Skiing and snowboarding might be synonymous with winter and the snow that falls from the sky, but snow is not a prerequisite for getting involved in these sports. With new dry-slope technologies on the rise around the globe and a top Audi FIS Ski World Cup racer who credits his humble beginnings to learning to ski on plastic brushes, opportunities are increasing for those who wish to participate and compete in winter sports without snow in their backyard.
This is now high season for the competition period with Regional and National races held at various dry slopes each summer throughout Britain, like those run by the London and South East Regional Snowsports Association (LSERSA) from April-October. These events provide an excellent opportunity to try out the competitive side of the sport with no minimum skill requirement. “If you can ski down a slalom run (even fairly slowly) you can take part!” promises the Bowles Ski Racing Club website.
“I hope I am proof that dry slope racing can be a viable path for other athletes who want to compete on the elite level,” remarks World Cup slalom ace Dave Ryding, who started out at the Pendle Ski Club in Lancashire and rose to the Kitzbühel podium in 2017. “Yes, I was always going to have to play catch up against the ‘snow nations’ who are on snow at age three, since I didn't do my first on-snow training until I was 13. But given time, I have been able to get closer and closer to that top step, and maybe I still have time to get there! I would never have ski raced if it wasn't for my local dry slope.”
Former British Ski Team member and current Eurosport commentator Nick Fellows believes dry slope training and racing can help athletes with elite aspirations in many ways, including preparation for on-snow competition. Since skiers travel at slower speeds on dry slopes, the technique is slightly adapted and the precision, touch, timing, and efficiency are all refined. He might know a thing or two about it since he was the National Dry Slope Champion in 1985.
“Slopes are shorter than on-snow training, therefore coaches and athletes work in a quick turnaround, sprint-like training environment,” says Fellows. “But most importantly, a feeling for the ski and turn is developed which is then transferred to the snow and again adapted to the higher speed.” There is little room for error and athletes develop an attention to detail due to the brush-like mat underfoot.
Similarly, Sarah Lewis, FIS Secretary General, also credits her international ski racing career – which led her to competing in the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games – from starting out as a member of Sandown Park Ski Racing Club at age 14. "Training twice per week throughout the year in a competitive environment was key. Being able to focus on technique and ski-specific fitness laid great foundations to be fit and better prepared for snow training and competitions," she says. "A great number of British skiers would never get started in the sport and develop into international-level athletes without first learning and training near to their homes."
Ryding echoes Lewis' sentiments in regards to his own success. "In dry slope racing, I learned an incredible amount on how best to prepare for a race, how to handle pressures between runs, how to tune skis, and the list goes on with the mental side of things,” he notes. “It’s not got the World Cup setting, but you learn an awful lot as you are growing up on how to handle yourself and what works for you.”
The GB Ski Dry Slope calendar features competitions throughout the spring, summer, and autumn at slopes in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. British Ski Academy’s GBR Series, a collection of summer races held on both dry slopes and at indoor snow facilities, runs from 5th May though 15th July 2018. In addition to the competitions, there are a number of training opportunities and also a Pembrey Slalom Camp (19th-22nd August) for further skill development. A recently introduced highlight of the season is the Lowland Nations Championships, which will take place in Belgium in September 2018.
Fellows recognizes that on-snow training is a necessity for those who want to be able to compete on the surface at the highest levels, but he points out that solid technique, race lines, drills, and skills can all be developed on dry slopes to help with the step up to international – and one day, World Cup – competition.
“Thanks to Dave Ryding, the dry slope race community is thriving. Today the pathway is deeper than ever and dreams are reality. British skiers from dry slope backgrounds will win World Cup races and Olympic medals. If it is not Dave, there are [more] behind him,” predicts Fellows. “It may seem a little quirky to the mighty alpine nations of Austria, Switzerland and Italy, but for Brits the dry slope is a rite of passage to international ski racing success.”
Lest you think Ryding is an anomaly, he’s not the only current talent emerging from the British Ski Racing system who started on a dry slope. Laurie Taylor from the Aldershot Ski Club competed in his first World Cup race in 2017 and skied to a 26th-place finish in the slalom at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. The future is quite bright for the kids who started on brushes!