By Volia Dzikovich

This is the final chapter on our European trip, and oh, did we save the best for last!
(Read part 1, part 2, part 3

The city of Avignon in Provence was the setting for the last round of French Nationals. It is situated on the left bank of the Rhône river and occupies an oval-shaped area, covered to a large extent by parks and gardens. This is one of the few French cities to have preserved its ramparts.

This time XJETSKI team had two missions – I was going to report on the event, while Alex Petrovic was invited to judge the final round of freestyle.
(NOTE: this is a UIM event, not IJSBA. UIM is a sports organization in charge of jetski events in France, Italy, Sweden, Norway and other European countries, and is recognized by the International Olympic Committee).

All the information and racing schedule was available on the official web site, so it was easy to find the location and know the daily schedule ahead of time. In addition to racing a night freestyle show was announced, so we knew we had to see it as it is rare for jet ski events to be held at night.

We arrived at Avignon before the sunset. The first impression when entering the city center was:''People are leaving inside an actual fortress!" It was amazing to see an old fort walls still standing all around the city center. "Of the 94,787 inhabitants of the city (as of 1 January 2010), about 12,000 live in the ancient town centre surrounded by its medieval ramparts." - [Wikipedia].

Inside the fortress you will find great shopping, dining and sight seeing opportunities. Walking around the city center you will find many tourists, and every restaurant was full.

After enjoying local delicacies we headed to the event location. What a pleasant surprise: no need to drive, the competition was within walking distance. The main bridge from the heart of downtown Avignon takes you to the jetski event! No need to have road signs or banners to find the location, everything can be seen right from downtown. Compared to other competitions along our European trip, this location had by far the best potential for spectators' enjoyment and turnout. It was great to see a well thought out race track, going from one shore to the other.

At the very entrance of the event we were greeted with local food vendors. This was unmistakably France, with loafs of amazing fresh rustic bread, cheese and prosciutto, a selection of local wine and beer. Going deeper inside – another food stop with grilled sausages, beef, baguettes, sandwiches and paninis. Little more inside - grilled kebabs and a complete roasted pig on the grill! And, of course, right in the middle a sweets booth. As if this wasn't enough there is also a bar/restaurant/lounge with terrace and two pools and one more casual restaurant. So, to conclude, if you decide to watch this event there is no need to worry about food.

Everything was ready for the night show - a stage right in the middle with a live rock band playing, a lot of lights along the shore and spectators. Spectators were not just racers and their entourages, as is the norm in IJSBA events, but interested locals and tourists.

The freestyle show was nicely organized: riders were going on the water one by one, doing what ever they wanted in a relaxed atmosphere, accompanied by the presentation from the commentator. The crowd was excited and happy to see every trick performed - counting backflips out loud and screaming for the barrel rolls. The whole atmosphere around was very friendly and positive, as there was no pressure of competition. This type of show helps riders enjoy the sport even more and spectators to get to interact with riders. For photos and videos of the night show click here.

Next day was the race day, so we came early in the morning. We were pleasantly surprised to see that there were even more spectators than the previous night, around 400 by the time we arrived. No surprise, thanks to its perfect location and plenty of shade.

The competition was running slightly behind the schedule, but it was very easy to follow what was going on thanks to an interesting layout of the pits. All the skis were coming in and out through the passage right where the spectators were. Everybody could wish good luck to those racers waiting in line for upcoming class and congratulate the winners of the previous race.

Also, a unique way to inform the audience about the next class was borrowed from boxing:

In the pits there were quite a few huge semis wrapped in team graphics. Unlike US Nationals, where most of the riders come solo on a pick up truck, here most of the riders come as a part of team of 5 or more. They arrive in their own cars (this is Europe, so don't be surprised to see Ferraris and Porsches), while the equipment is being brought by the team's semis.

Most of the skis are in impeccable condition, which is great representation of the sponsors. Teams have well equipped stands/stations, everything looks clean and open to the visitors. Every part of the pits is accessible to visitors, and they can examine skis and interact with riders.

This was the biggest number of competitors we have ever seen at a national level – 130. And this is standup and sport classes only , no sitdown classes! That's double the number of competitors of IJSBA USA Nationals, even without a single sitdown racer!

Another major difference from other competitions we have seen was the amount of female riders and female spectators, even though there was no separate female class at this round.

The organizers had a great display, showing race standings in real time, but unfortunately it was not accessible to the spectators.

My personal favorite, Sport Open class was one of the most thrilling to watch. Blasters 1 and 3 and X2s seemed to be perfectly even, so the result depended on racer's skills and stamina only. But, the wildest action was in AM Ski class. Not only because it had 42 competitors (!!!), but also because going into the last moto of the season Franck Bagnier had 497 points, 48 points ahead of Julien Boulliau and full 59 ahead of Bruno Lagardere. During the first two motos he was also doing better than his 2 closes rivals. So, all he needed to do was finish 16th or better in the last moto to win the championship. And then, right out of a movie script, the impossible happened -- Franck Bagnier does not finish the last moto, Julien Boulliau finishes 3rd, which was not enough to give him the championship, but, oh, out of nowhere, Bruno Lagardere miraculously wins it, gets 60 points and grabs the 2012 championship by 1 point ahead of Franck Bagnier !!!

By noon the number of spectators doubled and by the time of freestyle competition there were around 1,000 people present! They were gathering from all the sides, including bridges and across from the other shore.

I was so impressed by this event that I have decided I will race at French Nationals next season.  And, since this is UIM, I can freely compete regardless of my nationality, unlike at IJSBA.  And unlike IJSBA which is basically a one part-time employee business, UIM is a sports organization, recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Everyone is welcome at French Nationals and it shows.

Final results of the 2012 France season: