Keith Elliott at Large: Dream weavers skate the sky

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PRACTICE is a critical element for any team harbouring dreams of world glory. Not many include going to the circus or watching television as an essential part of rigorous pre-competition preparation. But the British No 1 squad for the World Kite-Flying Championships at Le Touquet, northern France, next month believe that these seemingly unconnected activities will play a vital role in helping them to take the title.

''Kite-flying has a lot in common with figure skating. It's an artistic sport,' said Jeremy Boyce, one of the four-man team.

'The ballet section depends particularly on interpretation and choreography, so we watched the top skaters to see how they constructed their routines.

'Then we applied it to our programme by drawing a graph so that we could map out where we wanted the peaks of excitement to come.'

And the circus trip?

''We went there to watch the gymnasts, and to see what makes good spectator viewing.'

You're a decade behind the times if you thought kite-flying was all about spotty wimps in anoraks, or old buffers with their sandwiches and vacuum flasks in a Duffel bag. It's all down (or, more appropriately, up) to delta-wing kites, eight feet across and looking like Stealth fighters. Flying at 60mph and with the ability to take off, land and even stop in mid-air, these pilotless hang-gliders have revolutionised a sport once considered on a par with train-spotting and sailing pond yachts.

'They have done for kite- flying what mountain bikes did for cycling,' says Boyce, who, with cropped hair and trendy sunglasses, looks more like a long-distance cyclist himself. 'People see what these kites can do, and it gets them excited.'

That is how Boyce discovered Zen and the art of kite- flying. Playing cricket one day, he saw a kite-flyer perform a few cheap tricks and was instantly addicted. He liked it so much that he even started his own business in Stoke Newington, north London, selling kites.

'At the time, there was only one other shop, though there are now 12 in London alone. But it wasn't easy. Ironically, NatWest, who run advertisements publicising small business by using a kite-flying venture, turned me down.'

In 1992, he met two Warrington students, Carl and James Robertshaw, who were equally enthusiastic. They roped in the British champion, Nic Boothby, and formed a team called Airkraft. Since then, they have been unbeaten in British events, won several contests in France and the Netherlands and finished second in both the European Cup and the World Cup.

''We were only a few points behind the Americans in the last World Cup, and this year we have a very good chance of winning,' Boyce says.

'We've got a manoeuvre that we don't think anyone else can do.'

Carl Robertshaw, 22, is the team's inspiration. 'I don't fly in individual competitions because he always wins them,' Boyce admits.

After studying graphic design for three years, Robertshaw has dropped it in an attempt to become the first kite-flying professional.

'It's taking off,' he says. 'I'm working part-time designing and building kites, and I've got some sponsorship, but if we win the World Cup, all sorts of opportunities will open up.' In the meantime, he is practising almost every day. The team are so confident that they have turned down a pounds 17,500 sponsorship offer because they beleive an even better offer could be just around the corner.

There are even mutterings about the sport being included in the Olympic Games, though that's a bit premature. 'I phoned the Sports Council about getting some grant aid and discovered we were so far down the list that even spear fishing was in front of us,' Boyce says.

There are two parts to a kite-flying contest: a ballet section to music and a precision class, where three compulsory manoeuvres must be completed.

Each team member carries five kites to cover every wind strength. 'These kites can fly in almost all conditions, but surprisingly the best conditions are light winds, rather than when branches are blowing off trees,' Boyce says.

Spectators love it. The World Cup is expected to attract 250,000, while 50,000 turned up for the Bristol festival. Strangely, it is the kites - dipping, diving, soaring, swooping in spectacular formation - that are the real stars, not the fliers who look as if they are shadow boxing as they jerk the dual 150ft lines, and dodge around each other to perform aerobatics such as the Weave and the Axle. 'Nobody notices us,' Boyce says. 'It's a sport for bashful show-offs.'

(Photograph omitted)

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