Speed skiing: too fast for the Olympics
The scariest moment of my attempt to ski with the fastest people on the planet comes on the way to the start line. Or at least, the route to a point, some way below the start line, at which I can complete my first run safely. I’m wearing a shiny red catsuit that it has taken two people to squeeze me into. On my feet: specialist Atomic skis that are 238cm long, weigh 14 kilos, and have blunted edges to reduce the risks of a high-speed fall. As well as my safety, my dignity is at stake; when I try on a blue speed ski helmet, I look like the sorry son of Darth Vader and Britney Spears in the “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” video.
“Just sideslip down here,” says Jan Farrell, a British speed skier who is trying to revive a niche sport that has been beset by grisly deaths since a cameo role at the 1992 Winter Olympics. It has not featured at the Games since then, despite a long history and a simplicity that feels very, well, Olympian. Because, without a motor, there is no way on earth to go faster. In 2016, assisted only by gravity, Italian skier Ivan Origone set a human land-speed record of 254.958km/h (158.424mph). Usain Bolt ran 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. Origone skied the 100-metre timing zone near the bottom of a course in Vars, France, in 1.41 seconds.
Farrell, who is 34, has invited me to Andorra, the mountainous principality between Spain and France, for the finals of the 2017 speed skiing world cup. We are at Grandvalira, a ski area that stretches across the mountains between the villages of Pas de la Casa, Soldeu and Canillo. Soon, he and a handful of daredevils will drop from a 10-metre start ramp onto a specially prepared, 900-metre piste with gradients approaching 40 degrees. He wants to show me what it takes to chase the ultimate record. But he also wants to introduce more skiers to the sport. As well as training regular racers for free, he offers steady skiers an introduction to speed skiing here in Andorra, where he often trains.
First, I have to drop on to the course, past the ramp, and get sideslipping. I have scraped sideways down tight sections of couloirs that are steeper, but not on giant planks like these. Away from the course’s ice-hard centre, patches of soft snow keep pushing my skis out of line. Accessing speed-ski courses can be more dangerous than racing. In 2007, Caitlin Tovar, a 32-year-old British skier, slipped while traversing to the start of a track in Les Arcs, in France. She slid through safety netting and tumbled to her death down a steep mogul field. An Italian man had died there in similar circumstances only two years earlier.
“OK, let’s start here,” Farrell says almost halfway down. Eyes locked on the run-out zone below me, beyond the timing zone, I begin a steady traverse, edges gripping the slope, and prepare to turn downwards. I try to remember the aerodynamic position Jan had forced me into: hands out in front, back flat, weight balanced. My tight hamstrings refused to co-operate. I’ve swapped the claustrophobic speed ski helmet for my own to see more clearly. Now pointing downhill, I tuck down as tightly as I can.
I have never raced in earnest, and with long, flat skis and a catsuit, this feels immediately — and dangerously — fast. I slice through the air, eyes open wide in slight alarm. My legs pump to absorb tiny imperfections in the groomed slope. Soon I hit a slight compression as the course passes a summer road, tensing my thighs and back to avoid pancaking. Past the timing zone, where the sensors will only be activated for the pros, I stand up before starting a huge snow plough. Air slams into my chest, almost lifting me off my feet. Farrell guesses I’ve hit about 130km/h (81mph), a long way from the course record of almost 200km/h. “For the next run we start higher,” he says.
Going fast on skis is the purest thrill I know. I grew up shouting “Schuss!” at my family, the German word for a tucked descent. Unencumbered by machine or screen, the straight-lining skier faces the wind head on, the soles of his feet barely more than an inch off the ground. Even 20mph, which feels like nothing on a bicycle — a crawl in a car — is a buzz on skis. A brave or foolhardy recreational skier can easily hit 50mph. In Andorra, I was aiming for twice that.
