Glued to the TV watching all those Olympians last month, I started imagining myself racing down those icy slopes to claim a medal.
And being severely short-sighted, I was further inspired by the Paralympics, seeing visually impaired British alpine skiers win gold. So before the Paralympics are even over, I’m in Méribel, ready to give it a go.
Racing against the French champion is surprisingly easy to do – at most French resorts the national ski school, Ecole du Ski Français, runs weekly giant slalom ‘flèche’ competitions open to all comers.
You win gold, silver or bronze depending on what percentage above the champion’s time you achieve.
But there is a problem. I can carve beautiful, high-speed turns… on nursery runs. Put me on steeper, icier runs and my skis skid all over the shop. So it’s back to school for me.
It’s a little humiliating to be snaking in a class of seven behind our instructor, Richard, having skied all my life. But it proves surprisingly hard to replicate his graceful S-shapes as we drop into the green valley below. Even in this, an advanced class, we’re mostly leaving Z-shaped trails as we zigzag from one skidded turn to the next.
Richard has lots of tricks and visualisations to help us – pivot on the ball of your foot, let your legs swing like a pendulum – and soon I feel like a proper skier, my edges biting into the snow.
Méribel, a pretty village of stone houses, is at the centre of the Trois Vallées, the world’s biggest ski area.
This means I can ski across into Courchevel, with its wide, immaculately pisted boulevards, for my first attempt at the ‘flèche’ competition.
How to enter the ‘flèche’ race and how it works
Simply ask at the ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) office where and when the ‘flèche’ takes place (it’s often a Friday) and staff will sign you up. You don’t need to be enrolled in lessons and typically pay €10 (£8.40).
Then turn up at the designated piste – usually a red run – on the day and pick up a bib.
The course is ‘opened’ by an instructor who competes professionally and so has an official ranking. This means the ESF can calculate how long the course would take the reigning French men’s champion and can calculate your time as a percentage of his.
If you complete the course within 15% of his time you get gold, 28% vermilion, 40% silver, 45% bronze and 50% the ‘flèchette’ ranking.
At the ESF office afterwards you can ask for a log book (carnet) with your time in to record your skiing ability and progress. But the results are also online at esf-uk.co.uk.
If your local ESF is not running a competition the week you’re there, then another village in the ski area probably will be – they are most frequent in school holidays as children are welcome.
At a cordoned-off piste, a former pro racer in a catsuit fires out of the start gate and bombs down the red run, slapping the gates and setting us a target of 33 seconds.
By contrast, when my turn comes I focus on all of Richard’s tips to put in a stately 53-second run. Would that put me in medal contention? No.
Next time I’ll have to give it some welly but first we must continue to finesse our turns. Curiously, the technique for slow, controlled skiing is the same as for racing.
And as Richard leads us down black runs above Courchevel, I feel we’ve all learnt how to snake down the vertiginous slopes just as fast as we want.
Of course, I’m itching to try another race, and when my chance comes, the next day, my heart is pounding.
‘When you’re ready,’ says the instructor at the start gate. I want to explain that might be a very long time but I go for it, carving at high speed between the gates. That must be a medal-winner. But no: still half a second off even the flèchette rating, below the bronze.
‘You need to really get your edges in and angle your body,’ explains Richard. ‘People think they’re doing that even if their skis are virtually flat and they are as stiff as a ski pole.’
I have one more chance: a race in Méribel itself on my last day, with friends watching. This time I unveil my secret weapon – a catsuit bought second-hand on eBay for £40 and said to knock half a second off your time.
I feel ready but promptly botch my push-off and soon feel gravity forcing me to skid my turns.
‘That was terrible,’ I tell my pals.
‘Colin, you won silver!’ they cry. ‘Look at the board!’
Silver it is – and I’m three-tenths of a second off the next level up: vermilion (gold is almost impossible). Clearly that technique work pays off and not just in medals – learning to ski well on ice prevents many injuries.
So with the Easter holidays coming up, maybe now is the time to improve on my silver…
Travelski offers seven days in Méribel, including train from St Pancras to Moûtiers, transfers, accommodation at the P&V Fermes de Méribel with spa and pool access, ski carriage, and seven-day lift pass from £1,080 per person, les3vallees.com and esf-meribel.com.
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