Speed skiing goes underground

A disused railway tunnel in a Genevan gorge offers an intriguing location for one of the world’s fastest skiers to train

Philippe May in the Geneva wind tunnel

Philippe May adopts a racing crouch

As the Swiss have so many spectacular mountains to choose from, you might find it odd they would opt to ski underground. In a city.

Perhaps they are drawn by Geneva’s reputation for high-speed underground travel – the city is, after all, home to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where scientists accelerate sub-atomic particles through subterranean tunnels to close to the speed of light, and smash them together in the hope of discovering the secrets of creation among the debris.

The skiers’ experiments with speed, meanwhile, take place in a disused railway tunnel, concealed under a bridge spanning a gorge, high above the river Rhone. The location seems to have come straight from a James Bond film: a discreet flight of steps leads down the side of the Pont Butin, and up to a plain metal door built into the side of the gorge, invisible from the road above. Swinging open the heavy door, I half expect to see Q, tinkering with gadgets.

Philippe May in the wind tunnel

Philippe May clocks a speed of 236.5 kph

Instead I am greeted by staff from Geneva’s School of Engineers, who lead me deep into the cliffs lining the gorge to their biggest toy: a wind tunnel. We climb into a small cabin alongside, and squeeze around the operator seated at the control panel.

Through a window we can see a figure in a shiny red skin-tight suit, wearing a Darth Vader helmet. The operator turns on the fans, and as the wind picks up speed, the skier goes into a racing tuck, and the control cabin creaks ominously. Soon, a display on the computer is reading nearly 250 kph (155mph) – more than double the speed limit on a British motorway – and we can see the skier’s muscles quivering as he battles the forces bearing down on his head and body.

The skier is 40-year-old Philippe May from the Swiss resort of Verbier. Director of the Swiss Ski School there, he is also a passionate speed skier. Speed skiing is the fastest and arguably the purest form of ski racing: you simply point your skis straight down the mountain, tuck your body into as aerodynamic a shape as possible, and rocket as fast as you can through the speed trap at the bottom.

Ramp at the top of the speed skiing piste on the Glacier de Tortin, Mont-Fort

Speed-skiing ramp on the Mont-Fort

The best athletes can exceed the speed of a plane on take-off, and accelerate as quickly as a Formula 1 car, going from 0 to 200 kph in less than six seconds.

May is one of them: FIS World Champion in 2002, then Pro World Champion in 2007, he has been among the top three racers worldwide for nine consecutive years. He is also one of only five people in the world to have skied at 250 kph.

May is here today for two reasons. One is to train for the Speed Skiing World Championship, due to be held in Verbier in mid-April, high on the Mont-Fort glacier. The second is to launch a bid to break the world speed skiing record, which currently stands at 251.40 kph.

There is, however, an obstacle to setting a new record in Verbier: the fastest speed achieved on the glacier is 219.28 kph, recorded in 2010. The slope is simply not long enough to produce significantly faster speeds. Which is why Verbier is planning a stunt that could have been dreamed up by Ian Fleming: artificially lengthening the piste by extending it skywards.

James Bedding borrows equipment for speed skiing

The skis are a bit longer than I’m used to…

Since last May, engineers have been welding a 2.6-ton metal ramp, 23 metres (75 ft) long, which will effectively drape over the top of the glacier, creating a new, higher, starting point by the top station of the Mont-Fort cable car. The ramp’s designers estimate that by the time athletes reach the bottom of the ramp – roughly the starting point for previous record attempts – they will be travelling at about 120 kph. Skiing at motorway speeds down a ramp just 2 metres wide with an incline of more than 105 per cent will take a strong nerve – as, indeed, will getting down to the bottom of the glacier alive.

One of May’s tasks today is to test a new helmet, with improved streamlining. He is also trying on a new pair of fairings, strapped to the back of his calves – the only artificial aerodynamic aid allowed in this sport. Each of May’s tests lasts only about a minute, but when the wind finally dies down, and he takes off his helmet, he is sweating and thirsty – this is obviously hard work.

For today’s launch, journalists have been invited to experience the high winds of speed skiing for themselves. I climb into a thin, stretchy racing suit from the Swiss national team, squeeze through a narrow hatch from the control cabin into the wind tunnel, and clip my ski boots into a pair of bindings attached to the floor. Behind me are four giant turbines: I may be about to battle a ferocious head wind, but in fact I will be sucked backwards, from behind.