Farrell never lost his schussing instincts. We chatted in his Mercedes CLS on the way to Grandvalira. The racer, born in Lancaster to an English father and Czech mother, has lived in Spain for most of his life, now in Madrid with his wife Olga, a pharmacist. “I have to drive cars that are faster than I can ski,” he joked above the din of his 5.5-litre engine. “My first memory of skiing, aged five, was straight-lining the green run during my first lesson. I still remember the pleasure of gliding over the snow. My parents always shouted ‘Turn!’ but for me turning was braking.”
Farrell began regular ski racing as a teenager, leaving school at 17 so that he could make money to pay for it. But fixing friends’ mobile phones became a profitable distraction; Farrell’s business now employs 32 people and does phone repairs for insurance companies. He found time to race again in his early twenties. While training in Andorra in 2011, he caught sight of the speed kings and never looked back. With the backing of British Ski and Snowboard, the sport’s governing body in the UK, he entered the downhill category, which requires standard race suits and skis. He won it in 2014 before moving up to the “Formula 1” of the sport, known as S1. “I’d found my natural form of expression as a ski racer,” he told me. “I could just go straight.”
Like me, Farrell had observed speed skiing from a distance: an exotic sport involving faceless, fearless men and women in red. I remember marvelling at a photo of a speed skier in an old copy of the Guinness Book of Records. All he lacked was a superhero’s cape. But the discipline is also the sport’s oldest; the earliest surviving records date to the mid-19th century gold-rush towns of the Sierras in California, where wool-clad Norwegian miners timed each other on 3.5-metre wooden “longboards”. In 1874, a man named Tommy Todd clocked a reported 87.7mph.
Official recording started in the Alps in the 1930s. After the war, the great Italian ski champion Zeno Colò hit 98.761mph (159.292km/h) in Cervinia, which would become the centre of the sport as it gathered pace and modernised. Speed skiing attracted rebels and free spirits alongside traditional racers. In the 1970s and ’80s, Steve McKinney, a long-haired American climber, who would later hang-glide off Mount Everest, set a string of records, becoming the first to break the 200km/h (124mph) mark in Chile, in 1978. The red catsuits and helmets arrived, and a craze enveloped the sport before it earned its Olympic spot in 1992.
The Olympic event, hosted at Les Arcs in France, was a success, pushing the record to 229.299km/h (142mph). There were hopes of a permanent place, but when a Swiss competitor died outside of competition in a collision with a piste-making machine, the International Olympic Committee took fright. The World Cup, run by FIS, the international ski federation, continued, and Les Arcs remained the fastest course in the world. But after Caitlin Tovar’s death in 2007, it closed for good. Speed skiing risked entering a slow decline.
Grandvalira is now one of only half a dozen courses on the world cup circuit, which continues this weekend in Salla, Finland. Courses range in size and speed, from about 150 to 250km/h. In Grandvalira, I meet Simone Origone at his hotel’s bar. A ski instructor and mountaineer from the Aosta Valley, he is the older brother of Ivan, the record holder. Simone himself dominated the sport after setting a new record in Les Arcs (251.4km/h in 2006), until Ivan struck in 2016. But even for the brothers, the sport’s most celebrated stars, the rewards have been slim.
“For 10 years I was the fastest skier in the world and I could not live on that,” Simone says. The top prize in Andorra is only €1,500. Two days ago, he was teaching clients in Champoluc, where he shares a flat with his brother. They had no idea what their instructor did in his time off.
“In 1992, speed skiing was exotic and spectacular and one of the most viewed sports of the Games,” Farrell says back on the mountain. “But we haven’t made progress visually since then. It’s every speed skier’s dream to be Olympic again, but if we don’t reinvent ourselves we won’t attract spectators or new athletes.” Speed skiing also depends on world records. During the “slow” years after Les Arcs, some opportunistic landscaping at Vars made it smoother — and faster. The chase was back on, and Simone Origone beat his own record in 2014, and again in 2015.
While also racing, Farrell has thrown himself into a marketing role, albeit one tied up with his own image (everything he owns seems to bear his monogram logo). He has a busy YouTube channel full of GoPro footage and fast cutting, and a growing media presence. The most recent records have attracted global coverage. But, however it is presented, speed skiing is a tough sell as a spectator sport. In Andorra, curious holidaymakers stop only briefly to watch red blobs descend like marbles. It somehow doesn’t look as fast as it is. It certainly doesn’t look as fast as it feels.
