In praise of Uli Spiess

I am sport mad.  Always have been.  And not just your common or garden footy and cricket either, although I follow both of those keenly.

No, my greatest interests have always lurked outside of the really big, blockbuster sports.  My boat gets floated by sports that often attract the slightly sniffy moniker of ‘specialist’, things like ice hockey, darts, baseball, Le Mans, the Dakar Rally… and of course cycling.

However, the sporting discovery that predated all of those was, believe it or not, downhill skiing.

Boom boom boom boom tatata tatata tatata.  Music to my young ears on a winter’s Sunday afternoon.  The theme tune of Ski Sunday on BBC2.  Growing up in the badlands of Norfolk those Alpine resorts seemed so glamorous, so romantic, so hilly.  And the racing was always, always spectacular, not to mention spectacularly dangerous.

And the skier I followed most religiously?  Not the great Franz Klammer, although he was still racing when I first got into it (I’m that old!).  Nor the legendary Swiss Pirmin Zurbriggen or any of the Canadians who were starting to make big waves in Europe at that time.

Uli giving it plenty, as usual...

Nope, my hero was the obscure Austrian Ulrich ‘Uli’ Spiess.  A man who seemed to view every course not from the perspective of how quickly he could ski down it, but instead from where exactly was the best spot from which to launch himself on another insane, gravity-defying leap.

In those days TV cameras never covered the whole length of a World Cup downhill course, so to my fuzzy three-decades-on memory a typical Spiess run usually went something like this:

  1. He was shown exiting the start ramp backed by the traditional peal of cowbells and cries of “Hup hup hup”.
  2. The picture would cut to the view from a camera pointed at an empty piece of snow, waiting for him to arrive, while the commentator enthused about the incredible speed of his run through the top part of the mountain
  3. Then Uli would appear, flying through the air totally out of control – sometimes backwards – before crash landing in a flail of limbs while the commentator ooh-ed and ahh-ed about what a pity it was since he’d been going sooo well up to that point.

No it's not silly freestyle skiing, it's Uli putting one over the Camel Humps

Of course these crazy leaps didn’t always end badly.  Connoisseurs of obscure sporting facts (like me) can delight in the fact that Uli was the first man ever to clear the three “camel humps” at Italy’s Val Gardena course, leaping 70 metres at over 100km/h in order to do so.  And he won two World Cup races before his career was cut short by injury after (you guessed it) a monster crash.  Which is still two more than most skiers ever win.

However, what has all this got to do with cycling, I hear you wearily ask.  Well, nothing really.  Just a hope that in the second half of my inaugural bike racing season I can employ some of the Devil-may-care spirit of the great Uli Spiess in order to battle my way to a top ten finish or two.

Of course, the main thing I have to do is actually go out and ride my bloody bike, something I’ve not managed for a fortnight and counting.  The height of summer is not normally anyone’s idea of the ideal time for a cycling layoff… but like an old friend you fail to contact for just that bit too long, I’ve already reached the point where it seems more normal not to be riding, so I have to stop finding excuses for indolence and get back into it.

Establishing a calendar of races for the remainder of the season will help.  I hope to have the motivation and free time to hit the Surrey League handicaps again, starting either at Ottershaw on July 14 or Newdigate on July 21.  And for purely masochistic reasons I’m being inexorably drawn to the final Hove Park Crit on July 15, despite – or perhaps because – of my experience last time around.

Then it only seems right to head back to Goodwood for the 4th Cat gig on Sunday 24 July, not least because that race is likely to witness the return of cycling illustrator extraordinaire and fellow Bayeux boy Richard Mitchelson to the competitive arena, giving our team a little more strength in numbers.

After that, I’ll only have August left before the season quickly winds down.  I can feel the very real prospect of a nul points campaign looming large.  I don’t like it but, given my recent eschewing of even the minimum requirement of training, I’ll only have myself to blame if that proves to be the case.

Never has Norman Tebbit’s “get on your bike” admonishment seemed so appropriate…

P.S. As an epilogue to this story, I’m happy to report that Uli Spiess has not managed to kill himself attempting any further acts of downhill skiing foolhardiness.  He’s alive and well and living in the Austrian ski resort of Mayrhofen.  You can find his website here.

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