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Skiing

I love to discover new sports and sporting spectacles to become engrossed in. This past weekend an event that thoroughly captivated me reached its conclusion: cross country skiing’s “Tour de Ski.”

I’ve always been a fan of cycling’s big tours: the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. I love the tactics, the unbelievable stamina and willpower displayed by the competitors. I love seeing the huge number of fans lining the routes, the countryside they traverse and the differing terrain they cross.

Well, the Tour de Ski is a winter equivalent. Nine cross country races in 11 days at five different venues in Germany and Italy. Like the Tour de France, the winners are the man and woman (there are races for both) with the lowest total time. So, it’s not necessarily about winning the individual events but conserving strength, choosing your battles and getting the strategy just right to be the overall champion.

It’s superbly gritty, competitive stuff and, like cycling, there’s so much more to it than meets the eye. Each of the nine races demands something different. Some are sprints, and there are specialists who focus on these contests (much like Mark Cavendish does on his bike,) some are distance events (up to 35km for the men,) some are completed in classic technique (with straight skis and a sort or running style,) others in free technique (more like skating.)

The athletes are supremely fit and they give it absolutely everything over the 11 days of competition. There are few events where you’ll see such exhaustion at the end – bodies strewn over the snow in a tangled, heaving mess of skis and poles.

There were great rivalries in both men’s and women’s events that added to the spice this year. In the men’s competition it was between Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and Petter Northug of Norway. For the women, the battle was between Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen.

In both contests the key protagonists attempted to steal a march on their adversary through the early stages in order to have the best possible chance on the last, killer, stage.

After eight races, the leader goes off first on that closing stage with those closest behind setting off at the relevant time intervals. That means the man and woman over the line first on the final stage win.

The last stage, held at Val di Fiemme in Italy, starts off relatively innocuously on the flats leading to the base of the Alpe Cermis, but then it turns up the hill and the competitors must ascend for some 3km straight up a downhill ski run. It’s pretty brutal and truly sorts the wheat from the chaff.

There’s a great thrill as the pursuers attempt to chase down the leader and that leader has to judge his/her efforts precisely so they don’t blow out on the final climb. In the end it was Cologna and Kowalczyk who came out on top – both for the third time in their careers.

It’s a fantastic event and one I will certainly be tuning into again next year. If you like endurance sport with skill and tactics thrown into the mix then you’ll love this.

As a sport lover in the UK, it’s very easy to have a narrow focus on the few sports that the media obsess about – in the main it’s football with a bit of tennis, cricket, rugby, motor racing and golf thrown in. But there are so many other great sports to become interested in and a great number can be seen on Eurosport – All the cycling, the Monte Carlo rally, the Dakar rally, triathlons, alpine skiing, cross country skiing, freestyle skiing, ski-jumping – the latter is another fantastically skilled and highly tactical sport that just gets more and more exciting the more you understand it.

I must confess I’ve become a little bored of the commercialisation and childishness of football, also of the repetitive nature of tennis (the same men/women playing each other for ludicrous sums of money in different cities that could be anywhere because all you see are the painted white lines and a net,) I even find golf a bit of a yawn sometimes when it’s not one of the more significant tournaments and you can tell the top players are just in it for the cash. So, I often go to Eurosport as my first port of call when looking for a sporting fix. Invariably, there you’ll find an event where the participants are involved, not just for money, but for the sheer love of what they’re doing and a burning passion to win… That’s what sport used to, and should still, be all about.

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When I was a teenager I was addicted to a ski film called P-Tex, Lies & Duct Tape, directed by Greg Stump. For me it captured the essence of skiing: the hedonistic pursuit of forsaking all else just to live in the mountains and follow the snow. Sleeping where you can, climbing to the peaks when you can’t afford the lift pass, living for life itself.

The guys the film followed were self-confessed ski-bums. They’d opted out of mundane modern life, said: “screw you,” to the 9-5, the mortgage and the fancy car. And, my god, were they happy.

Stump, a former skier himself, was known for his narrative and I think P-Tex was where he expressed what he really thought about life. At one point after a mash-up of old footage showing people toiling in factories and offices, with Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” providing the soundtrack, Stump quietly says,

“Jobs: The bane of our existence, trade your life for wages.”

I’ve always remembered that quote. In a supremely concise way, it sums up the dilemma of western capitalism. In order to maintain the (supposedly) luxurious and highly advanced lives we’ve created for ourselves, most of us have to give up our lives to generate the wealth necessary to sustain it. The problem, as we’re seeing now, is that no matter how hard everyone works, it’s not sustainable.

