TRAVEL / Riders on the dry slopes: Two feet, one snowboard, no experience. Hester Lacey prepares for the piste

'HAVE you ever skied? Surfed? Skateboarded?' asked the snowboard instructor, Steve Davis. (Snowboarding is a hybrid of all three: American surfers first tore the fins off their boards in the Sixties, looking for new thrills in the snow; modern boards look like large skateboards with no wheels.) No relevant experience at all, I had to confess when I turned up for my lesson at the Hemel Hempstead dry ski slope.

Never mind, Steve said. Lots of other skills come in handy. 'I always ask people what they do. For instance, if you're a plasterer . . .' - he made a large, sweeping circular arm movement. The advantage of being a talented plasterer, or anything else that makes use of the upper body, is that the board is controlled by movements above the waist; it follows the line of the shoulders and arms, so any nervous twisting about results in shooting off at a tangent, as I found out later.

Before heading for the training slopes, we had to pad up. Snowboarders may look cool and trendy on the piste, but those who are being taught by instructors approved by the British Snowboarding Association have to waddle around with a large wodge of bouncy neoprene jammed down the back of their trousers.

This 'bum-protector' pads the base of the spine, and is an extremely efficient insulator as well - uncomfortably sticky on a warm day. Kneepads are also de rigueur, as are long sleeves and sturdy gloves. 'The padding's not just in case you fall over, it's for when you fall over,' Steve Davis explained.

'Riders', as snowboarders like to be called, wear ski boots, or soft boots similar to wellingtons, which clip firmly on to the board. Unlike ski bindings, board bindings do not release automatically when you take a tumble - 'if you have a big roly-poly, the whole lot has a big roly-

poly,' said Steve.

A racing snowboard is flat, narrow and only goes forwards. Beginners usually start on a freestyle board, which is wider, more flexible and angled to go forwards, sideways and 'fakie' (backwards to the uninitiated). A freestyle rider's feet are angled across the width of the board; to discover which to lead with, the rider leans back until he topples off balance. Whichever foot automatically goes back to break the fall goes towards the back of the board. Left-foot-forwarders, like me, are 'regular-footed'; rights are 'goofy'.

We finally clomped heavily out on to the slopes and fell to our knees to clip on our boards. It's impossible to walk with both feet attached to a plank - the only way to move is in a series of demented, shuffling jumps. So if there is any distance to go, riders only attach the board to one foot. On flat surfaces, it's easy to glide along, scooting with the free foot - but on a slope the board shoots off, taking you with it. This is where the 'board walk' comes in - balancing the weight on the edge of the board, walking at a precarious tilt.

I was sharing the slope with fellow beginners Catherine (two lessons), and Alastair and Terry (one lesson each). They politely refrained from laughing too uproariously when the rope lift hurled me flat on my face three times in a row. 'Don't worry,' said Catherine kindly, 'I did that on my first lesson too.' She could already whizz down in a graceful curve and stop at the bottom without falling over. Terry and Alastair were practising 'falling leaves' - neat, short curves down the slope, stopping every few yards. Collisions with skiers have led to bad publicity for snowboarders. 'The first thing we teach you is how to stop, to be in control,' said Steve.

From the top of the slope it looked a very long way to the bottom. My first descents were very slow slithers, learning how to use body weight to tilt the edge of the board to stop, going either forwards or backwards down the slope. 'Imagine you're standing on a board on the river, the water is rising, you don't want to get wet,' Steve suggested. After a while this abstract approach gave way to 'Just try and stay upright . . .' A confident learner can expect to be coming down unaided and in control after a two-hour lesson, and be competent and safe to go out on a ski-slope in four or five hours. A cowardly one, like me, will clutch the instructor, squeaking 'Don't leave me, don't let go,' before sitting down hard, but will still have fun.

Experienced riders have evolved a language and culture of their own. 'The slang comes mainly from skateboarding and surfing,' according to Steve. 'It's like the appeal of A Clockwork Orange, when everyone was learning the language from the film.' He claims riders are not fashion-victims in the way skiers are, but admits that a 'club scene appearance' is the essential style for young riders, with 'wild hats' and baseball caps turned the wrong way round. 'There's been so much publicity, bad as well as good, that in the resorts now the ultimate accessory to walk around with is a snowboard - even if you can't ride it. But you can spot a genuine rider a mile away.'

This genuine rider will be keen on 'riding the pipe' - whizzing up and down the sides of a deep channel cut into the snow; 'frontside poke mutations' - a manoeuvre which involves holding the board with one hand as it flies through the air while keeping one leg straight (or 'boned out'); reading Snowboard UK Magazine (known affectionately as SUK) and saying things like 'He has his backbinding highback on much more forward lean than the front, which gives him that extra power from the board' or 'If you want to carve a bit more on the piste or in the pipe, put your highback one notch forward on the rear foot'.

'Most people are hooked after four hours,' said Steve, as I gratefully peeled off my neoprene cushion and kneepads. 'Most of them are rushing out to buy a board and boots. I've been skiing for 20 years and I had to practically risk my life on skis to get the buzz that comes with snowboarding.' At pounds 300 upwards for a board and around pounds 200 for boots, I decided not to rush into anything. Except a hot shower for my aching arms and legs.-

Travel notes

WHERE TO LEARN: The following dry slopes have British Snowboarding Association instructors: Acres Trust, Birmingham (021-771 4448); Beckton Alps Ski Centre (071-511 0351); Bracknell Ski Centre (0344 860033); Christchurch Ski Centre, Dorset (0202 499155); Folkestone Sports Centre (0303 850222); Hemel Ski Centre (0442 241321); Hillingdon Ski Centre (0895 258506); Kendal Ski Centre (0539 733031); Norfolk Ski Club, Norwich (0603 662781); Pembrey Ski Centre, Dyfed (0554 834443); Sheffield Ski Village (0742 769459); Skew Bridge Ski School, Rushden (0933 59939); Stainforth Ski Centre, Aldershot (0252 25889); Gosling Ski Park, Welwyn Garden City (0707 391039); Swansea Ski Centre (0792 645639). Prices vary from pounds 8 to pounds 26 per hour, depending on centre. A two-hour class for a group of four at Hemel Ski Centre costs pounds 55; two hours' individual tuition costs pounds 40.

A teaching video, Exploding Snow-

boarding (price pounds 14.99), is available from the British Snowboarding

Association, 74 Bramerton Road, Beckenham BR3 3PD.

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