Trying out the sport

copy of the Times on Line article by Graham Duffill Link to the original article and full text click --> Trying out the extreme sport of speed riding This hybrid of paragliding and skiing whose pioneers include Antoine Montant is unregulated, dangerous and exhilarating...

photo by Michel Ferrer

As the ski season draws to a close, there is one contest that is only just getting started. No, it is not between snow­boarders and skiers, but be­tween a new breed of ex­treme sportsmen and, well, everyone else on the piste. The sport is called speed riding and it is a hybrid of paragliding and skiing. It needs, ideally, wide-open slopes with no crowds, so conditions now are some of the best. To take part you need a wing — it looks like a stunt parachute — and a pair of skis. Oh yes, and an almost total disregard for your own safety. The wing is dragged behind you while you descend the slope. As you pick up speed, it catches the air and inflates. This allows you to “take off”, or at least gain lift, for a few metres as you bounce over rocks and other obstacles before touching down and continuing your descent. It’s fast, furious and fun, but after a number of crashes, some ski resorts are trying to ban the sport, while many have already banned people from doing it on the pistes. “Speed riding is very dangerous,” says Gerhard Fischer, who runs an Austrian paragliding school and has been flying for 33 years. “You are flying a few metres over the ground at 70kmph [40mph]. These small wings are very dynamic so the steering is very aggressive, and yet they are very easy to start flying with, so you have people starting who have no basic understanding.” Speed riding is so new, it is largely unregulated, and is at a point in its development where it frequently takes the lives of the young men who are pushing its boundaries. So can the thrill really be worth it? I decided to pack my rig and find out. First, a bit of background. Unlike most extreme sports, which originate in North America, speed riding has its roots in Europe. It was started by a group of French paragliders roughly five years ago and remained a niche sport until recently, when more adventurous members of the skiing fraternity began taking part. Today some national bodies are starting to form in the Alpine countries. The French Free Flight Federation, for example, an umbrella organisation that represents paragliding and skydiving, is attempting to regulate the sport. It has decreed that to teach speed riding, an instructor must first hold a paragliding teaching licence and pupils should follow a training course similar to that of paragliding students. The main attraction of the sport is that you can go places where you couldn’t on conventional skis or snowboards. For example, if you want to ski a line down a really gnarly couloir with rock bands and cliff faces, the wing en­ables you to attempt it in the knowledge that if your skis lose grip you will not be entirely at the mercy of gravity. As Graham Bell, Britain’s former downhill racer and occasional speed rider, describes it: “It’s like skiing with a guardian angel above your head.” Like many speed sports, it can be taken to the extreme. For evidence, check out Antoine Montant, a French speed-riding pioneer, practising his sport down the north face of the Eiger on YouTube. During his 5,000ft descent, Montant lands on snow shelves where, only 70 years earlier, the mountain’s pioneering climbers were dying because their studded leather boots and hemp rope were too crude tools with which to conquer this treacherous face. Montant skims and flies down the mountain, looking like a superhero, his cape-shaped wing fluttering above him. So how hard is it, and how dangerous? For my first lesson, I went to Les Arcs speed-riding school in France, where all instructors are qualified under the French system. Getting started is easy, quick and totally safe and the sport is gaining a cult following here: “I only snowboarded three days last season; the rest were speed riding,” says one convert. “There’s a hard core of us now. We can ski lines that skiers can’t get near, and it opens up a third dimension because we can go up as well as down. It’s like being in a very realistic computer game.” We begin our lesson on wide-open, rock-free slopes. With the wing and lines (which are used to steer and brake) trailing behind like a bride’s train, I run straight down the slope until I am going much faster than feels comfortable. A prerequisite of speed riding is to be a sound skier. Just as I consider baling out, the wing inflates and rises above my head. As it gets lift, I become light on my feet until I am barely touching the surface of the snow. With Arnaud Baumy, the school’s owner, giving instructions over the radio into my earpiece, I learn to make left and right turns. After two days, my adjustments on the lines are still too hard and I am jerked around underneath my wing like a puppet, but I am in reasonable control. The next time I attempt it I am in Austria, under the tutelage of a new instructor, and things are about to get a lot harder. For someone just learning the ropes, the complexities of the sport are baffling. I am standing on a steep slope — arguably too steep for my abilities — but I am conscious I have only limited time to learn. Ahead of me is a precipice, and I have been told to ski towards it to gather speed so the wing inflates, then ignore every skiing instinct I have and launch myself off the ledge into the valley below, where the instructor is giving directions via a microphone and speakers in my ear. “Okay, ski straight towards me,” he orders. I straight-line the 20ft towards the edge, hoping to gather enough speed to lift the wing above my head. The rattle of fabric tells me it is rising. The edge is now just feet away, and the mic is silent, which I hope is a good sign. I glance up and see my angel overhead as the ground drops away. My life is hanging from something which only minutes before was packed in a rucksack. There is no gentle soaring, as with a paraglider; I am on a fast descent across the valley, aiming for Penz, who his standing on a plateau on the other side. Within seconds I am overhead, but too high and in danger of flying into the next valley. “Turn left, left,” Penz shouts into my earpiece. I pull down hard on the lines, much harder than I should, and it sends the wing into a sharp left-turning dive. From about 30ft I descend almost vertically, ploughing into the snow. Both skis fly off (luckily the bindings snap open instantaneously) and I am thrown forward into the snow, performing what is known among skiing novices as a spectacular face-plant as I crash head-first. If I could have taken a plaster cast of the impression left by my face in the snow, it would have shown pained surprise. How could it all go so wrong, so quickly? Luckily, I am embedded in a crater of soft powder, unhurt. If I had been flying any higher, or landed on a harder surface, I would have been less fortunate. Chastened and winded, I skip the rest of the lesson, then later tell the story to Franz Klammer, the Austrian skier who dominated downhill racing throughout the 1970s. The man who built a reputation as one of the sport’s most brave and reckless men looks at me sternly. Even by his standards it was foolish to try to progress in giant leaps rather than small steps. “You are stupid,” he observes, correctly. Was it my imagination, or was there in his eyes a glimmer of approval? The secret of any accomplishment, after all, is getting back up when you fall. Maybe next time, though, I’ll wear more padding.
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