Going for gold in the cold: Where to sample Winter Olympic sports
The Vancouver Winter Olympics start on Friday, with a vast array of sports you’ll never try yourself. Or will you?
Saturday 06 February 2010
The Fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk are criss-crossed with drainage channels and pools, which sometimes freeze in winter and make for perfect speed-skating tracks. Good skating conditions have occurred in 2003, at the start and end of 2009, and again in early 2010. This is no new phenomenon – the first Fen Skating Championship of England was held in 1870 when 6,000 spectators turned up and sporadic competitions have been held ever since.
Local fens skating fanatic Roger Giles is ever-ready to host a competition, and regularly reports on the thickness of the ice; while the Lamb and Flag Inn in Welney has Fens skating photos and memorabilia including past winner's cups. It is probably the only pub in England whose landlord won't mind you trudging through the door with foot-long blades under your feet.
How to do it: The most popular spots are the Bury Fen near Earith, the Old Bedford River and River Delph that dissect Welney, and the Fen adjacent to the Dog-in-a-Doublet pub in Whittlesey. Check out gileslandscapes.co.uk or fenskating.co.uk for fantastic photographs from the recent cold spell.
Biathlon, Scotland and Devon
The word "biathlon" comes from the Greek word meaning "two tests". In the Winter Olympics context, the skills measured are cross-country skiing and target shooting. The basic objective is to complete the course in the least amount of time, hitting as many targets as possible. Not surprisingly, most British biathlon exponents enter the Olympics via the armed forces. However, two dedicated clubs are open to non-military folk. The Cairngorm Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club is based at Glenmore Lodge just outside Aviemore, in Scotland. It has some of the UK's biathlon Olympic athletes as coaches, a rifle range and a rollerski track (imagine an elongated rollerblade rather than snow skis). They also ski on real snow, weather permitting.
Alternatively, the Wessex Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club (WBNSC) is spread across various venues in Devon, Hampshire and Somerset, and Wiltshire. "We don't have our own [biathlon] facility," says Rupert Butcher, founder and secretary of the club, "though we hold an annual rollerski championships in October at Castle Combe". The WBNSC often has shooting training at Budleigh Farm near Newton Abbot, and on the off-chance there's snow around, they'll be the first to strap in and herringbone their way around the Devonshire hills. "We shoot using .22 biathlon-ready rifles," says Budleigh Farm owner Arthur Harvey. "The club insurance covers you."
Further afield, if you find yourself in the resort of Seefeld in Austria, then pay a call on Martin Tauber, an ex-Olympian who runs a biathlon training school offering taster sessions.
How to do it: The Cairngorm Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club (01479 810087; cbnsc.co.uk) has club sessions on Saturdays and Wednesdays throughout the winter. Taster sessions can be arranged by appointment with the size of the group and length of stay determining prices. Wessex Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club (01985 213047; wessexbiathlon.org) can also arrange taster sessions for groups only. Price on application, with accommodation at Budleigh Farm. Martin Tauber's biathlon training school (00 43 6642 187871; xc-academy.com) has beginner sessions on Wednesdays from 10am through to 3pm costing €65 per person.
North Pennines, England
"In the halfpipe," runs the official Vancouver Olympics website, "one snowboarder at a time performs a routine of acrobatic jumps, twists and tricks on the inside of a half-cylinder-shaped snow tube or ramp while moving from one side of the halfpipe to the other."
If you are tempted by this description, the British options are limited. "The indoor Snowzone in Milton Keynes introduced a halfpipe about four years ago," says Stuart Brass, organiser of the British Snowboarding Championships, "but there hasn't been a new one in England since." Scottish locations such as Aviemore and Fort William have no halfpipe-making facilities, and they're not as keen for people to go digging on their slopes as one might imagine, but there are five less-well-known areas in the north of England that feature ski lifts, cafés, base lodges and a couple of piste bashers. They also have plenty of ditches that could easily be shaped into a halfpipe for those so inclined. "During the recent cold snap, conditions up there were epic, easily as good as the Alps," says Stuart.
