Watching the human rockets

Would anyone in their right mind risk skiing at double the┬áspeed 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…