Travel: Crystal Ski Fest

IT'S a crisp morning in the Italian Alps and the sun is almost bouncing off the skintight Lycra speed suit being worn by the rather tall gentleman with the familiar air.

Sir Steve Redgrave, Britain's greatest Olympian, is hamming it up for the cameras, as he puts his arm around his similarly clad fellow rowing gold medallist Ben Hunt-Davis, who is even taller than his more illustrious colleague.

Where the younger Hunt-Davis can't compete yet, however, is around the middle. Sir Steve, now 48, is perhaps no longer in the prime shape that took him past the Olympic winning post a record five times. As he would be the first to acknowledge, Lycra suits are perhaps not the best sartorial advert for those with a certain middle-aged spread. "Come on," he urges the snapping photographers. "I can't hold it in for very much longer."

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Then he deftly turns the attention back to his oarsman pal. "Ben said to me, 'You know these suits Steve, they are a bit tight around the neck aren't they?' I looked at him and thought, that's because you've got it on back-to-front. Best laugh I've had all week."

And all week Redgrave and Hunt-Davis have been the genial hosts of the Crystal Ski Fest, an annual skiing jamboree that brings around 100 wannabe ski-racers of all ages and shapes together to the Alps for a few days of instruction, slalom training and speed testing. Next season, as this, it is being held in the northern Italian ski town of Sestriere, where the slopes have their own Winter Olympics pedigree.

Redgrave is an annual attender, usually with his equally statuesque teenage daughter Natalie in tow - or, increasingly, out in front. Not only has she inherited her dad's height and broad shoulders, she's absorbed, you suspect from birth, his competitive spirit. The Lycra suits, brought back from the Vancouver Games in February 2010, might have been worn half in jest, but there's a feeling that if there is a race to win, the great Olympian is going to maximise his chances of winning it. Even in a short downhill sprint through the slalom gates, it could take crucial seconds off your time. Judging by the amount of shedding of bulky ski jackets that was going on on the last day of racing, it was a lesson well learned.

Many a recreational skier has wondered what it would be like to put on a numbered bib, a helmet and a pair of race skis and enter the starting hut for a professionally organised slalom descent. Ski Fest provides the opportunity to do just that, bringing together like-minded souls to compete against each other in a relaxed - well, almost - environment.

Sestriere cordons off part of a piste just above the town to provide an exclusive area and a team of top instructors from the British Association of Ski Instructors (Basi), helped by local experts, provides the expertise to run the event. The skill level ranges from good amateurs - the Redgrave entourage among them - to beginners, from young teens to those in their seventies. Training runs sort everyone out into speed categories so that every contestant is racing against skiers of similar ability. That's not to say those at the more mature end of the age spectrum in category three are any less competitive than the boy and girl racers of category one. All winners get a prize from Redgrave at the podium ceremony at the end of the week.

It's an exhilarating way of testing yourself, even if the closest you have come to a slalom course previously is Ski Sunday. It's not as if you are without help. Basi instructors are on hand to give on-course tips on racing technique, host pre-race gate-by-gate course inspections and provide end-of-the-day video analysis. If you really wanted to see it demonstrated, all you had to do was glance across at the next piste where professional downhillers, Britain's Chemmy Allcot among them, were taking part in an Alpine event. They were scary fast on a much longer and steeper slope that gave everyone that little niggling feeling that if only they could tuck lower and get tighter into those poles, those crucial milliseconds could be yours for the asking.

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One morning, after getting our times, we raced head to head down the course in dual slalom, knocking each other out until we got a category winner. On another, it was a solo descent to see who could record the fastest time.

Then there was the relay, in which teams of four competed against each other. Not only skiing ability was tested here but also the leg-twisting dexterity of taking off your skis, switching them over and putting them back on. Not as easy as it sounds, as I found to my cost, in the heat of competition and your boots are clogged with fresh snow. Fortunately, my team-mates were all far too nice to lynch me.

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While the races are the highlight of the week for most of the participants, the long sessions in between are put to good use by the Basi teams which take groups out around the Sestriere area to polish up technique. Given the quality of the instruction, I would defy anyone not go home a better and faster skier than when they arrived.

This all takes place in a spot that is part of the giant Milky Way ski area, crossing over to nearby France. It's classic high-Alpine scenery of jagged peaks and snow-filled corries marching off into the distance. Sestriere has wonderful, well-groomed runs including the magnificent Olympic men's downhill descent. Hop in a cable-car at Sestriere base and within a few minutes you can be hurtling down the women's downhill run to Sensicario, an area of well-patronised and relatively cheap - by Alpine standards - mountain restaurants and tree-lined runs.

Stay on the cable-car a couple of stops more and the whole of Sauze-Doux opens up beneath you. It adds up to healthy competition and a dose of high quality in a top-class touring area, based in a hotel that fronts on to the slopes. Sir Steve provides the feelgood lustre brought to any event by a legendary sportsman.

Try and keep up with him on the slopes if you can, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's like chasing Sir Chris Hoy on a penny farthing. n

The Crystal Ski Challenge will be held 13-20 March, 2011. Prices from 799 including flights, transfers, seven nights half board accommodation in the four-star Hotel Du Col, lift pass, ski and boot hire or carriage, coaching, race training and video feedback, races and trialling next winter's new Salomon equipment. Reservations on 0871 231 5643 and more information at

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 14 November, 2010