mental. It shaped me as a sailor and a racer. I still get a huge masochistic kick out of it. It is almost irrational how you want to come back time and again. It is about the agony and the ecstasy. If I could not do it I would be unbearable to live with.”
Eliès concurs: “The race has shaped my life, growing from adolescence to adulthood. When you start out it feels inaccessible, you wonder how you will compete against Michel Desjoyeaux and Jean Le Cam. But it forces you to push yourself harder and press the limits each year, developing your competitive strengths. It really sets the foundations of your skillset, rigour, precision, routing, pushing yourself to the limits, remaining lucid when you are sleep deprived. It really marks out the milestones in your career.”