The fastest Brit on a snowboard

Britain now has a snowboarding speed record, thanks to 20-year-old Jamie Barrow, a student at Bath University.

Jamie Barrow in Verbier to establish a British snowboarding speed record, April 2013As Jamie rode out of the speed trap at the bottom of the Glacier de Tortin on Thursday morning in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, he realised he had fulfilled a dream.

“That was absolutely incredible! 142.78 km/h, that’s a British record. That feels so good, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done!”

Until this week, there had been no official British snowboarding speed record. The world record, meanwhile, stands at 201.907 km/h, set by the Australian snowboarder Darren Powell at Les Arcs in France in 1999.

As soon as he had set his record, Barrow knew he could break it. “I wasn’t quite fully tucked in, I know I can go back and do it faster,” he said. And he set off back up the glacier, to beat the target he had just set.

Jamie Barrow set the first British snowboarding speed record in Verbier, April 2013

© Jamie Barrow

Barrow’s record attempts took place during XSpeedSki, an annual celebration of speed on snow held on the slopes of the Mont-Fort in Verbier. The Speedmaster contest, held straight after the FIS Speed Ski World Cup, offers athletes like Barrow the chance to test themselves to the limit.

Only after his first run did he learn that, according to the rules, his next run would have to start from higher up the glacier. At first he was apprehensive. The run may appear to spectators as smooth as an ice rink, but taken at speed it’s “a little bit bumpy”, according to Barrow, scattered with “death cookies, as we call them”.

When you’re travelling at a speed that would earn you a ticket on many of Europe’s motorways, you don’t want to fall. It would be bad enough on skis, fitted with safety bindings; if you tumbled at that speed while strapped onto a snowboard, the consequences do not bear thinking about.

The danger is that much greater because a snowboard is inherently more unstable. “With skiing, you have two points of balance,” said Barrow, “but on a snowboard, if you hit a bump you’ll fall, because you don’t have a second way to balance yourself. When the skiers have already gone down, and there are all these tracks and bumps, you worry you’ll suddenly catch an edge and fall over. Just last weekend that happened to a couple of snowboarders going fast; one broke both their legs.”

Barrow bit the bullet and tackled the run a second time, from the higher starting point – and this time clocked an impressive 151.60 km/h. “That was scary up top,” he said, “I had second thoughts going up, but I’m so glad I did it. But the scarier it is, when you finish it, the better the adrenaline rush – and that’s what I live for.”

See our video interview with him after his first run.

And this was his reaction after his second run:

The location for his challenges will be familiar to any skier or snowboarder who has visited the resorts of Verbier or Nendaz: the slopes of the Mont-Fort, at 3,330 metres, the summit of the whole 4 Valleys ski area in the Swiss Valais.

The views from the top station of the cable car are spectacular, taking in Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, countless glacier-draped peaks, and extending across the Swiss Plateau to the Jura Mountains in the distance. This is the starting point for some of Verbier’s celebrated off-piste runs, as well as the entry point to a steep mogul field that has confounded many an intermediate skier and snowboarder.

The speed skiing piste on the Glacier de Tortin, Mont-FortFrom the platform of the cable car station, you also have a stomach-churning view onto the speed skiing run that has been the venue for this week’s FIS Speed Ski World Cup, a super-smooth sheet of hard-packed snow, as blank and featureless as a funeral shroud.

At the age of 20, Barrow has already had a few brushes with injury. He currently has a slipped disc in his back, and has previously suffered from a slipped disc in his neck and concussions “more times than I can count”.

These, however, were all a result of boarder cross, Barrow’s main discipline: he is a member of the British snowboard cross team, and was British junior champion from 2009 to 2011.

He has had to drop out of the competition because of his slipped disc, but if his injury improves he says he’d like to get back into boarder cross – “and hopefully compete for my country at the next Winter Olympic Games”.

In the meantime he has other ambitions, all relating to going very fast. “I still want to break the 100 mph [160.93 km/h] barrier,” he says, as well as “set the world record for being towed by a snowmobile – and maybe even for being towed by a small plane.” He is also planning to tackle the world indoor snowboarding speed record – in Holland.

