The fast and furious climax of Verbier’s season: the Speed Skiing World Championships
You don’t really want to fall when you are skiing at 100mph, as Al Machell discovered last week. He caught an edge as he skied down a glacier, cartwheeled across the snow, and slid to a halt a couple of hundred metres later. Somewhere along the way, one of his skis splintered like matchwood, and he dislocated his left shoulder.
The spectators watched in silence as a paramedic skied over to the figure slumped on the snow. He checked Machell over, popped his shoulder back in its socket, and helped him to his feet. A couple of minutes later, the 30-year-old IT consultant from Watford was back among his friends, showing off his shattered ski, and nursing a wheat beer to dull the pain in his shoulder.
Al was training, along with fellow members of the British Speed Ski Team, for the World Championships held last week in the Swiss resort of Verbier. His injury prevented him from going on to compete alongside his team mates, but his spectacular fall has not put him off racing at breakneck speeds: in fact he wants to ski faster still.
For next year’s World Cup, Machell will be racing in the elite S1 category, swapping his standard downhill racing kit for longer, more stable skis, an aerodynamic helmet, rubber suit and fairings. “I’ve always wanted to do S1,” says Machell. “If you’re going to do speed skiing, why do the slow version?”
The races marked the end of a season not just for Al and his British team mates, but for the resort of Verbier, which closes its lifts and pistes this Sunday. The week packed in plenty of surprises, not just for Machell, and even a new world record – although not the one everyone was expecting. All of which left racers, spectators and the resort itself wondering – what next?
Rather than hanging up their boots for the summer, many talented skiers in the British Speed Skiing Team are preparing to knuckle down and begin training for the forthcoming season.
Millar Reid, coach of the British Speed Skiing Team, says speed skiing does not get the recognition it deserves in Britain, despite a slew of impressive results. A Scot of two decades’ racing experience, he holds a world record many skiers probably never knew existed – for indoor speed skiing, at 103.05 km/h.
“We’ve had a world champion, we’ve got a world record holder and we’ve had plenty of top-ten results in recent seasons,” says Reid. “For the past ten, 12 years, there’s not a single British team that can touch us for success.”
Among Britain’s hopefuls for the next championships are 34-year-old Benja Hedley, who finished last season eighth in the World Cup rankings, having taken up the sport a only a year earlier. This year he retained his eighth position – “but in a much tougher field,” he says. “I’ve been struggling all season against some very big guys; it’s hard to chase 130kg down the slope, when you’re 40 to 50 kg lighter.”
Hedley says he has ruled out the obvious option – “the pie diet” – and is working on his tuck instead, to make himself more aerodynamic. Over recent months he has taken up Bikram yoga – “which has helped a lot, I was the world’s least flexible person” – and has convinced his alma mater, Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering, to set up a graduate research project using a wind tunnel to investigate the aerodynamics of a speed skier – himself.
Hedley is also hoping to reap the benefit from some gifts he has received: some downhill racing skis from Roger Walker, who used to compete alongside Graham and Martin Bell, and a racing suit from Britain’s top female ski racer, the famously photogenic Chemmy Alcott. Considering that the cat-suit was tailor-made for the shapely skier, Hedley looks surprisingly convincing squeezed into it.
The team-member who has made the fastest progress, perhaps, is 24-year-old Yannick Green, who over the course of a week in Verbier this time last year went from complete novice to No. 19 in the World Cup rankings. This time, he aim was to beat his personal best by a wide margin – which he did, by about 10kph, to clock 172.45 kph.
The main focus of his training, however, is Britain’s future racers. Since competing in Verbier last year, Green has joined Team Evolution an alpine skiing academy based in Austria, as Commercial Director. “We’ve only been going a year,” says Green, “but we already have more than 80 per cent of Britain’s under-18 national team racers with us – and we’re going to keep pushing and pushing until Britain gets some medals.”
Britain’s most successful skier ever, arguably, is Marc Poncin – World Champion in speed skiing in 2008, runner-up in 2009, and holder of the British record at 245.23 kph. This October the 44-year-old is getting married, “looking forward to settling down.” Who knows, if Green doesn’t produce a winning speed skier for Britain, perhaps Poncin will in his own time.
After a disappointing 13th place in Verbier last week, Poncin is retiring from competitive racing – although he says he still harbours a hope of launching a bid to break the world speed record (251.40 kph) for charity.
He is not the only one with eyes on the record. Quite a few of the world’s fastest skiers gathered in Verbier thought they had a good chance this week – including the local skier Philippe May, one of only five people in the world to have skied at 250 kph.
The occasion was last weekend’s SpeedMaster contest, held on the same track as the World Championship – but from a higher starting point, offering correspondingly greater speeds. In the end, Philippe May was pipped to first place by the man who had also won the World Championships, Simone Origone of Italy – but the previous record, established by Origone, remains intact.
And all because of insufficient snow. Which is ironic, because in a daring bid to make the run longer and faster, the organisers had built an artificial starting ramp and lowered it onto the top of the glacier by helicopter. However, the season’s low snowfalls had left the stretch of track immediately below the ramp dangerously rocky – so that the racers had to begin lower down.
One record did, however, fall last week: smashed by a Frenchman riding something that looks like a cross between a BMX bike and a snowboard sawn in two. 28-year-old Corentin Desbois has his own factory for making snowscoots and normally spends his free time practising tricks such as his trademark front-flip 360, which you can see on his website. Last week, however, he rode one of his snowscoots down the glacier at a hair-raising speed of 153.49 kph – and straight into the record books.
The ramp remains, and anyone riding to the top of the Mont-Fort over the next 12 months can see it: a stomach-churningly steep chute, carpeted in red plastic, plunging from the cable car platform down to the surface of the glacier. It will stay in place until next year’s races, when May, Origone and their rivals will once again attempt to set a new world speed record.
Now, however, Verbier is turning its back on winter. As the last skiers depart, restaurateurs and hoteliers and preparing to take a well-earned break. The mountains will soon shake off the last of the snow, and before long, hikers will be once again scaling the summits.
I will miss winter in the mountains, and writing about the many special people who live and pass through here. There are many more whose stories I want to tell, and I know it won’t be so very long before the snows, the skiers and the snowboarders begin to trickle back. I can’t wait.
- For information on speed skiing in Verbier and race results, visit www.xspeedski.net. Facebook users can read more about the British Speed Ski Team at www.gbspeedski.com
- For general travel information on Verbier, see 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). General travel information on Switzerland is available from the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, http://www.MySwitzerland.com