Masters of the rollers

It's skiing, but not as we know it - the absence of snow is a bit of a clue
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The Independent Online

Of all the weird and wonderfully wacky things people get up to in the name of sport, surely nothing could be more Pythonesque than dolling yourself up like a refugee from the Tour de France, fixing miniature wheels to a pair of skis and hoofing it for an hour or more round and round a Tarmacadam cycle track, without a snowflake in sight.

Of all the weird and wonderfully wacky things people get up to in the name of sport, surely nothing could be more Pythonesque than dolling yourself up like a refugee from the Tour de France, fixing miniature wheels to a pair of skis and hoofing it for an hour or more round and round a Tarmacadam cycle track, without a snowflake in sight.

Anyone dropping in at the Eastway Cycle Circuit in east London recently - and to be honest, there weren't that many - would soon have been in head-scratching mode. What on earth were they up to? These score of crash-helmeted, Lycra-clad men and half-a-dozen women on what seemed to be a version of John Cleese's Silly Walk, propelled by tungsten-tipped ski sticks.

The second International Masters Roller-Ski Championships are not exactly high on the spectator list of compelling Sunday-morning viewing. Even the winter version of the event, better known as cross-country skiing (or fartlek, if you prefer) is lucky to attract one man and a St Bernard when raced across the snow in Switzerland or Scandinavia. Roller-skiing, though now a sport in its own right, is also what competitors do in summer to keep in training for the winter event, the one that you usually see on television sandwiched between the downhill and the ice-skating during the Winter Olympics, with earnest Slav and Nordic types resolutely sluicing their way through the snow on a sort of flat version of a cross-countryski run.

Because the British for obvious meteorological reasons are not very good at the real thing, roller-skiing has become an acceptable substitute, something of a cult activity here in fact, although as minor sports go it is right down there in the Screwfix Direct League of obscure pastimes. None the less, the hardy few who practise it do so with the sort of clear-eyed zeal you encounter when you open the door to those trying to sell you salvation. Mind you, they are used to a bit of derision, which they take in their purposeful stride, one which takes them as much uphill as downhill around 18 laps of the 1.6-kilometre circuit. But titter ye not. It's a tough enough pursuit to have an ambulance standing by, and one female competitor in the championships ended up in casualty having several stitches in her arm after crashing at a particularly tricky corner.

"We like to think we are a serious sport," says Dr Adam Pinney, president of the British Masters Cross-Country Ski Association. "You need to be fit and there's always the risk of taking a tumble. It may look an oddball sort of thing to do, but we're not that crazy, you know."

Indeed not. Most of Britain's 500 cross-country skiers are in the services, based overseas. Of the 35 or so civilians, few aspire to Olympian heights, though one, 32-year-old Hugh Pritchard, is dedicated enough to have given up his day job in order to live and train overseas.

Pritchard, a chartered accountant from Whitstable, Kent, has moved to Bavaria in an attempt to acquire sufficient expertise to get into the British biathlon team for Salt Lake City in 2002. Cross-country skiing is one of the principal elements of the biathlon. "It's hard going," he admits. "I might end up broken - and probably broke - but it's something I want to do. You need a goal in life, and this is mine."

He began as a recreational downhill skier and was among those selected for a British Olympic Assoc- iation training camp in Austria last winter. Trish Ball from Devon, and Gillian Sowden, who lives and trains in Norway, were also at the camp, but neither have much of a fancy for roller-skiing. In the main event of the championships Pritchard finished third behind a Swede and the winner, Herman Hofs, a 41-year-old former Dutch speed-skater.

The event attracted competitors from Holland, Sweden and Russia as well as Britain. The Swedes stayed on a nearby campsite, the Dutch at a modest hotel in Luton, and the Britons either came from home or put up with friends. It is a sign of the sporting times that the once-impoverished Russians stayed at a five-star hotel in the West End of London.

Not that anyone gets rich on roller-skiing. However, a banana and an isotonic drink were included in the £20 entrance fee. The two-day meet in London was a prelude to this month's world championships in Rotterdam which, one suspects, will be a rather more formal affair than the one we witnessed on a bleak and blustery morning. The oldest competitor, Alan Jones, a 64-year-old retired university adminis- trator from Liverpool, was deputed as numbers-caller for the lap-timekeepers in the main men's race before pulling on his half-metre length skis, complete with small polyurethane wheels, to make up the field in the depleted women's event. "Essentially it is all about enjoying yourself, having fun," he enthuses.

The fittest and the fastest get around the course in a bit over an hour for the 30 kilometres. The stragglers can take up to two hours or more. "But if it is all getting a bit boring, we pull them out," smiles Pinney, the race organiser.

The art of roller-skiing seems to be an amalgam of cross-countryskiing and speed-skating, using the poles to thrust yourself forwards until you reach an almost metronomic momentum. To the uninitiated it may seem a bit like Groucho Marx attempting roller-blading,but you need perfect balance and a large dollop of tactical nous, not least to negotiate the chicanes. And after 30 kilometres of huffing and puffing you know you've been on one hell of a hike.

"It's knackering," says Pritchard, resting on his poles and urging his friend Alan Eason, aged 30, from Bromley, over the finishing line. "Exhilarating, though."

On the way out we encountered a rare spectator. He had popped in on the off-chance, sensing some activity and rather hoping it might be a cycle-track race. "Can't work it out. Never seen anything like it. What were they doing out here?"

"Roller-skiing," we informedhim.

"So where's the bloody snow?" he snorted. "More nutters, I suppose."

Hugh Pritchard and company wouldn't have been in the least fazed. They'll just keep rolling along.

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