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The bar is dark. It’s old. And it’s in a village that is even older. They’ve lived in this valley for thousands of years. But as venerable as this hamlet is, skiing is rather new here. The lift was built ages ago, and the race we are about to do is a mere 22 years old. Le Derby de la Meije in La Grave, France, started as a crazy idea in a bar between some friends. And, to be honest, there’s really nothing new about having a beer or two (or, in France, a vin rouge) and deciding to get all your buddies together for a winner-take-all top to bottom loser buys the beer test of guts, lets and moxie. Yeah, a “Chinese Downhill.”
For some, this Chinese Downhill is serious stuff. But for my wife, it’s a bit scary, definitely intimidating and, perhaps, the dumbest thing she’s ever done on skis. The trepidation is enhanced by the fact that she’s going to be on telemark skis and that she’s never, ever, been in a ski race in her life.
I’ll be the first to admit that ski racing can be scary. Standing in a starting gate, looking at an icy fall line, and getting your game on to go as fast as you possibly can down a mountain like La Grave isn’t for everyone. No, NASTAR is for everyone.
There’s more to ski racing than being first. And if NASTAR is good for something, it’s that it allows even my grandmother to chase some sticks and feel, if only for the briefest moment, a bit of the ski racer’s rush. Le Derby takes this process nuclear. It’s the biggest event of its kind in the world, with more than 1,000 competitors from more than 20 countries (although with only the three of us, the Yanks are sorely represented). Participants start in waves of 10, a minute apart, and race down the mountain through bumps, rocks, cliffs and crevasses, the only goal to get to the bottom as fast as possible. It is amazing, scary, rewarding and insane. And it’s about the most fun you can have – ever – as a ski “racer.”
I tell you these things not so you jump on a plane at the end of the season next year and head over to La Grave to do the Derby yourself (although everyone should try this race once in their life), but to make a more general statement that if you’ve never challenged your buddies to a Chinese Downhill on your local hill, never entered a pond skimming contest and yes, never tried NASTAR, that you should add the spice of competition to your skiing environment from time to time.
Because, while for some the Derby is definitely about winning, for the rest of us being in the Derby—or any event, for that matter—is really about being part of something much bigger. A thousand people makes for a hell of a party at the awards ceremony when everyone gets off the mountain. And by being part of Le Derby, my wife will instantly have something in common with 1,000 other skiers, most of whom don’t even speak her language. It’s a hell of a connection and is one of the ways in which our sport is special.