UK news articles about Speedriding

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UK news articles about Speedriding

Part text from a UK news article - April 2009

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which is a very basic re-write of the Times article posted below...

Everything you need to know about... Speed riding - by Amol Rajan

What is it?
A terrifying, and largely unregulated, hybrid of paragliding and skiing, whose popularity is suddenly soaring

How does it work?
Each speed rider skis down a slope, before utilising a small wing to soar off the slope and into the air. The wing inflates as the speed rider accelerates, effectively converting it into a parachute steered by pulling on strings attached to each hand. The speed rider then hits the slope again at speed, continuing his journey to the finish line.

How dangerous is it?
Potentially lethal: some ski resorts have already banned the practice, following a spate of deaths. Only experienced skiers should really be speed riding, and beginners are required to start out on wide slopes with soft snow and limited rock on their faces. Advanced speed riders descend up to 5,000ft, hitting 40 mph, so the potential for fatal crashes is huge.

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Speed flying: Your feet won't touch the ground

Tarquin Cooper - 26 Jan 2008

It's probably best if you don't let your mother see you reading this. She's unlikely to be thrilled to discover that you're thinking of giving this sport a go. It is known variously as speed riding or speed flying, which conjures up all manner of interesting ways to challenge yourself and it is also unlikely to please your holiday insurance provider. This is a sport that combines extreme paragliding with skiing and, says pioneer François Bon, is the most fun you can have on the slopes.

"The buzz is very big," he says. "When you paraglide in the sky you are far from the ground, that's cool, you're flying, but it's slow and it can also be really boring. To be near the ground, to follow the slope, to jump over obstacles, it's much more fun, more active and there's more adrenaline." So riders don't float around in the sky, they use paragliding canopies half the normal size. As a result they can skim just a few metres off the piste while hurtling down mountains at speeds of up to 75mph.

Unlike kite skiing, which harnesses the wind's power to propel you forwards, the speed flyer's canopy is there to achieve flight and, if necessary, to provide a means of braking. According to Bon, the paraglider can actually be viewed as a safety element. If you are confronted by an obstacle such as a cliff or a rock, you can take to the air and float over it. "You are safe," he insists. "Obviously you do need to be responsible. You never go on the piste, you cannot scalp the skiers, and you have to learn how to fly."

Arnaud Baumy, a speed-flying coach, concedes the sport can be dangerous, just as skiing can be dangerous, if you go beyond your ability. "It's a mountain sport. There are dangers but you can control them. And there's a big difference between what the guys are doing on the videos and what we teach. The people who are learning don't go so fast." Nor is it too difficult to learn, says Baumy, although you do need to be a competent skier first. "Someone who can ski will start to have fun after the first day. It normally takes three to four days to teach someone who is very able, up to a week for others. But there are some who will never be able to do it after hundreds of lessons."

Speed flying of any sort has only been around for about five years and as an organised sport, since the beginning of 2006. France is where it all began.

"At the start we were just five people playing with this," says Bon, a professional aerobatics pilot who in 2006 made a spectacular speed-flying descent of the North Face of the Eiger, which can be seen on YouTube. "We were using small skydiving parachutes because they were very stable and in 2005 we made our first prototype."

By last year the sport had gathered sufficient momentum to support the first speed-flying competition, in the French resort of Les Arcs. It will return, from February 4-8, under the smart new banner of the Columbia Speed Flying Pro.

"It will be a great meeting," says Dino Raffault, the organiser. "There will be acrobat demonstrations, air movies. It's a big show. And watching the speed riders is spectacular."

The competition will bring together 27 of the world's best pilots to compete over two courses. One is a timed slalom event, similar to regular ski slaloms. The other is a free-ride category in which riders can let rip and display their talents however they like. Somewhat irregularly, the riders themselves will be the judges. At the end of the day, they will gather to watch themselves on a giant screen and award points for style and technique, although Raffault stresses that riders cannot score themselves.

The riders have been invited from all over the world, although none from this country. "There are not a lot of British riders," Raffault complains. "We did look." The gauntlet has been laid down. Just make sure you get insurance first - and clear it with your mother.



Trying out the extreme sport of speed riding
by Graham Duffill


This hybrid of paragliding and skiing whose pioneers include Antoine Montant is unregulated, dangerous and exhilarating

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 **** 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.