Take the daredevil route down the slopes
Winter Sports: On your marks for this season's Everyman competitions. There's nothing more exciting than a real race, says Minty Clinch
Sunday 19 December 2010
Chasing your mates around the Alps is one way of getting your ski thrills – but a real race is more exciting. Everyman competitions come in various guises, including charity relays, endurance downhills, party weekends, even a race-training holiday with the chance to beat Sir Steve Redgrave through the gates.
The Inferno, Switzerland
This gut buster, with stressful uphill sections, takes place in Mürren in the shadow of the Eiger on the fourth Saturday in January. The point-to-point contest was invented by pukka Brits in 1928. No lifts, so the pioneering 17 climbed to the top of the Schilthorn, lined up for the "ready, steady, go" and picked their lines through untracked powder. Seventy-five minutes later, the winner emerged in Lauterbrunnen, 14km below. And the Devil's Downhill was spawned.
Nowadays, the race attracts 1,800 contenders, headed by local Swiss, who routinely see off hopefuls and no-hopers from Britain, Germany, and other countries. On the Friday evening, there is a cowbell parade and a Devil-burning ceremony at the ice rink. By 8.30am on Saturday, the first runners are slurping from the hell-fire schnapps in the starting hut and exploding down the immaculate track. With racers launching at 12-second intervals, the tail-enders straggle in through deep ruts around 4pm. Then it's party time, with a prize-giving ceremony in the sports hall and beer on tap till dawn.
Momentum Travel (020-7371 9111; momentumski.com) offers four-night packages from 19-23 January from £625 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, and four nights half-board at the Hotel Jungfrau. To enter, go to muerren.ch.
Crystal Ski Fest, Italy
Sir Steve Redgrave hosts this festival in Sestriere, Italy – the resort that staged the major Alpine events for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The ski-in ski-out Hotel du Col is the base camp for a week of intensive training with BASI (British Association of Snowsport Instructors) tutors, with races almost every day. Between times, participants test their nerve on the top-to-bottom men's and women's downhills – or explore the linked Milky Way resorts of Sauze d'Oulx and Sansicario.
Sir Steve is on hand throughout, sharing generous buffet meals in the hotel and entertainment in the bar, including a quiz night, a disco, and a gala prize-giving. On the slopes, he displays the steely determination that won five rowing golds in successive Olympics. During the training sessions, he crunches his well-muscled 6ft 5in frame into the tightest possible racing tuck as he focuses on the gates. At the start, he squeezes into a hooded catsuit donated by 2010 Olympic speed skaters, to go head-to-head with his 20-year-old daughter, Natalie, and fellow Olympian and co-host, Ben Hunt-Davis. Ben knows his place, but Natalie dared to beat her dad by 100th-of-a-second during my visit – he didn't deny it hurt.
Crystal Ski Fest (0871 231 5643; crystalski.co.uk ) runs 13-20 March. The seven-night package costs from £799 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, half-board at Hotel du Col, lift pass, ski and boot hire, race training with video feedback and schedule of races.
The Villars 24-hour Charity Race, Switzerland
This is the brainchild of Canadian Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, his mentor, Craig Pollock, and Craig's late wife, Barbara. The trio of Villars aficionados masterminded a round-the-clock relay for teams of eight from Saturday noon to Sunday noon. Initially, the proceeds from sponsorship and entry fees (SFr1,000/£640 per team) went to children's charities, but last year Barbara lost her four-year battle with breast cancer, triggering donations to two Swiss cancer charities as well.
Craig has honoured her dying wish that the event should continue and the 13th event will take place on 15 and 16 January. Each team needs a hard man for the uphill sprint from the start, bearing skis on shoulder, to the point where he can clip in and blast down to the chairlift for his first lap. After that, members switch the team vest and monitor on captain's orders. At dusk, the action shifts to the floodlit course, reverting to the steeper slopes at first light for the final blast. Bands perform on the outdoor stage at the Bretaye mid-station throughout the evening, generating dancing in the blizzard – and a great time is had by all.
Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams. co.uk) offers five nights' half-board at the Hotel du Golf from £563 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and transfers. To enter, go to bcv24hvillars.com.
City Ski Championships, Italy
Anyone who doubts that big money runs on adrenalin should head for Courmayeur, the picturesque Italian resort on the south of Mont Blanc, over the third weekend in March. The action starts at midnight on Thursday, when high-flyers arrive in Bar Roma after a hard day in the office. After that, they take no prisoners, on or off the slopes, revelling in training and parallel slalom races on Friday, and the big one, the giant slalom, on Saturday.
Celebrities ranging from Damon Hill and Colin Jackson to Annabel Croft and Fiona Bruce have taken part, with varying degrees of success. In the evening, a Champagne reception and gala dinner herald the distribution of glittering team and individual prizes in age and occupation- related categories, designed to ensure that few go home unrewarded.
Momentum Travel (020-7371 9111; momentumski.com) offers three nights' B&B from £598 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, two days' training and racing programme, and buffet lunches on the mountain.
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