James Bedding dons a speed skiing helmet before entering the wind tunnelMay gives me some advice. “Tense all your muscles – especially your legs, abdomen, back – and stay in a racing tuck all the time,” he says. If I so much as raise my head, the wind will knock me backwards. Likewise, if I want to abort the test, I must not turn or wave: I should simply flick one index finger forwards. “And whatever you do, don’t drop the ski poles,” he says. They will get sucked into the giant turbine blades, and “sent back like shrapnel”. I don’t need telling twice.

The operator closes the hatch, settles in front of the computer, and switches on the four 75 kW fans. The wind rises steadily. I crouch quickly, sensing that the longer I wait, the harder it will be to mould my body into a racing tuck. I force my elbows onto my knees, as the gale buffeting me builds up strength. Projected onto the floor in front of me, I can see a video of myself, sideways on, and straighten my spine to streamline my head and back. I get the feeling that if I were to turn sideways, I would be sucked clean out of my ski boots.

When the wind has died down, one of the engineers climbs through the hatch into the tunnel. That was 100 kph, he says. How about going a little faster? I gulp. 100 kph is Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale, a storm capable of uprooting trees.

James Bedding in the wind tunnel

Clocking up 162 kph in the wind tunnel

Over the course of two more tests, we ratchet the speed up to 170 kph – nearly half as fast again as winds that would qualify as a Force 12 hurricane. By the time we have finished, my muscles are aching and I feel completely drained of energy: one extra gust of wind, and I would have spun over backwards.

It would take a speed half as fast again for May or any other skier to set a new world record – and I cannot begin to imagine what that would feel like. I will be there to watch the Speedmaster races, though, up on the Mont-Fort glacier – along with any other skiers or snowboarders who happen to be in resort on April 22 and 23.

Just before the world record attempt, the piste will stage the World Championship, from April 18 to 21. International Ski Federation (FIS) rules state that runs should not exceed 200 kph for safety reasons, so the start will be lowered accordingly. Verbier is expecting about 100 athletes, from up to 20 nations.

And just before the World Championships is possibly the most intriguing and compelling event of all: the “Pop KL”, held from April 16-17. This speed skiing event is open to everyone – or rather, any recreational skier with nerves of steel and a sufficiently cool head. According to May, many skiers achieve speeds on their first run of 100 to 120 kph, while by the end of the day the best are hitting 150 to 160 kph.

So, if you like idea of skiing at speeds that would earn you a fine on a motorway, now is your chance. Just make sure you read the small print of your travel insurance first…

 

Philippe May by the turbines of the wind tunnel

Philippe May by the turbines of the wind tunnel

  • Entering the Pop KL 2011 costs CHF 100 per person per day, including lunch and lift pass. For further information on all the speed skiing events, see www.xspeedski.net.
  • For general travel 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)

Britain’s record-breaking freerider

39-year-old James Stentiford talks about cliffs, injuries – and turning your age and nationality to your advantage

 

British Snowboarder James Stentiford after coming 3rd at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World Tour

James Stentiford in front of the vertiginous Bec des Rosses

Last Sunday, a 39-year-old man from Devon flung himself down a 600-metre rock face and landed in the record books. On the way, James Stentiford leapt over jagged rocks, edged down narrow gulleys, soared over a cliff and swept in graceful curves across open snowfields. It was a fast and fluid run that won him a podium place at the Nissan Xtreme Verbier, the most prestigious freeride event in the calendar – a first for a British snowboarder.

It’s a dramatic achievement at an event that is thrilling and terrifying to watch in equal measure. The contest is held on the 3,223-metre Bec des Rosses, a dauntingly steep mountain festooned with rock bands and cliffs, with gradients ranging from 45 to 60 degrees. Several thousand spectators watch from the mountain opposite, following the action through binoculars or on giant screens that display images beamed from the helicopters that circle overhead like vultures.

Anyone thinking that an inability to feel fear was a requirement for taking part would be wrong. Even the hour-long hike up is scary, says Stentiford, for it leads over giddying cliffs.

Rescue helicopter on standby at the Xtreme Verbier, final round of the Freeride World Tour“When you’re standing at the top, with your boots strapped in your bindings, you’re petrified. You can see all the people looking up at you, and you can see how far down it is to the bottom. It’s very intimidating. It’s horrible – I don’t think there’s a worse feeling. It’s absolute fear.”

