Dave Ryding is Great Britain’s best slalom skier. Let me rephrase that, he is one of the world’s best slalom skiers. At the age of 32, Ryding is at the peak of his career.
In 2017, he finished in second place in Kitzbuehel, Austria — one of the most famous slaloms in the world — and despite only having one podium to his name, Ryding has amassed over nine top ten finishes in slalom. This includes eight at the World Cup and one at the Olympics, as well as three top ten finishes in Parallel Slalom over the past two seasons.
You might be wondering: How is a man from Lancashire able to compete with athletes from established skiing countries such as Austria and Norway at the summit of his sport?
It’s tough, to say the least. Ryding spoke to the Sports Gazette about his career path and expectations for the upcoming season, and offers insight on the limitations of skiing in the UK from recreational through professional level.
Is it difficult to get into skiing in the UK? How did you get into the sport?
“When you’re younger there are a lot of opportunities in Britain. We’ve got five indoor slopes and endless amounts of dry ski slopes — which are plastic — so getting into skiing isn’t as hard as you would think.
“My dad was a ski fanatic. Not necessarily racing but he loved to go on a skiing holiday.We didn’t have loads of money to afford ski lessons when we were away, so it’s kind of like you have to learn to ski before you can go on the family holiday in a year.”
Why is the pathway to skiing professionally harder in the UK?
“Eventually you’re going to have to do most of your training abroad because we don’t have mountains in Britain and it’s not really a mainstream sport.
“You could ski in Scotland, but you can’t rely on them because one week there’s snow and the next it’s completely washed away. For the southern English person, the Alps are actually closer.
“We certainly haven’t had the numbers at the top, like footballers, that people aspire to be. We need more role models for the kids, and hopefully I’m one. Hopefully I’m inspiring a few more generations.”
Is the cost of skiing a barrier to entry?
“Yes, but when you’re a 16-year-old cyclist, you still have to go abroad to international competitions. You’ll need the best bike and have to drop £10,000. If you crash, you’re breaking a £10,000 bike.
“There’re always going to be certain aspects of sports that are cheaper or more expensive. Skiing I would say is definitely more expensive than football or rugby.”
When you decided to become a skier, did you have support from the English Ski Federation?
“When I was 16-17, there was a program which would support people who were going to college and allow them the time off, and during some term time, they would have a ski program, so I was fortunate that way.
“The pathway and structure at the moment has gone away from that, and it’s something that I think they should bring back. It’s gone more towards ski academies run by ski clubs, and they are running a program which is generally more expensive, and not necessarily better than what we used to have.
“I would never have funding from the federation because, let’s be honest, I was not at a level where I should merit funding.”
So, could you become a skier by going to university in the UK?
“I don’t think it’s viable. You just can’t do enough skiing, and there’re too many distractions. I don’t think the universities in Britain are at all focused on performance, they are just racing for the dry slope circuit and drinking way too much alcohol while they are racing.
“Never say never, but there is no pathway from British universities to do what I do right now.”
Where do you train and how long before the season begins do you start?
“I only have three weeks off after the season and then I’m already training for the next. Through the summer I’m training on the glaciers and indoor ski centres. I’m at an indoor ski centre now in Germany [Wittenburg skihall,] much bigger than what we have in Britain.
“I think if we got a ski centre in Britain resembling the one in Germany, we’d have a lot more success in slalom and bringing people through. I think that’s something that really needs to be addressed.”
What makes the German ski centre better suited to training?
“From top to bottom it’s probably 24 seconds, but the main thing that we can do here is water the piste. Make it really icy, and there’s a pitch in it. A steep section that we train on.
“In Britain it’s good for kids to get going on indoors, but if you want to reach my level, you can’t train in Britain, you have to go abroad.”
On the topic of your good results, how did you jump from simply competing to fighting for top ten finishes?
“It’s just consistent work and dedication to the sport and eventually I got there. It was later than most because I started later than the Austrians or the French. I just had to give myself that extra time to get there.
“Then, things started happening and going my way, and I managed to get a podium at the World Cup, which I did not think I’d ever be able to do as a kid. It just shows if you do work hard, you get there.”
In Kitzbuehel, you finished first on the first run. How challenging is it mentally to have to wait for 29 other skiers to race?
“There is a huge mental side. Especially because the first run is at 10 o’clock and, for the second run, I was not skiing before nearly 2 o’clock. There’s four hours in which you have to control your heart rate, emotions and everything.
“I learned a lot when I was younger. We have races around Britain on the dry ski slopes and when I was winning those, I would have to do something similar. Leading the first run and then you’d have to wait for everyone else to race before you went again.
“I found a lot of similarities mentally, and I can certainly say that all the racing that I did around Britain helped me.”
What are your expectations for the upcoming season?
“Ideally my goals are podiums. Up until now, I’ve ticked boxes, the podium box already, I’ve had top ten at the Olympics, I’ve had an eleventh at the World Championship.
“So, I think over the next four years, if you look at the next Olympic cycle, I have to be looking for podiums. Anything outside the top ten now is not where I want to be.”
Let’s talk about Marcel Hirscher and Henrik Kristoffersen. Are they more consistent throughout the season, but, on any given day, you have the ability to beat them?
[Hirscher won seven out of nine slalom races last season, while Kristoffersen finished on the podium in each World Cup race last season.]
“If conditions align for me, then yes, I can match them. It’s just whether I can do it week-in week-out. You still have to say they’re the best two, a step above the rest.
“But I’m obviously trying to close that gap and trying to put myself in a position where I can mix it on a more regular basis, rather than winning the odd runs.”
In terms of media coverage, Eurosport show every race, but there is not much coverage from Sky Sports of Winter Sports and skiing.
“Sky Sports are not that interested because you have to pay a fortune for that, which will not always be the best thing for the sport. I think the fact that every single race is on Eurosport is great, and I’m always a believer that with the results comes exposure so it’s down to me to get the results for the media to take notice of that.
“I’m not saying the media should be looking at me more and taking what I do into account more because that’s not the way it is. That’s not how life works. If you do well then they pick it up, if you don’t they are not interested.”
Did you have any British role models?
“We had a few over the years. I remember watching Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, where Alain [Baxter] wrongly had his medal taken off him when he was third.
“I just remember watching that race and thinking how amazing it was. That’s probably what lit the fire and gave me the belief that this sort of venture was doable.”
[Alain Baxter bought a nasal inhaler in the USA that contained methamphetamine — a banned substance — and failed a drug test. Baxter was the first British athlete to finish on the podium in alpine skiing, but he had his medal stripped.]
You said you wanted to be a role model for young British skiers, but are there any other promising skiers?
“We already have Alex Tilley ranked in the top 30 in the world now. We have this young crop that are all around eight to ten years younger then me. They are very strong at the moment.
“Obviously they still have a pathway to follow and they are not quite there. You can never say yes or no, but only time will tell on them as well.”
[Alex Tilley, 23, ranked in the top 30 in the world in the 2017/18 Giant Slalom World Cup standing.]
“But, the sport is much healthier now than when I was at their age and the quality of skiers is much higher than when I was growing up.
“The future is looking good, and the main thing is the federation is very good now, and I can only see it going from strength to strength. Hopefully I can put some more results in before I finish, and then watch this next generation.”
Ryding’s first slalom of the year takes place on November 18th in Levi, Finland. He led the first run of this race last season and increased his lead in the second run before crashing out with the finish line in sight.
You can view a map of skiing facilities in Great Britain HERE.
Visit the website for Wittenburg skihall HERE.
Featured photograph/Dave Ryding