How to do it: Four of the five ski areas are in the North Pennines centered around Weardale between 5 and 10 miles south of Alston. Allenheads (01670 715719; ski-allenheads.co.uk) has three rope tows and a vertical drop of about 200 feet; Harwood Common (01748 823164) has two rope tows and a vertical drop of 260 feet; Swinhope Moor (01388 527527; skiweardale.com) has two linked button lifts, a café, a Kässbohrer piste-basher and a vertical drop of 600 feet; and the biggest of the bunch – Yad Moss (01228 561634; yadmoss.co.uk) – has two Kässbohrer piste-bashers, three graded pistes, a new café and a vertical drop of 400 feet. In the Lake District, Raise-Helvellyn (015395 35456; ldscsnowski.co.uk) has one button lift, one rope tow and a vertical drop of 350 feet.
La Plagne, France
Assuming the metal tracks at such places as Happy Valley in Llandudno are too tame (and they are really children's versions of the Olympic sport), you'll need to travel further than these shores to try a real bobsleigh. The French resort of La Plagne is home to a public-access bobsleigh course used in the 1992 Albertville Olympic Games. The mile-long run contains corners that produce forces of 3.5g, and is the world's fastest track: one team achieved a remarkable 80mph. There are three options for novices: try it on your own with a one-person "bob" luge, get a group and try out the four-person bob, or have a go in the full fibre-glass and steel sleigh where the brake man and driver are professionals.
How to do it: La Plagne has its own train station at Aime-la-Plagne, with direct links on Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) to London St Pancras on Fridays and Saturdays or with connections in Paris on weekdays. Ski Laroche (0787 020 9566; skilaroche.com) is an English-run family chalet. One week's fully catered stay during March costs £560 per person. The bobsleigh track can be booked via La Plagne's website at la-plagne.com. Prices start at €38 per run
Finally, the big one. And for that you should travel to the place that introduced a generation of TV viewers to the sport: Calgary, home to the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Generally speaking, ski jumpers are supple beyond measure and have no fear. Step forward a short-sighted, plump plasterer from Cheltenham: Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, the first competitor to represent Great Britain in ski jumping. Twenty-two years on, his kit is still on show at Calgary's Olympic Park – which also operates a zip wire directly down its biggest ski jump hill.
After suiting up and clipping into the wire, lean forward and allow gravity to propel you to 90mph down the bottom of the ski jump arena. Don't expect a crowd to be shouting "Eddiieeeeeee," while you're doing it, though.
How to do it: Crystal Holidays (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) has packages to the Lake Louise Inn or Banff's Bow View Lodge, flying non-stop Heathrow-Calgary on BA. Prices start at £499 for Banff and £579 for Lake Louise based on four sharing and including car hire. Day sessions at Calgary's "Skyline at the Park" (001 403 247 5452; winsportcanada.ca; ) cost C$57.75 (£36) and include two training zips and one full ski jump zip. It is closed for single rides until May.
The winter cousin of bowls was invented in Scotland more than 500 years ago. The best-known curling competition is known as The Bonspiel (or The Grand Match) and can only ever take place on Lake Menteith near Aberfoyle, the spiritual home of the sport.
For 30 years the ice has failed to form to sufficient thickness to support the crowds. Last month, however, the lake finally froze. A Bonspiel Facebook campaign saw 5,000 curlers mobilised.
"It was like a Scottish winter festival," said Ian Fleming, owner of the Lake Hotel (01877 385 258; lake-hotel.com). "There were curlers, skaters and people out with their children. It was an amazing atmosphere." Should the lake freeze again, expect a similar crowd. Future sub-zero temperatures could see activity in the many recently renovated Victorian curling ponds throughout the country.
How to do it: For a list of curling clubs that play at ice rinks and curling ponds in Scotland, see the Royal Caledonian Curling Club website: royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org. Alternatively, curlingscotland.com has day lessons available for £25 at the Dewar Centre in Perth with Olympic coach Jane Sanderson.
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