Up on the glacier on the Mont-Fort, meanwhile, the high start of the run – the highest ever – allowed several skiers to exceed the existing course record, including Philippe May. By the end of the day, Simone Origone’s speed of 225.820 km/h had become the new course record.

Snow conditions did not, however, allow for the use of the special ramp erected at the start of the run in a bid to smash the world speed ski record of 251.40 km/h, set by Origone in 2006. The weather forecast for the next few days is not promising: a new world record may have to wait another year.

Watching the human rockets

Would anyone in their right mind risk skiing at double the speed limit on a motorway? Come to the finals of the Speed Ski World Cup in Verbier to find out…

Racers prepare to compete on Verbier's speed skiing run

May (right) prepares to compete

A red blur streaks down the glacier and through a speed trap, clocking up nearly 220 km/h. The aerodynamic blob unfolds to reveal a skier in a red skin-tight suit, sporting a Darth Vader helmet and a pair of skis nearly 2.40 metres long. A vision of winter sports to come, perhaps, viewed through the lens of science fiction? No, this is now: welcome to the surreal world of speed skiing.

Speed skies prepare to race on the Mont-Fort, VerbierAt the end of every season, devotees of one of the stranger forms of winter sports gather in the Swiss resort of Verbier to celebrate their discipline on the slopes of the 3,330-metre Mont-Fort. This is the fastest and arguably 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.

One of the highlights of the gathering is the finals of the FIS Speed Ski World Cup, which finished on Wednesday [April 17]. First place went to Simone Origone of Italy, who also won the overall rankings, clocking up a top speed of 217.010 km/h.

The celebration of speed skiing continues over the next couple of days with a pro race and speed masters contest. Climax will be an attempt to break the current speed skiing world record of 251.40 km/h, set by Origone in 2006. Among the challengers is the local speed skier Philippe May, one of just five people in the world ever to have skied at 250km/h. What on earth does it feel like, I asked?

“It’s between skiing and flying,” says May. “The air resistance is enormous. Think what it is like when you put your hand out of the car window when you are driving on the freeway at 120 [km/h]. Then double the speed and take away the car.”

Philippe May at XSpeedSki, Verbier

Philippe May

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 km/h in less than six seconds. Unlike Formula 1 cars, speed skiers are not allowed any aerodynamic gimmicks to keep them on the ground: “the only spoiler is your body”, says May.

To reduce drag, racers attach fairings to their lower legs; covering everything is a red, skin-tight suit that is 100 per cent air-tight. An aerodynamic helmet completes the surreal, futuristic look.

The races take place on the Glacier de Tortin, on a vertiginously steep run smoothed hard and flat like a sheet of white marble. The skiers slice through the air, the sound echoing around the surrounding cliffs, and leaving a swirl of dusty snow in their wake like a vapour trail.

The key to success, says May, is an efficient racing tuck – one that he practises regularly in a wind tunnel housed in a disused underground railway tunnel in Geneva, run by the city’s School of Engineers. Once through the speed trap, the racers rise slowly, in order not to be thrown backwards by the rush of air.

The track may look smooth to spectators, but even the most carefully groomed piste has undulations. “It’s not flat,” says May, “it’s a mountain, and it’s alive, so it feels as if it has waves.” A slight drop in pitch, says May, can send you airborne for 70 metres.

Philippe May in the Geneva wind tunnel

May prepares to train in the Geneva wind tunnel

At this speed, the slightest movement of air can have devastating consequences – as May found out at an event at the Italian resort of Cervinia in 2003. “At high speed you don’t weigh anything,” says May. A slight gust of wind blew him off the track. He shot through the netting – “I weighed 85kg, and when I went through the net at 160 km/h, it didn’t even slow me down” – and broke seven ribs and a shoulder blade.

Breakages are not the commonest injury among speed skiers, however. If they fall, they usually just slide down the track. “The suits we wear are 100 per cent windproof, it’s like wearing a plastic bag – so you never slow down.” The result: third-degree burns, from friction with the snow.

