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December 27, 2013 6:23 pm
The view is spectacular from up here. I’m halfway up a mountain in the Swiss Alps, the air is crisp and clean, and the sky is that perfect blue you only get at this sort of altitude.
But I’m not actually looking at the panorama across the Rhone Valley. I’m perched at the top of La Piste Nationale, a world cup racecourse at Crans-Montana, waiting for the signal to throw myself down the hill. My heart is in my mouth, my legs are twitchy and my mind knows I am about to do something that my body will soon tell me I shouldn’t have.
I’ve never raced before but I know the routine. As a kid growing up in Canada, I spent many Saturday mornings watching the “Crazy Canucks”, the golden generation of our men’s national ski team, who were known for being fast and almost reckless in how they raced. I’m not wearing a Lycra racing suit but could I relive their glory?
The only advice I’d been given was to focus on the next gate while slicing through the course. I’m doing OK, trying to stay tight to the gates – until about three-quarters of the way down, when my thighs start to burn. I keep it together and make it across the finish line, but my time seems impossibly slow. Fortunately, unlike some of my fellow competitors, I don’t wipe out on the final part by trying too hard to get on to the podium.
My debut race took place at the Momentum Ski Festival, an annual event of which the Financial Times is the media partner. Launched 14 years ago by Momentum, a specialist ski travel company, the four-day long weekend at Crans-Montana was designed to combine the buzzy atmosphere of a world cup ski race and make it accessible to City of London snowsports enthusiasts. Companies can enter teams to compete in the parallel slalom and giant slalom races, with bankers, brokers, insurers and consultants all meeting on the mountain.
But the event has evolved off the slopes, too. It now includes the FT Forum, a panel discussion that last year featured comedian Marcus Brigstocke, BBC journalist Frank Gardner and Jean-Claude Biver, founder of watch company Hublot. There was also comedy from Brigstocke and Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell, and music from bands including The Feeling.
The resort is about a two-hour train ride from Geneva airport. The route takes you along the top of Lake Geneva to Sierre, an industrial town that sits on the floor of valley. The best way to get up to the resort, more than 900 metres up the hill, is to follow the red line painted on the ground from the railway station to the funicular. It then makes a 4km trip, which takes just 12 minutes and, as you rise up the side of the valley, you finally begin to feel you have truly arrived among the majesty of the mountains. (Foolishly, I took a taxi on the way back but the journey turned out to be miles longer, as well as much less fun and much more expensive.)
Crans-Montana itself is a mix of old and new. The main runs are south-facing, which means there is lots of sunshine and the long, wide and near-empty pistes are great for intermediates and beginners, although experts might need to head off-piste. With a glacier area at 3,000 metres, you are almost guaranteed to get snow – and lots of it. Get up early in the morning, when the runs are freshly groomed and it is a skiers’ paradise.
The town is not a quaint Alpine village, but there are atmospheric streets and places to stay. It doesn’t feel too swanky, but the luxury shops – Moncler, Bally and Louis Vuitton – hint at the clientele the resort is aiming to attract.
Crans-Montana is doing a lot to pitch for international tourists, with Sir Roger Moore, its most famous resident, extolling its virtues in a promotional video. The resort is also working hard to turn itself into more than a ski destination with a golf course that hosts European tour events.
But for most of the attendees at the ski festival, the key attraction remains the slopes. Three days of skiing with a bit of entertainment thrown in is more than enough to get me excited about making a return. Next time, intensive training begins straight after Christmas – though I may still skip the Lycra racing suit.
The 2014 Momentum Ski Festival (momentumskifestival.com) takes place on March 13-16.
Packages cost from £695, including flights from London
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