So maybe it’s time to forsake all else, move to the mountains and just play in the snow.

Watching this season’s film by Matchstick Productions: “Attack of La Nina,” has made me think it would be a pretty good idea.

So many ski flicks in the last few years have focused on the ever-increasing technical ability of the “athletes” they feature. It’s impressive, for sure. What these young guys can now do in the half pipe, on the slopestyle course or in big air comps is pretty mind-boggling: Double, even triple flips, 1620s for god’s sake – I remember when a 360 was the holy grail.

But, the thing is – these guys are, indeed, “athletes.” In fact they’re gymnasts or acrobats. They train on trampolines and into foam pits. If they tightened up their techniques a little and pulled their trousers up a little higher – they’d be pretty useful on the vault or across the floor.

I like watching them twirling around and it definitely looks cool. But I can’t really relate to it. I’ve skied since I was a nipper and am reasonably proficient, but I’m not going to attempt a corked 720 next time I’m up at Glenshee.

What I can relate to are the segments when these young guys, and some of the older generation, head for the big mountains. Not because I can huck giant cliffs and straight-line 45 degree couloirs, but because I love being up in the alpine or in the trees, picking lines and looking for the best snow. That’s what the people I know who ski a bit enjoy to do.

Attack of La Nina charts a winter of skiing in North America (2010-2011) over which they enjoyed inordinate amounts of snow in the US and Canada – thanks to the effects of atmospheric phenomenon La Nina – get it?

The film follows a few key members of the Matchstick team, principally through the Canadian Rockies. Mark Abma, James Heim, Eric Hjorleifson, Ingrid Backstrom, Callum and Sean Pettit and others, go from Whistler to Roger’s Pass, the Selkirks and further into the mountains. They stay at remote lodges, they camp by hot springs and they ski powder. It’s all pretty idyllic and inspiring.

And, as ever with Matchstick films, there’s an eclectic, old and new-school, soundtrack featuring tracks from: Tricky, La Roux, 70’s hardrockers Captain Beyond and a host of others. There’s a couple of nice tunes from acts I’ve never heard of like Electric Owls and The Naked and Famous – I think the latter are from New Zealand.

My favourite use of a tune though is ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” – the backing to Sean Pettit’s segment in Whistler. ELO are so un-cool that they go full circle and are, in fact, cool. And the incongruous nature of using this quirky old track to accompany one of the best young talents in freeskiing works so well.

Pettit is probably the standout performer, flawlessly taking his park skills onto some pretty big terrain. He skis with an amazing energy and fluidity, bouncing off ledges, landing from huge heights like a butterfly with sore feet. His infectious personality comes through as he larks about with Frenchman Richard Permin and just camps it up a little on and off the snow.

Eric Hjorleifson nails it as well. The speed he skis incredibly dangerous lines through trees or down technical steeps is insane. Mark Abma says at one point that he thinks “Hoji” is breaking new ground. The shots of him belting down a steep, pillowed face, covered in trees and rocks without bothering to scope it first, confirms Abma’s sentiment.

There’s a nice bit of history as the team visit the Selkirk Wilderness skiing operation, founded by the, late legendary “hot-dogger” Allan Drury. They meet his wife and daughter and then huck off some cliffs Drury once flew from, on narrow two metre skis back in the day. Interspersed with old footage of Drury, it nods a head to back-country skiing’s spiritual past – it reminded me of P-Tex.

The cinematography is amazing throughout. After more than a decade of releases, the Matchstick filming and production team has become increasingly skilled and artistically aware. With time-lapse footage, crazy angles, soft blurring, atmospheric lighting, there’s a real aesthetic beauty to this film.

My favourite segment is probably the one filmed at Meager hot springs in British Colombia. These can only be accessed by helicopter and the group spends something like 20 days camping there, skiing in the mountains above on the good days, chilling out on the bad days. Sped up footage of the skiers relaxing in the hot spring as a tray covered in snow and beer bottles floats between them pretty much says all that this film is about.

Attack of La Nina is not about great skiers showing off how good they are. It’s about great skiers enjoying the mountains, the snow, the company of like-minded people and just living the dream. It’s pretty hedonistic and unrealistic for most, but it’s great escapism and would certainly beat trading your life for wages.