James Bedding caught up with Philippe May and talks about his sport.

And the final question … Why do you do it?

Fear of falling will not be putting off May and other competitors from attempting to set new records over the coming days. They are hoping to make use of a special ramp that extends from the summit station of the Mont-Fort cable car to the top of the glacier, flown in by helicopter a couple of winters ago, but not used in previous seasons because of insufficient snow.

Thanks to abundant snowfalls this winter, May and his fellow speed skiers hope to be able to inaugurate the ramp over the next couple of days. They estimate that by the time they reach the bottom of the ramp, pitched at a stomach-churningly steep 60 degrees, they should already be travelling at about 120 km/h.

Will this extra boost be enough for them to smash the world record? Watch this space…

Breakneck speeds and world record attempts

The fast and furious climax of Verbier’s season: the Speed Skiing World Championships

Al Machell, member of the British speed skiing team, after a fall - with broken ski

Al Machell after his fall, with splintered ski

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.

Members of the British speed skiing team

Members of the British speed skiing team

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.

"No smoking" sign at XSpeedSki, VerbierMillar 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.

Members of the British speed skiing team in VerbierThe 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.

Local speed skier Jean-Claude Hasler

Local speed skier Jean-Claude Hasler

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.

Speed skies prepare to compete on the Mont-Fort, VerbierOne 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.

Corentin Desbois with his snowscoot, just after breaking the world record

Corentin Desbois with his snowscoot

  • 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

The freakish lure of speed skiing

In the run-up to the Speed Skiing World Championships in Verbier, amateur skiers have the chance to hurtle down the same course. Are they mad?

Competitors awaiting their turn for a speed skiing race, VerbierWhat makes a skier into a speed freak? Are some of us born with the word “faster!” on our lips, or is every holiday skier a potential adrenalin junkie, awaiting a trigger that will unleash an addiction to breakneck thrills?

A good place to find out is in the Swiss resort of Verbier– notably in April, just before the world’s fastest skiers gather to race on the Mont-Fort.

Last weekend, on the eve of the Speed Skiing World Championships now taking place, the stomach-churning glacier course was opened to the public for the annual “Pop KL”. While seasoned racers will nudge 200kph, novices are told they can expect speeds of up to 150 kph – or nearly 100 mph.

Which raises the question – what kind of leisure skier would do this? Do you have to be insane? To find out, I spoke to two novice racers: one woman and one man, both British, yet quite different in their approach.

Marcus Bointon

Marcus Bointon

Marcus Bointon, 41, is from London, but lives near the French ski resort of Chamonix with his French wife and two children. He works from home, running an email marketing company, with clients in the UK. His story suggests that a craving for speed could be genetic.

“Last season I clocked my daughter skiing at 60 kph (37mph),” he says. “And she was only six.” Marcus has always liked skiing fast – especially first thing in the morning, when the slopes are empty. “I find I can do 120 (75mph) without difficulty,” he says, “but I just can’t seem to go any faster.”

For the Pop KL, his first experience of speed skiing, he dug out the most aerodynamic pair of ski boots he had – a pair of rear-entry Salomons from 1993. The left boot was broken, so he found a replacement on eBay – “just £5, though it cost me three times that for shipping” – which is why he set off for Verbier with one black boot and one white. He also took with him a pair of downhill skis bought on eBay, 2.10 metres long – brand-new, 200 euros the pair.

As well as racing on unfamiliar equipment, he faced additional personal challenges. “You’re not allowed to wear glasses on these races,” he says, “they don’t want to be pulling broken bits of frame out of your eyes if you fall at speed.” However, Marcus has always had trouble with contact lenses – and so ended up racing in a pair of 2-year-old disposables “that don’t quite fit.”

Reaching the starting point for the race is an adventure in itself: a ride up a cable car to the summit of the 3,330-metre Mont-Fort, followed by a traverse of the glacier – at this stage of the season, an icy field of moguls. The run itself is vertiginously steep, as smooth, white and scary as a blank sheet of paper in an exam.