As the weekend wraps up, the Origones narrowly miss out to an Austrian veteran, and to a Frenchman in the overall world cup standings. Farrell is disappointed with 13th in the final, and ninth overall, down from sixth the previous two winters. He says a nasty crash in Vars the previous season is still rattling his confidence.
My search for a personal best continues with another perilous sideslip. I set off again from a slightly higher point, and go a little faster. There is talk of starting my last attempt from the top, next to the ramp, but I wobble at the thought. When Farrell crashed, he caught an edge at 217km/h and sustained heavy bruises and second-degree burns. I don’t need that, so slip past the ramp again, and this time stop with two-thirds of the course still to run.
Gripping Farrell’s GoPro, which will record my inelegant tuck, I turn to face the slope again and go low for the last time, my jaw clenched. The camera’s GPS later tells me I top out at about 138km/h, or 86mph. That would impress few of the champions who have called themselves the fastest men in the world for the past 150 years. But, as I tell Farrell before I extract myself from his suit, it’s more than fast enough for me.
Simon Usborne was a guest of the Grau Roig, a 42-room hotel beside the lifts in Grandvalira (hotelgrauroig.com; doubles from about €250). For more on Jan Farrell see janfarrell.com; his introduction to speed skiing courses cost €300 per day
Where to try your hand — and legs — at Winter Olympic sports
Bobsleigh The sport originated at St Moritz, host of the 1928 and 1948 Games, and the storied Swiss resort remains an ideal place to try it. Novices can ride a four-man bob, sitting between an experienced driver and brakeman. On the 1.7km course they will hit 135km/h and experience forces of 4G. The rides cost SFr250 (£190) including helmet rental, celebratory glass of prosecco and “Bobbaptism” certificate; olympia-bobrun.ch. Similar experiences are also available at Lake Placid, New York (whiteface.com) and Lillehammer, Norway (olympiaparken.no)
Ski jump Arguably the most terrifying of Olympic sports, ski jumping is usually practised by members of local clubs rather than tourists, but there are a few places where novices can give it a try. Florian Griemel runs two-day courses for total novices at various locations in Austria (€240; skisprungschule.com), while next month, skiers are being offered the chance to jump alongside Eddie Edwards in Canada. The Eagle will be leading a week-long trip with six days skiing at Kicking Horse, British Columbia, followed by a day training on the jumps at Calgary Olympic Park, where he found fame during the 1988 Games (from £3,295 including flights from London; kickinghorsepowdertours.com)
Slopestyle The parks and pipes that form the basis of the slopestyle ski and snowboard events are available in many resorts worldwide, and most ski schools can offer lessons. For a more focused introduction, though, take a course at Camp Woodward in Copper Mountain, Colorado. It offers group and private lessons up on the mountain combined with sessions in “the barn”, which has trampolines and foam pits, so you can practice jumps with a soft landing (from $209 per day; campwoodward.com). The Freestyle Academy in Laax, Switzerland has a similar set-up and offers three-, five- and six-day courses (three days from SFr324/£245; freestyleacademy.com).
Ski Cross Val Thorens in France bills itself as the “world capital of ski cross” and has a purpose-built course named after local boy Jean-Frédéric Chapuis, who won gold in Sochi. It hosts regular competitions but at other times is open to all, and there’s an automatic timing system. The Ecole du Ski Francais offers ski cross tuition, from €229 for six morning lessons; esf-valthorens.com
Downhill Despite the manifest dangers of the blue-riband ski event, there are competitions open to amateurs. The biggest is the Inferno, which takes place in Mürren, Switzerland, in January. Limited to 1,850 racers, it is now so popular organisers award places by lottery (entry SFr70/£53; inferno-muerren.ch). In Davos, the Parsenn Derby has been running since 1924 and takes place at the start of March (entry SFr80/£61; scdavos.ch).