Less than a minute later, his run was over. “The relief when you get to the finish is unbelievable. You can definitely kill yourself on that mountain, and to get to the bottom in one piece – I was over the moon.”

And when he found out he had won third place? “Surprised, exhilarated – just absolutely brilliant. To stand at age 39 on the podium at your first ever Xtreme Verbier as an Englishman, is a dream come true. That’s as good as it gets.”

Euphoric as crossing the finish line may be, you do wonder what drives the competitors. “The whole week before an event my nerves are so bad,” he says. “I ask – why am I doing this to myself? The night before, I only sleep four or five hours, I keep waking up thinking about the line I’m planning to take, the cliffs I’ll come off. It’s like a battle in your mind, to convince yourself it’s going to be good.”

But nerves do play a vital role. “If I’m not nervous, I generally have a really bad run. The more nervous I feel, generally the better I ride. But once I’m in the gate, focused, and ready to go, that’s it – all the thinking goes out of the window.”

Spectators at the Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World TourPart of the anxiety, says Stentiford, is worrying about what might go wrong. “You definitely think about getting hurt,” he says.

Over the years, he has suffered torn ligaments on both knees, a broken foot, torn ankle ligaments, a squashed disc in his back, broken wrists and torn shoulder ligaments. “And quite a few concussions,” he adds. “Little bashes where you see stars, and then six or seven serious ones over the years. For me, that’s one of the worst injuries, because your mind is so confused – it’s a horrible experience.”

Fears of injury do increase as you get older, he says. “When I was 23, I hadn’t seen big avalanches, I hadn’t seen people getting badly injured, I hadn’t heard about people dying in the mountains. After 20 years, being in a lot of situations and hearing a lot of stories, you realise how serious it can get. When you’re 23, you are immortal, but as you get older, you realise what a fine balance life is.”

Somehow, that does not stop Stentiford doing things that most of us would consider crazy. But then he has always enjoyed taking risks. He fell in love with snow sports aged seven, when his parents took him skiing. “I had no technique whatsoever, I just wanted to go as fast as I could. So my parents instantly bought me a helmet.”

But it was after sixth form, when he was working a season in the German resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, that he found his calling. “The world tour came to town. I hadn’t seen professional snowboarders before – I just followed them around for a week, and was blown away by what they could do.”

Photographer at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World TourHe soon figured out how to make money out of sponsorship, and has been a professional snowboarder ever since, based for the winters in Chamonix. The first few summers he did odd jobs to finance his passion – anything from car valeting to working for international directory enquiries. In recent years, he has been running a snow, skateboard and surf team for DC, a manufacturer of footwear and sports equipment. He spends his summers in North Devon, where he lives with his girlfriend, and indulges his other passion – surfing.

Podium finishes are, however, something of a novelty. “To be honest, competing isn’t really my thing, it’s not what snowboarding is about for me,” he says, echoing the sentiment of many freeriders. But this year, he decided to enter the Freeride World Tour – partly “as an excuse to spend more time in the mountains” – and found himself gradually working his way up the rankings. In Chamonix, at the start of the Tour, he came ninth, before scoring fifth in St. Moritz, fourth in Sochi, Russia, and third in Fieberbrunn, Austria.

It’s a great achievement, especially at a time when Britain’s snowboarding scene is dominated by freestylers. “Because the industry in the UK is based around the snow domes and dry slopes, everyone is focused on tricks,” says Stentiford. “Everyone is a product of their environment, so naturally kids grow up in the UK aspiring to ride rails and kickers – because we haven’t got the big mountains that European countries have.”

Should that discourage the rest of us? “No way. I think in a lot of ways being British is an advantage, because you’re not spoilt by growing up in the mountains. You’re hungry to do well, and if you’ve got the motivation, you’re going to be successful. So if you’re British, enjoy it, get out there and make the most of it!”

And the secret of success as you get older? “My best piece of advice would be: stretch. Stay flexible. That definitely helps when you fall – and being flexible has certainly been part of my longevity. But you’re never too old to enjoy the mountains. In Chamonix, I see 70- or 80-year-old guys out ski touring. It’s all in the mind – what you want to do, you can. And instead of thinking about it, crack on and do it, because life is bloody short!”

