by Ski editor and Henry Druce from The Telegraph, April 21, 2017
It’s a perfect blue-sky, spring day in Courchevel 1850 as I stand at the top of the signature La Saulire run. I’m in the presence of greatness, as the person showing a small group of us around the slopes of the resort where he grew up is French alpine racing superstar Alexis Pinturault.
We look down the piste and Alexis is off, dancing down the icy slope, carving immaculate short turns, and leaving a beautifully symmetrical set of tracks for us to follow. He skis as if the conditions are the best they could possibly be, rather than a rock-hard corrugated surface destined to make mere mortals weep.
Apart from one ex-professional racer in the group, the rest of us stumble and slide down with all the grace of ducks on ice.
It’s an unedifying sight and a sharp reminder, as if needed, of the talent this supreme athlete possesses. At 26 years old, Pinturault is at the top of his game and one of the few real challengers to Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who claimed his sixth overall World Cup champion title this season.
Pinturault, who started skiing aged two, is also a very talented footballer. As a 15-year-old he had to choose which sport to pursue professionally. He made the right choice, as two years later he was skiing for the national French team. The following year, in 2009, he became the world junior champion in giant slalom.
He won his first World Cup race in 2012 and has since racked up a total of 19 victories in a mixture of slalom, giant slalom and combined (giant slalom and downhill), as well as a bronze medal in slalom at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. His record is such that he has already been compared to the French legendary racer Jean-Claude Killy.
On a chairlift after the group’s humiliating first run, I ask Alexis how he feels about the comparison.
“I’m thrilled to have surpassed Jean-Claude’s record of World Cup victories, but he remains an all-time great of French and Olympic sportsmanship. It makes me really proud of what I achieved and for the future, because I want to keep going for another 10 years.”
As for his highlights this season, he modestly says that the feeling of winning three World Cup races in giant slalom “was really amazing” but he’s proudest of winning the most points in super combined (super-G and downhill). “This is something really special for the alpine skier,” he says.
Chairlift ride over, we head down one of Alexis’s favourite runs, the red Marmottes. “I like it because it’s always under the sun and the snow is normally good.” On this particular warm spring day, it’s just after 10am by the time we start skiing the run, and the conditions have already softened up. Alexis leads the charge with precisely the same style and effortless grace as before. For the rest of us, the more forgiving conditions transform us from ugly ducklings to graceful swans of the slopes – at least in our mind’s eye.
Halfway down the red run, Alexis pauses for a few minutes by the side of the piste as holidaymakers whizz past, unaware they are sharing the slopes with a skiing legend. I take the opportunity to ask him whether he feels unfortunate to be competing at the same time as the all-dominant Hirscher.
“It’s the best luck I can have to compete against someone who’s always pushing the limit, as it pushes me further,” he says. “We share the same philosophy that everything can always be better. It’s all about details right now.”
The final stragglers in our group arrive and we’re off again, in the direction of the Emile Allais slope, venue of a ladies’ World Cup giant slalom event in December. Once we get there we watch for a few minutes as youngsters practise gates, on the very slope where Alexis must have spent many of his formative years honing his racing technique .
I meekly ask Alexis what I should do to improve my skiing. “When turning, you need to be more on your outside ski. Try lifting up your inside ski at the same time,” he suggests. It’s advice I’ve been given before, but when coming from one of the greatest alpine racers of his generation it carries more weight.
I try following Alexis’s advice as we continue skiing and riding chairlifts to reach a long winding red run, Jean Pachod – it’s looking especially inviting in late morning as it’s now out of the shade. On the chairlift up I ask what he’s more focused on for next season – winning the overall World Cup title, or a gold medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics ? Without hesitating Alexis says he’s focused on the Olympics, where his best chance of securing gold is in giant slalom and super combined.
How does he rate British slalom skier Dave Ryding’s chances? He doesn’t answer the question directly, but his admiration for Ryding is clear. “What he did is unbelievable, because he started on a plastic slope in the UK . It’s something uncommon for us. Usually we start skiing at the age of two on winter snow. He did the complete opposite [Ryding started skiing as an eight-year-old on dry slopes, first skiing on snow at the age of 12] and he’s now in the highlight of alpine skiing.”
Alexis races off from the top of Jean Pachod, with a ski instructor/photographer close on his tail capturing on video the sheer mastery of his turns. We humble acolytes follow in their wake, at a more sedate pace, en route to a gourmet lunch at the slope-side La Cave de Creux. It’s a short ski away from the five-star hotel Annapurna, owned and run by Alexis’s family.
At the restaurant we munch fine French delicacies and the discussion turns to watches – the reason we’ve been graced with Alexis’s presence is ostensibly to celebrate the launch of a limited edition timepiece. Alexis is one of a number of sports stars, alongside tennis player Rafael Nadal and Formula One driver Felipe Massa, who are partners of uber-luxury watch brand Richard Mille.
The previous evening at dinner, Alexis had been presented with an RM035 Ultimate Edition watch, primarily made from carbon and weighing little more than 40 grams.
It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of engineering and very tough. It needs to be, to withstand the shock of numerous collisions with slalom gates when Alexis is racing. Like all Richard Mille partners, the celebrity athletes wear their RM watches while competing.
Alexis lets me try on his new watch. It’s so light and comfortable you hardly know you’re wearing it. I can see the appeal, but this is the closest I’ll ever get to owning one – they retail for £132,000, exclusively through Richard Mille boutiques. Only 35 of them have been made.
As I gorge on a delicious café gourmand selection of cakes and desserts, Alexis signs photographs for us. He’s been patient, graceful and charming throughout the morning, and still doesn’t baulk when we ask further questions and request more photos. And then he bids us goodbye – the sporting superstar has another engagement. He clicks into his bindings and skis away quickly. Very, very quickly.