© The Telegraph and Marcus Bointon

“You look down and all you see is this big, empty white space,” says Marcus. “And I thought – what have I got myself into? Then I started my run, and as I picked up speed, I thought – ooh, this is good! And then I picked up some more speed, and I started thinking – ooh, this is a bit bloody fast…”

The scariest part, he says, was just before the first timing beam – when you are travelling at your fastest – and “where even the slightest changes of gradient feel like big bumps.” But he kept his nerve, and at the end of the long run-out learned that he had clocked 138.72 kph (86mph).

Racers are allowed three runs, with a higher starting point each time. At the start of his second run, Marcus had a shaky start, but nonetheless scored 144.76 kph (89.9mph) – which turned out to be his highest speed of the day.

“When I left home this morning,” said Marcus, “I told my wife I’d be very happy if I do 140, and ecstatic if I do 150. So I’m delighted.” Presumably his wife was very happy, too – especially that her husband was still in one piece.

A skier with a very different background to Marcus’s, it would seem, is 23-year-old Alexandra Main from Exeter, who has been working for the season in Verbier as a masseuse and sports therapist at No. 14, a luxury chalet in Verbier. While she enjoys sporting challenges, she says she never had the urge to ski particularly fast. “In fact when I saw the speed ski run from the top of the cable car the other day,” she says, “I thought – those people must be crazy. There’s no way I’d ever do that.”

Alexandra Main

Alexandra Main

But a few days ago, a university friend who subsequently acquired a taste for speed skiing turned up in resort for the World Championship – and suggested she have a go at the Pop KL. “I didn’t even know it was going to be a competition,” Alex said, “my friend didn’t say – he didn’t want me to worry. But when I registered in the morning, I was really nervous, I was the only woman there.”

She told neither her colleagues at work – “I didn’t want them to come and watch” – nor her mother by phone – “I didn’t want her to be anxious.” Come Sunday morning, however, she was standing at the top of the glacier run, with a borrowed pair of 2.17-metre racing skis, the longest she had ever ridden.

“I was scared I might crash, and all I wanted was to get down in one piece. Before the run I was really nervous –excited nervous – but as I went down, I felt really good, and at the bottom I felt a massive sense of achievement. And I immediately wanted to do another run.”

On that first run she clocked 118.39 kph (73.56mph) – comfortably above the speed limit on a British motorway. On her second, boosted by confidence, she reached 125.70 kph. For her third run, starting higher still, she took off her puffy un-aerodynamic ski jacket, for extra speed – and clocked an impressive 127.35 kph (79mph).

The speed skiing piste on the Glacier de Tortin, Mont-Fort

The speed-skiing piste on the Glacier de Tortin

As a result, she won a silver medal, which left her “really shocked and very happy.” She told her mum on the phone: “she was really proud, though I think she was glad I didn’t tell her in advance.”

For me, the most intriguing aspect of the whole day was witnessing a human transformation. Earlier in the day, Alex had told me that, much as she had enjoyed living and working in Verbier, she did not know if she would come back: she was torn between plans.

Those three runs changed everything. After the races, Alex told me she would definitely be back for next year’s Pop KL, would spend the season juggling sports massage with training and racing – and would love to join the British speed skiing team – “if they want me.” Not just a change of plan, then, but a change of life.

The initial reaction from the British team is positive. “We’ll definitely take her under our wing and help turn her into a speed skier,” said Benja Hedley, in the resort for the World Championships. “You can tell those who are going to make good speed skiers: they are the ones who get to the bottom of their first run and immediately say: I want to go faster. She looked very stable, very happy, very confident, and the smile on her face at the bottom of the run shows she has the right head for the sport.”

So a taste for speed, it would seem, can appear suddenly, and quite unexpectedly. And once acquired, it would seem hard to shake off: witness the speed fanatics in Verbier now, from the British athletes competing in the World Championships to home-grown racers such as Philippe May, one of only five people in the world to have skied at 250 kph (155mph).

You can find out how they all fare in next week’s column, the last of the season.

Speed skier setting off from the start of the piste on the Mont-Fort

For information on speed skiing in Verbier, visit www.xspeedski.net. 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, www.MySwitzerland.com).