The real life of the chalet boy

Two chalet boys in Verbier give an insight into their job – from cleaning chores to topless table service.

The release of the film ‘Chalet Girl’ this week may have put the spotlight on the armies of young women cooking and cleaning in resorts across the Alps, but one trend has attracted less coverage – the growing number of chalet boys. James Bedding talks to two who have been working the season in Verbier.

Sam Playfair, aged 21, is from Poole in Dorset. He is taking a year out from a degree in biomedicine at UEA in Norwich, and will return for two years this autumn.

Oli Jones, aged 23, is from Malvern in Worcestershire. He graduated last summer in Earth Sciences from Durham. He is weighing up whether to join a graduate training scheme in London or continue studying.

Sam Playfair and Oli Jones in front of the chalet where they work, Verbier

Sam (left) and Oli

On chalet boys vs chalet girls

Sam There’s lots of friendly rivalry with staff at other chalets. We’re always bantering about who’s best.

Sam When we get the feedback forms, or when we get tips, we always compare how much we get.

Oli Some guests ask why there aren’t any female staff. But we share a room, so we can’t have boys and girls.

Sam Most people, I imagine, think a girl is going to be more caring.

Skiworld's Mont aux Sources chalet in Verbier

The Mont aux Sources chalet in Verbier

Oli When we first meet the guests, sometimes I say to myself: I bet they’re thinking – it’s three lads…

Sam … they’re only out here for the piss-up.

Oli Whereas if they saw charming young girls, they might think: ah, they are going to look after us well.

Sam Sometimes guests are a bit stand-offish, but as soon as they get to know you – it only takes about a day – they are so much nicer.

Oli You can tell when people have been on a chalet holiday before, though, because they are more friendly.

Sam They’ll stack plates, and stuff. They are thinking: I’ll try to help this person out – rather than just, I’m eating my meal, and this machine is coming behind me to take my plate away. It’s very good to hear a thank-you.

Oli You really do appreciate it.

On becoming more eligible

Sam The main reason I wanted to do a season – apart from skiing – is cooking. Helping out every day, serving three-course dinners, you’re obviously going to improve a lot. It’s life skills, isn’t it? We have these great recipes we do like chorizo pork and banana tarte tatin – they’re really easy to do but they’re delicious.

Oli I told my mum I’ve been cooking, and I think she’s looking forward to me being back, seeing what my cooking’s like, while I’m applying for jobs.

Sam It’s the same with girls – you tell, them, and they say: ooh, you’re going to cook me a meal, then?

Oli And we can actually do it now!

Sam Playfair (left) and Oli Johnes wash up after breakfastA normal day

Oli We generally get up between seven and half seven, and serve hot breakfast from 8 to 9.

Sam As soon as guests have left the dining room, we eat our own breakfast – and chill out for five minutes. It’s the only time we get to sit down together and relax.

Oli When the guests have left the chalet, we start cleaning and prepping [preparing dishes] for the evening.

Oli We tried to work out the quickest way to get it all done, and done well, and that was to each have set roles, so we don’t get in the way of each other. I do most of the clearing up and washing up…

Sam … and I make the beds, clean the bathrooms. Then we hoover the foyer and lounge, and set up afternoon tea.

Oli Then it’s a matter of finishing up in the kitchen, prepping the dinner – and we’re done until 5.30, 6.

Sam We normally serve dinner at 7.30, so in the time in between, we’ve got to lay the table, set the room up, finish preparing the food…

Oli After dinner, it’s just cleaning the kitchen. Sam And a lot of washing up. And then you’ve got to set the table up for breakfast the next day.

Sam The first week, we didn’t have a break at all. We woke up at 7, and weren’t finishing until half-past midnight. Now, when we go really fast, we can get five, six hours off during the day.

On lack of sleep

Sam Wednesday’s the day off, so we have a big night out on Tuesday. And we normally have a big night out Wednesday, as well.

Mardi Gras celebrations in Verbier - a herd of Friesian cows

Party time – Mardi Gras in Verbier

Oli And Monday. I’d say the most regular nights are Monday, Saturday, Wednesday, Tuesday.

Sam And Thursday. We don’t get a lot of sleep. I’d say on average, we get about four hours a night. That’s a good night, four hours. I’ve never had such a long period in my life with so little sleep. At uni, you sleep all day, you sleep all the time. But here, you do just as much partying if not more, stay out later…

Oli … but you don’t have the option to not work.

