Speed riding: Get off to a flying start in the French Alps

Adam Ruck takes his son in search of speed and airtime in the French Alps
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The Independent Travel

Skiing is a great way to spend a family holiday, but my son is rarely slow to remind me that he finds typical family skiing – cruising the piste for mile after mile at a sensible speed – about as interesting as taking the dog for a walk. How, then, to spice it up?

One solution presented itself as we watched a skier leap off a Swiss cliff, open his arms to deploy a mini-parachute, float past our cable-car window and land softly on a hanky-sized patch of snow. Here he executed a few nifty turns, then opened his canopy again to clear the next rock band and fly down the valley. Was this a new James Bond movie in the making, or did he have a box of chocolates to deliver?

"Speed riding," said a passenger next to us, who saw our jaws drop in unison. "A lot of people are into it this year."

In a trance my son George (right) was drawn towards the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot, Googled speed riding and discovered that I could enrol him on a taster session at an accredited speed-riding school in the French resort of Les Arcs. A few mouse clicks later and our session was booked for the final day of the last week of the season. If it all ended in tears, we would not miss any skiing.

Speed riding is not the only variation Les Arcs has up its sleeve. Our "chalet apartment" had a print-out of the week's activities on the table when we arrived: "Monday: Flying kilometre. No charge. Turn up and have a go."

Why not? Les Arcs is the Bonneville Salt Flats of the skiing world. Every year, rubber-suited lunatics with pointed helmets and lead-weighted skis come for a tilt at the world speed record, which has stood at 156mph since 2006. Our chalet boy took us to the balcony and pointed at the steep face of the mountain opposite, where a ribbon of snow between the rocks marked the business section of the speed piste. "Don't worry," he said, "they don't let tourists start at the top". After 500m of precipice, the slope widens and flattens out into an immense deceleration zone.

Next morning, this area was rather like the pits in a Grand Prix, with men in overalls lifting skiers onto benches, fitting them up with extra long skis and sending them on their way with a tap on the backside.

By the time the local sports club had finished its practice session, the April morning was well advanced and the snow was becoming quite sticky. That was our excuse, anyway, as we struggled to break 50mph.

After lunch we swapped back to short boards for some old fashioned skiing. Within minutes my son saw a signpost to "Apocalypse Snow", with a picture of a skier upside down. "Airtime!" he yelled and sped off to where the sky was thick with skiers and snowboarders cartwheeling through the sky like a conspiracy of ravens.

Although no expert in ski aerobatics, George has seen many terrain parks, as these playgrounds are called, from Courchevel to Jackson Hole. Take his word for it: Les Arcs tops them for size, variety, design and fun. It has its own chairlift, ensuring minimum time wasted on dreary old skiing between rotations, and some neat extras, including a jump with a huge airbag for a guaranteed soft landing. A swimming pool at the bottom of a steep run-up offers a daredevil "sink or ski" challenge.

Our speed-riding day dawned bright and with no sign of air turbulence. We met our instructor, whose peeling face suggested he might have been riding too close to the sun, and a group of young Frenchmen who were a day ahead of us in speed-riding experience. They assured us that we would find the new sport "enorme".

Leaving our ski poles and signed waivers behind, we shouldered heavy packs and skied across to the Flying K run-out zone, which doubles up as the speed-riding nursery. It's wide, gentle and a long way from any pistes or lifts. Here we spent most of the morning learning the basic skill: how to unpack and assemble the chute, and then pack it all up again afterwards, which left me thinking that valet speed riding might be an untapped market opportunity.

In a most ingenious way, the backpack unzips to release the chute and become the harness to which it attaches via myriad hooks, straps, toggles, handles and loops. These must be fastened and dangled in exactly the right sequence and configuration so as not to snag each other. We also wore walkie-talkie earpieces, through which Icarus talked us up into the Alpine sky: "Left hand down a bit... relax your shoulders... try not to land on your father."

Once under way, the beginner wobbles, aborts the occasional take-off, and may even fall. If my hands aren't steady, the chute yanks me sideways, throws me off balance, crashing into the snow.

Icarus told us not to try to fly at first, but to concentrate on controlled skiing, with turns. "Remember: speed riding is about skiing, not flying." George took no notice, bounding down the slope at full tilt and thrusting into the air like an impatient duckling.

Breakthrough moments were hard earned: an uninterrupted descent, with successful turns to left and right, feelings of weightlessness and, just once, the ground falling away beneath my feet. Airtime!

"Nice one," said George, in a slightly patronising tone. "Did you see the bloke you nearly decapitated?"

In the afternoon, Icarus left us to do more trial runs while he took the Frenchmen to a steeper slope higher up the mountain, above an impressive cliff. One by one they skied down towards it, took off, and sailed through the air above our heads, down to a safe landing like swans on a pond.

I knew what my son was thinking: one more day, and we would have been doing the same. Taster days are all very well, but they are designed not to thrill and satisfy, but to tease and leave you gasping for more.

"Do we really have to go home tomorrow?" is not a bad note on which to end a holiday. I consoled George with the thought that we might have time for a last visit to Apocalypse Snow... "unless you'd prefer to do some skiing?" Silly question. Who wants to ski, when you can fly?

Travel essentials

Staying there

* Ski Total (01252 618333; skitotal.com) offers a selection of catered apartment holidays in Arc 2000 from £569 per person for a week, including chalet board that covers bed, breakfast, tea, and supper with wine and coffee. Flights, transfers and three days of ski guiding are also included in the price. A lift pass costs €759 for six days for a family of four (Les Arcs plus La Plagne) or €719 for Les Arcs only.

Speed riding there

* Les Arcs Speed Riding School ( speedriding-school.com) charges €220 for a two-day course. It is open to skiers aged 14 and over. A good red-run standard of skiing is required.