By Alister Doyle

KVITFJELL, Norway, March 9 (Reuters) - With hundreds of steel spikes bristling from his tyres, Cedric Gracia won a bike race down an Olympic Alpine ski slope at a breakneck speed only slightly slower than Hermann Maier.

Nicknamed the "French Rocket", Gracia became the fastest person to hurtle down Norway's Kvitfjell piste without skis in the novel race just after a men's World Cup Alpine skiing super-G had been run at the weekend.

It's sometimes terrifying but it's so much fun too," Gracia said after riding the course built for the 1994 Olympics in one minute 45.43 seconds in a blur of snow, racers, bikes and spikes, 11 seconds slower than the world's top super-G racers.

"This is a good sport; the cameras are already here for World Cup skiing. It's never going to be super serious but it's going to be fun for spectators to see how fast we can go," Gracia said after winning a "Snow King" biking title.

Gracia, 25, hit a top speed of 123.8 kph in Sunday's mass start of 12 cyclists down the 2.6-km course with a precipitous total drop of 641 metres.

Three riders fell off but got back up and finished. No-one was hurt even though every wheel has more than 300 steel spikes about two centimetres long to grip the snow and ice.

About an hour earlier, Daron Rahlves of the United States won the super-G ski race on the same course in 1:34.00, with World Cup overall leader Maier of Austria third, 0.17 seconds behind. Maier hit the day's top speed at 130.7 kph.

"Last time Hermann Maier beat me by 18 seconds and I was pissed," Gracia said. "I thought, I can do better than that." Maier, a three-time overall World Cup winner, is chasing his fourth title in a comeback after a motorcycle accident in 2001.

MR CRAZY

"If you crash, you slide like a skier falling," Gracia said, dressed with a helmet and plastic body armour. He said injuries were less likely to be serious than in mountain biking over rocks, even though speeds were higher.

With nicknames such as "Mr Crazy" or "MADi", riders start off pedalling at the top but are soon going too fast to do anything except hang on over big jumps or with their legs flailing out to the sides for balance.

A key skill is to overcome the natural urge to brake -- braking means that snow and ice instantly build up under the tyres and you lose control. Top riders give only feather touches to the brakes to help them alter course.

Kvitfjell was the third downhill "Snow King" race after two similar events at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, this year and last. Organisers plan five races next season, making the daredevil event an extra attraction at World Cup ski races.

Having won both this year's races, Gracia was awarded a mock-up golden crown and a red gown. He also got a cheque for 5,000 euros ($6,098) and a trophy at an awards ceremony with music from a "Star Wars" movie blaring in the background.

Trailing Gracia was 19-year-old Matti Lehikoinen of Finland with George Atherton of Britain third.

SPIKED TYRES

Gracia said he had been a junior Alpine skiing contemporary of French downhill racer Antoine Deneriaz. "I had to decide between mountain biking and skiing," he said.

Snow King biking attracts some of the world's top riders seeking thrills away from the summertime cycling circuit.

Gracia is the world champion at free riding -- he described it as "going off drops like six metres, stuff more like stunts" -- and was third in the downhill overall mountain biking World Cup in 2003.

"Nobody makes really good tyres for this sport," grumbled second-placed Lehikoinen.

The spikes -- Lehikoinen simply uses two-cm screws for the back wheel and a mixture of two-cm and 1.6-cm screws on the front -- have to stick out of the sides as well as the bottom of the tyre to make sure they can grip steep icy slopes.

"I got a normal tyre...I drilled holes and put screws in from the inside. It took about five hours. There are 336 screws in each tyre, or 672 in total," he said.


Updated on Monday, Mar 8, 2004