Sam You have to be up at seven. It’s character-building, it’s good experience to just have to be up.

Oli Skiing in the afternoon really helps. It’s the best way to wake up.

Sam It’s just getting out there, though. When you’re here, and you’re knackered, and you go into your room, and you lie down on your bed, you just want to sleep.

Oli The room downstairs is a bit like a dungeon. Once you’re in there, and there’s no natural light, it’s so easy to just forget that it’s nice and sunny outside, just lose all motivation and go back to bed.

Sam One of us is usually more motivated than the others, so they encourage them along.

Oli It’s strange how much time we must have spent together, as a group. We work together, go out together, we share a bedroom – there’s three of us in the room – almost no time apart. We’re very lucky to not get on each other’s nerves.

Sam So basically, we work lots, and don’t ever sleep!

Warning sign at the start of the Gentianes-Tortin itinerary, Verbier

A job as a chalet boy is not for the faint-hearted

Transfer day hell

Sam On Saturday we wake up at 4.30, the guests leave at 5.30, so we’ve got from then until 11, when the guests arrive, to completely turn the chalet around. We’ve got to get all the sheets changed, all the rooms hoovered, everything has to be immaculate, windows polished, hot tub cleaned, kitchen cleaned, dinner prepped…

Oli …and there needs to be afternoon tea for when they arrive.

Sam At the start of the season, we were doing 19 hours straight.

Oli Now we’re used to it, there’ll generally be a gap when we can have two hours off, from when the guests have arrived and settled in until we have to go back into the kitchen. But some weeks we have self-drives, and they arrive staggered throughout the day, so you’ve got to be ready the whole time. So it’s 19 hours non-stop.

On unusual client requests

Sam We had this one group that took the whole chalet. There were about three couples, and a little kid, and the rest were gay men. Really, really keen drinkers.

Oli They convinced us to serve topless one night. So we came out, serving the meal with our shirts off, and they went wild. It was funny – and we didn’t mind at all.

Sam They had brought speakers and put them in the lounge, and had clubbing tunes on the whole time. They were dancing on the tables, taking photos, us with our tops off…

Oli … and forcing so much drink down our necks.

Sam I was serving that night, every time I came out, someone would pour a quadruple vodka or glass of wine into my mouth. It was such a good night. Then we got the guitar out afterwards, and serenaded them, the two of us…

Oli … a formal concert in the lounge.

Sam But every evening they were in the lounge, just going wild. That week, we were like part of the group. We spent the whole week with them, we went out with them, we drank with them in the evenings. It was like having our friends staying.

  • Sam and Oli are working as part of a team at Mont aux Sources, a 22-bed chalet run by Skiworld (08444 930 430; www.skiworld.ltd.uk).
  • Further general travel 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)

When skis go in for a service

What really happens to your skis when you take them in for a service? A former Olympic racer turned ski tuner explains

Christophe Roux

Christophe Roux

You are about to drive a steep, switchback road down a mountain, when the skies unleash a torrential rainstorm. How do you feel, given you suspect that the tyres of your hire car are nearly bald?

Anxious, probably – and weak at the knees. Which is how many of us skiers feel when the piste in front of us drops suddenly away, steep and icy.

“If your skis are poorly prepared and the edges are not sharp and you hit ice, it is like driving a wet stretch of road on bald tyres,” says Christophe Roux, a recently retired Swiss ski racer. “You have no grip. It’s impossible. Sharpening is super-important for safety.”

Christophe Roux knows a thing or two about taking corners tightly at speed. A native of the Swiss resort of Verbier, he took up racing aged six, and went on to compete in the international circuit for four years. A slalom specialist, he retired after competing in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Now 27, he works in the family ski shop, Philippe Roux (named after his father), and one of his roles is to service skis for locals and holidaymakers. It is probably not a job that you will have seen done: the machinery is bulky and noisy, and usually lives somewhere out the back.

A dedicated machine repairs damage to the base of the skis using P-tex.

Filling scrapes in the base of the ski with P-tex

Christophe’s machine is a monster, occupying a big workshop inside Verbier’s bus station. It performs a series of tasks in a automated sequence, and can service 40 pairs of skis or snowboards an hour. Christophe says there are just three like this in Switzerland – perhaps not surprising, given the 500,000 Swiss francs (£332,000) price tag. But it is kept busy, servicing rental skis every time they are returned to the shop, as well as clients’ privately owned skis – up to 200 pairs a day in all.

