The Briton who went from novice speed-skier to world number eight in a year – on second-hand skis bought on eBay.
Have you ever dreamed of becoming one of the world’s top skiers? How long do you think you would need?
Suffolk-born Benja Hedley, 33, tried the discipline of speed skiing for the first time in April 2009. In January this year, he entered his first competitive race. By the end of the season, he was ranked eighth in the world – a feat he performed on a pair of second-hand skis that he bought on eBay.
Admittedly, not many people would actually want to try speed skiing. It involves standing at the top of an extremely steep slope – up to 56 degrees – and pointing your skis straight down. “You accelerate from 0 to 100mph in 4 to 5 seconds,” says Hedley. “That’s as fast as a Formula 1 car. Only Jenson Button has brakes. And a steering wheel.” The only place to brake safely is at the end of the course, where it flattens out.
Verbier has one of just three pistes in the world on which speed skiers may achieve velocities of more than 200 kph (124 mph). And it was here, on the Mont-Fort glacier, during last season’s World Cup finals, that Hedley clocked up enough points to clinch a ranking of 8th in the world. Now he has his sights set on the World Championship – to be held on the same run on April 18-21, 2011.
Racers compete in one of two categories. Hedley’s is called SDH, for which competitors race on standard downhill skis; the British record is currently 202.59 kph, held by Hedley’s team-mate Tom Horn. The other category is S1, for which participants use longer, more stable skis, rubber suits and fairings. With this faster equipment, just five people in the world have ever skied at 250 kph (155 mph) – and one of them is a local, Philippe May, director of the Swiss Ski School in Verbier, who will be attempting to set a new world record.
Hedley, who lives in Clapham, London, fits rather more into the great British tradition of the heroic outsider. His only ski lessons have been a week in Wengen at the age of 6, “where I didn’t want to turn, insisting on straight-lining every slope I came across. Maybe it was a sign after all.”
After school he spent a season working for Mark Warner in a kitchen in Val d’Isère, where he taught himself to ski and snowboard. Later, as an engineering student at Cambridge, he competed as a snowboarder, especially in big-air competitions. Then he suffered a suspected broken neck after an ill-advised demo jump without a helmet, and had to stop competing.
The idea of speed skiing came in a chance encounter with Kevin Alderton, the world’s fastest blind speed skier. Hedley finally had the chance to try the sport for himself in April 2009 in Verbier, on his second-hand 2.15-metre Atomic race skis. “On my first ever run I reached 94mph,” he says. “And from then I was hooked.”
He entered his first competitive race at the beginning of last season, two weeks after having his foot taken out of a cast, the result of a surfing accident. The course at Vars in France is one of the world’s fastest. “My heart felt as though it was trying to bounce out of my chest. But as soon as I started the run, I suddenly felt very clear and focused.
“As I accelerated, I became aware of everything around me in minute detail – including every imperfection on the slope ahead. I felt a wonderful calmness descend on me – and I felt incredibly alive.”
Still, the run was not without its challenges. “By the time you get over 100mph, the skis are getting very twitchy, and it’s very hard to keep them in a straight line,” says Hedley. A gust of wind hit him, he caught an edge, and only just managed to keep his balance. By the end of the run he felt “like Bambi on ice,” he says. Nevertheless, he clocked up a speed of 114 mph, which remains his personal best.
Hedley is fortunate that he has a job that can fit around and support his new passion. He works as an entrepreneur, specialising in start-up companies, which have included a climate offset firm, a lawn care business, and a company that produces half-scale classic cars (www.pocketclassics.co.uk) for children, complete with petrol engine – tribute E-type Jaguars, Porsche Speedsters, Jeeps – which sell from £10,000 upwards. He describes them as “very, very high-end toys.”
Some people might think that choosing speed skiing as a hobby smacks of eccentricity. The fact that Hedley drives to races accompanied by a stuffed badger called Boris would seem to confirm this. However, the sport clearly requires serious commitment: top athletes train all year, and Hedley has spent the summer “doing lots of running, lots of weights at the gym, cycling, triathlons, and surfing – good for balance.” Perhaps the greatest sign of Team GB’s commitment is the fact that they had no sponsorship at all – they had to pay for all their own equipment, travel costs and accommodation.
And yet, the team has been strikingly successful. Hedley’s team-mate, 43-year-old Marc Poncin – who was World Champion in 2008, and runner-up in 2009 – came first in last season’s Vars race, and seventh overall in the World Cup rankings. The team as a whole managed nine Top Ten results over the season – making them, according to Hedley, the most successful of all the British ski teams.
In Britain, however, you hardly ever hear about the sport – certainly not since the last time it was an Olympic discipline, at the 1992 games in Albertville, in which Poncin competed. This season, the team has high hopes of a bigger profile. They have won a couple of sponsors (Sinner sunglasses and Forcefield body armour – modest, but a start) and Hedley says that the former British downhill champion and Ski Sunday presenter Graham Bell has promised him some of his old skis to race on.
Fingers crossed, though, they’ll be winning a few races this winter, perhaps even breaking the odd record. In which case, you’ll be hearing a lot more about them.
Speed skiing highlights
You can try speed skiing for yourself on the World Championship course in Verbier, during the “KL Pop” on April 16-17, 2011. The World Championship takes place on April 18-21, 2011, followed by the Speed Master race on April 22-23, 2011, when athletes will attempt to break the world record. Details will appear during the winter on www.xspeedski.net. For details on the British Speed Skiing team, see www.gbspeedski.com
- Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)