Skiing: Bell rises to uphill struggle: Richard Williams in Val d'Isere meets the racer who is running out of time

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The Independent Online
FOR Martin Bell, Val d'Isere is the nearest thing in the World Cup calendar to a home fixture. From December to March, the place is heaving with Brits. And when Bell came down Friday's training run for the season- opening Criterium International de la Premiere Neige in 28th place, he could hear the odd cheer welcoming a sign of optimism for a career that is being rebuilt after several bleak years.

Seven years ago, he was sixth here, only a few tenths away from the podium. Now, guardedly, he expressed the hope of a top-30 finish in the race, scheduled for yesterday. High winds and driving snow in the Haute Tarentaise put paid to that, and he and his colleagues in the small and severely under-financed British men's downhill team - his brother Graham, newcomer Roger Walker, and their coach, Hans Anewanter - must try again in the Dolomites next weekend when two downhills will be held at Val Gardena.

Down in the basement ski- room of their hotel one night last week, Martin Bell was telling me about the latest kind of ski wax - known as 'hydrophobic' because it repels water and therefore sends the ski's plastic base skimming faster over snow and ice. He picked up a small tub, about the size of the plastic containers that camera films come in. 'It's a powder, actually,' Bell was saying. 'You brush it on.' He turned the tub round in his fingers and examined it. 'We won't be using it in the training run tomorrow, though. Too expensive. We'll have to save it for the race.'

How long would this tub last?

'About half a season.'

And how much did it cost?

'About 30 quid.'

Some of his rivals, from the better endowed Alpine nations, can probably afford to snort the leftovers up their nostrils. British skiers may keep Val d'Isere's Syndicat d'Initiative smiling, but British ski racing is, as usual, broke.

In his best year, Bell made about pounds 30,000. That was in 1988, when he followed a string of top-10 finishes in World Cup races with eighth place in the Olympic downhill at Calgary. He was on the heels of the Mullers, the Wirnsbergers and the Zurbriggens. It seemed only a matter of time before this handsome, articulate and quietly courteous man would become the first British downhiller to win a major race.

But at the beginning of the next season, in his first big post- Calgary race at Val Gardena, he crashed on the final switchback. A smashed thumb was repaired easily enough; he had also damaged a knee, requiring a cartilage operation which he postponed for 18 months. More seriously, he began to think about danger.

'I don't want to attribute too much to crashing,' he said last week, 'but it was crashing and hurting myself, and the realisation that when you crashed you could hurt yourself, that didn't help. I never got it together again that season.'

You could see it in his stance. The smoothness had gone. He was too upright, he wasn't holding his tuck, his arms were shooting out to keep his balance. It was costing him seconds. The days of top-10 finishes were over. Now Martin and his brother were back in the thirties and forties and fifties, coming down just before the chap who turns off the lights. Fischer, the Austrian ski company which had paid him to use its products, withdrew its support; now he was given free skis by another company, but received no payment.

Hans Anewanter's arrival improved morale, but it took time for the Austrian coach to have any effect. 'The low point was 1990,' Bell said. 'We were still quite low in '91. Then in '92 there started to be a few good things.' By this time Drambuie, the team's overall sponsors, had gone. Britain's downhill racers had reached the point where, like old-time amateurs, they were having to pay their own way. 'For the last three years,' Bell said, 'it's been a question of breaking even.'

His good years coincided with the Thatcher yuppie boom, with the growth of skiing as the preferred winter recreation of the affluent young. And his decline paralleled the recession, which hit the skiing classes particularly hard and, in deadly combination with a couple of snow-free winters, forced the industry into hurtful economies.

At one time, he said, you'd be paid by a ski company if you were in the top 80. 'Now you probably have to be in the top 20. The big guys still make a lot of money, but nothing like as much as they did.'

Last week Bell celebrated his 29th birthday. Almost 15 years after his World Cup debut, he is one of the circuit's senior figures. Of the 103 entrants at Val d'Isere this weekend, only Hoeflehner, Girardelli, Heinzer, Wasmeier and Mahrer have been around as long.

When Bell emerged from the Austrian ski school at Stams, he looked likely to match any of them. So what went wrong? Other racers have accidents, and operations, and manage to re-establish themselves. What quality has he lacked? Could it have been aggression, or arrogance? Over the years, he often seemed strangely unconfident, too concerned to diminish expectations, to play down his chances. In 1986, for instance, after a series of good results, he talked about how a place among the top 15 seeds would increase the psychological pressure, which he didn't want; hardly the instinct of a natural champion.

'Maybe so,' he said. 'Although they say that a lot of people succeed in sport because they crave success to compensate for a lack of confidence. It's a complicated business. I know that I'm quite an easy-going type. But I've always thought that skiing is a sport where being aggressive won't get you everything. You can slow yourself down by being over-aggressive. Perhaps confidence is a better word. It's easy to be confident when you're having a string of good results. And to get your confidence back when you're in a bad run, sometimes you have to fool yourself - which I find hard to do, since I tend to be brutally honest with myself.'

He and Graham, who is 13 months younger, have always encouraged the belief that, in a small team, the presence of the one has helped the other, providing a yardstick and a challenge. Looking at their record over the years, though, and noticing how closely they have followed each other through peaks and troughs, the thought occurs that perhaps the effect has been counter-productive. Perhaps the failure of one has allowed the other unconsciously to lower his sights.

'It could be,' Martin Bell says. 'I've sometimes thought about how I made my breakthrough in 1986, when Graham was injured. But there's not a lot either of us can do about it if we want to keep on racing, short of murdering the other.'

Within three years - after the 1995 world championships, he reckons - Bell will have retired from competition. He's not sure what lies over the horizon. Journalism, perhaps, or coaching, or maybe something else in the ski industry. But you're a long time retired, as they say, and his career now offers only a few last chances to justify its youthful promise.

'There were some glimmers of hope last year,' he said in his calm, decent, downbeat way. 'I came eighth in a training run at the world championships in Japan, and in the combined downhill I was 15th. They were sufficiently in-touch results to give me some encouragement.'

With Anewanter's help, he's been updating his giant slalom technique, in the hope that it will help his downhill performance. It's a formula borrowed from the trend-setting Norwegians: a wider stance, more hip angulation, and allowing the ski to slide a little before applying pressure in a turn.

He was skiing well in the autumn training, and seems to have recovered from an operation, in October, to remove a further piece of torn cartilage, a hangover from the Val Gardena crash. His immediate goal is a top-30 finish in a World Cup race, to set up his confidence for Lillehammer in February.

How different would his life have been, had he been born Austrian? A different man might have used the question to make an unfavourable comparison between the facilities offered by the small British team and those of an Alpine nation. Not Bell. That's not his way.

'Oh, I'd probably be running a ski school or a hotel by now,' he said. 'I wouldn't have been given the chance to continue World Cup racing after the results that I had in 1990 and '91, to be honest.' And being honest has probably been Martin Bell's problem all along.

(Photograph omitted)