Before Christophe loads my skis onto the robot, he checks the bases for damage. Scratches and gouges show where I have skied over stones. He has a separate machine for such repairs, one that fills holes in the base with a black material called P-tex. This is fed in from what look like giant rolls of liquorice, heated, forced into the holes and scraped smooth; within seconds, it has dried hard.

Christophe Roux loads skis onto the ski-tuning machine

Loading skis onto the ski-tuning machine

Christophe scrapes surplus P-tex off the edges, and then loads the skis onto the main machine, below a computer screen. First, he selects a structure for the base of the ski. This is the faint, fine patterning you can see under a ski if you hold it up to the light. Here, once again, the comparison with a car tyre on a wet road is apt, because a ski skims across the snow on a microscopic film of water – and the job of the base structure, like the tread in a tyre, is to disperse that water as effectively as possible.

The machine offers a choice of 46 different structures, suitable for everything from snowboards to twin-tip skis, users from children to racers, with patterns ranging from Christmas-tree to criss-cross. For my skis Christophe picks a hatched structure, determines the parameters for sharpening – and the machine gets to work.

The robot moves the skis into position, a red laser beam zaps along them to measure their dimensions, and vacuum suckers fasten onto the skis, before whisking them into the belly of the machine.

Ski tuning machine - selecting a base structure

Selecting a structure for the base of the skis

First the skis pass several times back and forth over a spinning grinding stone and then a smaller finishing stone, to create the base structure. You can’t make out much through the windows of the machine, though – so much white fluid is swirling around that the skis look as though they have slid into a milkshake machine by mistake. There’s around half a ton of the liquid sloshing around the machine, apparently – mixed with an additive to stop the ski edges rusting.

Next, the edges of the skis are sharpened. For the side edges, Christophe has picked an angle of 88 degrees – sharp enough to get good grip, but not so sharp that the skis will blunt quickly. The skis glide backwards and forwards between two ceramic belts, spraying out so many sparks that I wonder whether they will have any edges left.

“Actually you remove much more metal if you do the job by hand,” says Christophe. “Even when you sharpen the rental skis all the time, some will last as long as two seasons.”

Edges of a ski being ground in the ski tuning machine

Grinding the edges of the skis

The machine then tunes the metal edges on the underside of the skis – the base edges. Christophe explains that these are bevelled, so that the profile of the base of the ski is slightly convex; this prevents a suction effect between the skis and the snow. For my skis, Christophe has chosen an angle of 0.5 degrees, which he says will allow the skis to pivot and change edges smoothly.

Finally, a blower removes excess liquid from the skis. The machine can also wax, but for the servicing of clients’ skis, Christophe prefers to do the job by hand.

He rubs a stick of wax along the base of my skis, before placing the skis base-up on a rack. An infra-red lamp glides along the length of the skis, melting the wax. Christophe then polishes the base of each ski on a rotary brush. “There you go,” he says. “You’ll see, tomorrow you’ll be riding a pair of rockets.”

Melting the wax on the base of the skis

Melting the wax under an infra-red lamp

The thought unsettles me, but obviously for Christophe this is a positive concept. He competed for Switzerland up to European Cup level, before representing Moldova for four years – including for two years on the World Cup circuit. At the Vancouver Winter Olympics, he ranked 28th out of 120. “I was thrilled,” he says, “it was my ambition to come in the top 30. It was the most amazing experience.”

Alongside his work in the shop, Christophe now works part-time as an instructor at the Swiss Ski School in Verbier, and also helps run a weekly race called the Challenge Philippe Roux (his father skied the World Cup circuit for seven years).

This takes place every Saturday, and offers budding Olympians and leisure skiers alike the chance to race in a giant slalom in competition conditions. Just one piece of advice – make sure your skis are in good shape before trying.

Christophe Roux shows the serviced ski

The finished ski

  • A full service for a pair of skis costs CHF 70 (£46.50) at Philippe Roux (00 41 27 771 47 12; www.philippe-roux.ch).
  • Competing in the Challenge Philippe Roux costs CHF 20 (£13) when booked in advance (CHF 15 for children); enrol through the Swiss Ski School (027 775 33 63, www.verbierbooking.ch).
  • 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)