There can be few sports to rival skiing when it comes to people putting their necks on the line and risking huge embarrassment. But it’s not only nervous beginners capable of making total fools of themselves. Skiers of all abilities endeavour to get into positions where a red face can be the only outcome. Here below are some of the classic cases:

1 – The Barnes Wallace

The first morning of the holiday and you’ve an aura of confidence. With last year’s lessons in the bank, you’ve achieved the breakthrough. This over exuberance can be costly. Carrying too much speed in towards a busy chair lift queue you lose control. With a last ditch effort to stop, you throw yourself to the ground. Resembling a famous scene from The Dambusters, you plough headfirst, straight into a group of 10 Swedish ski team members. Sticks and goggles go flying and the sound of clothing ripping and metal crashing reverberates through the valley. Lying in a tangle of Salomons, Gore-Tex and blonde hair, you vow to go back to lessons that afternoon.

2 – The Leap of Faith

Skiing past the snow park you boast to your companions that, “By the end of the week I’ll be going off those jumps.” A bold proclamation, made only more so by the gaggle of 50 talented skiers and boarders permanently congregated at the top of the park. They ooh, ahh and applaud their friends while laughing callously at any inexperienced soul who is foolhardy enough to give it a go.

Friday afternoon arrives and you pull into the park. You stand out fairly obviously in a bright green Rodeo suit circa 1987 while your rear-entry boots and 190cm slalom skis look a touch out of place. Ignoring the giggles and at least one friendly warning you throw yourself towards the main kicker.

Feeling poised it’s not until about 15 feet before the lip you remember you have no idea how to jump. Leaning back you fly straight into the air, legs apart and arms waving like a windmill. With too much vertical and not enough horizontal progress, you’re destined to land on the plateau. Thudding down on your back, you lie looking skyward with the wind knocked out of you. To add to the embarrassment you now have to scrabble about trying to reclaim your antiquated gear as jeers from above urge you to, “get out of the way, you stupid English!”

3 – The Axeman Cometh

A novice skier is easy to spot by their total inability to manage their equipment when not on the slopes. We all aim to look like the suave local instructor as he saunters through the main street carrying four sets of skis and a bag of baguettes.

Unfortunately the majority of us look more like we’re re-enacting a scene from the Chuckle Brothers as we clumsily stumble along the pavement. This is fine as people can gauge your ineptitude and grant you a wide berth.

The most dangerous time though is the intermediate stage when you think you’ve grasped it. On a busy road at 4.30pm you swing your skis onto your shoulder, just as you’ve seen the instructors do. With a confident swagger you enthusiastically regale your companion about the day’s triumphs. Whilst describing a particularly well carved turn you gesticulate wildly, forgetting the 6 foot planks on your shoulder. Swinging them round you clobber the top dog from the ski patrol on the side of the head. Monsieur is in no mood to accept apologies and now you’re less high-spirited as your lift pass has been confiscated. You suffer the ignominy of spending the last days of the holiday sledging and looking at ice sculptures.

4 – The Chairlift Coward

When starting out, ski lifts can be just as terrifying as the runs themselves. The Poma is treacherous, the T-Bar a trial, but maybe the most dangerous of all is the chairlift. For the experienced skier these are a relaxing way up the mountain granting a welcome break for the legs. But, for the complete novice they are terrifying and confusing beasts.

Luckily when you board at the bottom there’s a friendly looking chap with a leathered face to help you on. But, as you approach the summit nerves begin to set in. The guy beside you throws open the protective barrier exposing you to the sheer drop. Losing the plot you cling onto the side. Unfortunately the lift op hasn’t spotted your plight as he’s carving a Mickey Mouse in the snow beside his little hut. Staying rigid in your seat, you swing round the end and start to head back down. After some shouting the lifty spots the predicament and stops the mechanism just as you’re above the protective net at the edge of the lift station. 45 minutes later you’ve been winched down and the lift can finally re-open.

5 – The Child Catcher

On a busy slope you’re feeling pretty positive about your ability. As you cruise down the edge of the piste you scoff at the snow-ploughers struggling in the centre. Gaining self-belief you pick up a touch more speed.

But, at the very moment the slope begins to narrow, a tribe of twenty, bibbed and helmeted 5-year-olds are winding along behind a wizened instructor. At first you’re confident that you’ll squeeze past so you keep up the quick pace. But disaster looms as you realise the first of the little tykes just isn’t going to turn where you expected. You’re on an unavoidable collision course. Little Thierry piles into you as you frantically try and stop. He tumbles to the ground with a shrill “Sacre bleu!” You also fall, rag-dolling down to where the old instructor has halted to survey what has occurred.

As you look up you witness the end of the carnage. Rather than changing direction every single one of the nippers has piled straight on into the fallen Thierry. The happy little troop has transformed into a giant, bawling haystack of pre-schoolers. The instructor takes his hands from his eyes and turns to deal with you. After being scolded like a toddler for five minutes you timidly skulk away.

Fergus Bisset