Regular folk drive up America's Pikes Peak in about 45 minutes. In winning The Race to the Clouds, the hill climb up the mountain, French rally legend Sebastien Loeb cut 80 percent off the time.

Every year in late June, Eric, his wife, Mary, and her mother, Mary-Jo, leave their home in Kansas and cross the state line for an American road trip. This year, Mary-Jo wanted to see Colorado, first the small city of Pueblo, then Colorado Springs and then on to the highpoint - an assault on 'America's Mountain': Pikes Peak.

It was on this mountain 120 years ago, on July 22, 1893, that the lyrics to the immortal anthem America the Beautiful came to songwriter Katharine Lee Bates, "and I probably won't be around for the130th anniversary," says the elderly Mary-Jo in the backseat of the Volvo, her white ringlets bobbing in the rear-view mirror.

The road winds around the famous mountain, a beloved American holiday destination. One curve follows another with no end in sight, each of them steeper and narrower than anything the three road trippers were familiar with in their native Kansas. Mary grips the ceiling handle nervously, but Eric has everything under control. There are hardly any guide rails on the side of the mountain road and Eric has to resist the urge to peer over the edge. Tyre marks scar the narrow curves - so narrow that Eric has to come to a halt to see around each bend.

Soon, the family becomes aware of a number of tyre marks leading straight out, over the edge of the abyss. Mary gasps for breath in the passenger seat. In the back, Mary-Jo grins in apparent delight. "Altitude euphoria," mutters Eric as he navigates the next serpentine turn. "What have they got me into?"

An icy wind is blowing when they reach the summit of Pikes Peak; the 12.4-mile ascent has taken them 45 minutes. The three Kansans turn their gaze east, to the Great Plains from where they have come -hundreds of miles laid out before them like a vast, crumpled map.

In the souvenir shop they buy an ashtray, a sweatshirt and a few fridge magnets. Then it's time to start their descent. Some 1,440mbelow, skillful mechanics are putting the finishing touches to a small fleet of high performance cars and motorbikes. The following day, these vehicles will tackle 20 of the most legendary kilometres in American road racing, when they take part in the 91st running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The Unsers, the Andrettis, the Millens, all of them have proved their mettle here - in the infamous mountain race to the summit.

In the late 1980s, the Europeans left their mark on this race for the first time, pulverising the course record with a succession of rally cars. With four-wheel drive and upwards of 500hp, they tore through the 11-minute barrier on the gravel road to the summit.

The famous road was laid with asphalt in 2012. At this point an ambitious local could manage it in 11 minutes, but that was too slow to break any records. By the end of 2012, the 9 Minute Club - comprising those daring drivers who'd made the summit in less than 10 minutes - was five-strong. New Zealander Rhys Millen held the record with a time of 9:46.164, with French driver Romain Dumas 0.017 seconds behind in second. Making up the five was Japan's Nobuhiro Tajima and the two motorbike riders, Carlin Dunne of the USA and his compatriot, Greg Tracy.

The latter pair didn't use petrol or diesel on their way up to the summit in 2013; instead they trusted their fortunes to electric energy. Indeed, this was in many ways a race made for the electric engine: conventional petrol-burning motors have to cope with performance loss at high altitudes. Despite large turbochargers and advanced electronics, there simply isn't enough oxygen to burn. Anyone who makes it to these heights having surrendered a quarter of the horsepower they had in the valley has really done their homework.

Electric cars don't have this problem, of course, but their batteries - even in a relatively short race like this - are heavier than fuel engine units. And even if big name car manufacturers like Mitsubishi are now putting their name to some of the electro projects, this still remains pioneering work: little more than glorified tinkering.

Of course, there won't be a whisper of this when it comes to the overall victory. Not when the challenger is celebrated French rally driver Sebastien Loeb. The main topic of conversation here on the mountain is not whether Loeb can crack the record in his specially developed Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak, but by how much. In training, his car - 875hp strong, 875kg light- burned a few seconds per kilometre from the competition, including the two current record-holders Millen and Dumas. America loves winners and there are huge expectations of Loeb. The 39-year-old is feeling the pressure.

A break between two training runs, and the nine-time rally world champion has retreated to his trailer. His blue eyes blaze, thrown into even sharper relief by stubble now turned pepper-and-salt. He sprawls on a bench, relaxed. Although of slender build, his powerful upper arms are testament to the work he has already done, taming both mountain and car.

"First I had to establish trust in the Peugeot," he says. "I had to find out how nervous the car was and what I could do with it. During a test in France we sorted out the major problems - transmission too long; suspension too hard; steering too direct - and on the first run in America the car did everything I wanted it to. I don't know what the old rally cars felt like on Pikes Peak, but this one's insanely fast."

Nevertheless, can he really go at 100 percent speed here - on these miserly roads clinging desperately to the flanks of the infamous mountain?

Loeb hesitates: "Let's say 99 per cent."

There's another major drawback: unlike the World Rally Championship (WRC) there is no co-driver to dictate the curves to him during the journey. How well does he know the route?

By Werner Jessner
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