World ski-mountaineering championships (Skiing)

Just back from a week in Vallouise for the world ski-mountaineering champs. What a week! Awesome, but knackering. My wife and son came along with me, which made it even more fun and even more knackering, and I did every race, just to get my moneyís worth! A week behind the computer working on my PhD is sounding almost appealing today.

The championships started on Sunday on a high with the team race Ė always the longest and most technical of the races. We had a bit of umming and arring about who should race together since Jon Bracey, half of the Bracey-Scrimgeour partnership that is traditionally the strongest British team, was taken ill at the last minute. I ended up racing with Jon Morgan and we had a cracker, my descending only held us up on the big descent at the end and we were well matched on all but the first two climbs, where I towed a bit. We finished first Brits at a respectable 31% behind the newly crowned world champions Matheo Jacquemoud and William Bon-Mardion. At the finish line I found Aaron playing with Williamís son Ė thankfully not the game ďmy dadís better at skiing than your dadĒ!

Next up was the sprint race, which isnít really the forte of anyone on the British team Ė we all come from an endurance background and are relatively poor at transitions. In sprint races you start skinning flat-out uphill, then run with skis on your back, then skin again, then remove the skins and do a slalom course before skating to the finish. With all that in under three minutes for the best guys you have to be slick at your transitions and good at sprinting! We arrived late so I had no opportunity to ski the course and little warm up and was quite surprised to be only 22 seconds away from qualifying for the quarter finals and highest placed Brit. Perhaps next time Iíll take it a bit more seriously, it would be cool to race head-to-head in one of the heats, they look a lot of fun!

Tuesday was a rest day for the seniors before the individual race on Wednesday. Grand beau, -9, no wind, 40cm of fresh snow, a great course; the stage was set! Halfway up the first climb Ben, Carron and I were all together, and Jon Morgan wasnít far behind. I wondered to myself whether we just happened to be all of a very similar ability or whether it was that we all cared more about beating the other Brits than we did about the rest of the world. Probably the latter (the GB champs at the end of March should be interesting!).

Trying hard

Trying hard

I really wanted to finish first Brit and knew that to do so Iíd have to be much stronger on the climbs than the others, since they could all out-ski me on the way down. By the top of the first climb I had a small lead over Carron and Ben, and by the top of the second climb Ben had dropped back a little and I had a slightly bigger lead over Carron, but still not that big – he arrived at the transition before I left. However, in getting this gap I had completely buried myself in the process. Thus my descending was even more ragged than usual and Carron was a comfortable two minutes ahead at the finish after two big descents of 650m and 900m with only a small final climb separating them. I had got a 1 minute penalty at one of the transitions due to breaking a new rule about putting poles on the ground for safety (I usually use them as a zimmer frame for balance when removing my skis) so had a nervous minute to see how close Ben and Jon were behind, thankfully just far enough for me to stay ahead on the official results! It would have been nice to be first Brit at this, but I was pretty chuffed with the result Ė Carron is a very good skier and Iíve never got this close to him before, so thatís progress. I was 30% behind the winner, that man Bon-Mardion again. Interestingly my average ascent rate was much higher than any other race Iíve ever done (920m/hr up and down) which would usually have me much closer to the winners, but they managed a whopping 1200m/hr! Not sure whether the top racers are getting significantly faster or whether it was just a favourable course. Here’s a great video of the top end of the race. Results here. I was 49th out of 68 finishers.

Getting into the tail-end of the week, we had the vertical race on Thursday. In theory this should favour me as there is no descending, but I rarely seem to find my rhythm in uphill-only races. I think it might be something to do with the whole thing seeming completely pointless, racing up a piste in the burning sunshine when there is a lift going to exactly the same place as you are! Still, I managed to be second Brit 1 minute 20 behind Ben, who is very strong at vertical races.

Vertical race

Vertical race

Finally on Friday we had the relay, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately most of the other non-alpine nations canít put full teams into the relay as they donít have enough racers, which meant I started the final leg with no prospect of catching anyone. It was cool to see the sprint finish for gold between Italy and Switzerland though, just before I set off! With nobody to get in my way I managed the fastest British leg before pointing the family north and heading home to Belgium.

Relay race

Relay race

Overall it was a great experience, my 3rd world champs. I feel like at each championships Iíve improved, and all the other Brits seem to be getting better too. It may seem weíre a long way behind the competition, but we we’re beating athletes from snowy countries with big mountains (Canada, Slovenia, Austria, Andorra, Poland, etc), many of whom have coaches and funding, so 30% behind the best in the world in a highly technical mountain sport when you live at sea level in a country with no mountains actually seems like a pretty good result to me. Psyched for the British champs at La Belle Etoile at the end of March!

More photos here.