On the twisting and terrifyingly steep Piste Nationale above Crans-Montana in the Swiss Alps last week a strange new entry on the winter sports scene had its second world championship. The sport is ski bobbing, and on the slope—often cartwheeling madly above it—were 120 competitors from 14 countries, including most of Europe, Great Britain, Canada, the U.S. and even Japan.
Ski bobbing takes place aboard something that looks like a low-slung bicycle, except that it slides along on skis instead of wheels. It is an exercise that can be as sweet and safe as a carriage ride through the park or as wild and reckless as clinging bareback to an untamed bronco. Spectators who lined the fast 3,117-yard course, which dived 780 yards through steep open hillside and tightly bordering fir trees, plus millions watching on European television, mostly saw the cowboys. Ski bobbers were in orbit, sailing over fences at 50 mph, doing reverse somersaults through the air at 60 mph or tumbling end over end in an explosion of snow down the middle of the course. Ski bobs were snapping and cracking and bounding riderless in all directions.
Taking part in the four-day show were teen-age boys and girls (in the Junior Divisions), grown-up men and women (in the Ladies' and Men's Elite Divisions) and guys who have been grown up long enough to have learned more sense (in the Men's Over-40 Division). The fastest of the lot was a super-masculine type from Haus, Austria: square-jawed Josef Pitzer, 27, a man who drives a truck when he is not trucking down the trails. Pitzer, the 1968 European downhill champion, rode his 20-pound mount through the men's downhill in 2:18.04, an average speed of 46.5 mph—not bad for a machine with no engine. A time span of less than three seconds separated the seven fastest finishers—not bad either, considering that last year in an international downhill on the same course, with pretty much the same cast, Austria's bumptious Willi Brenter won by 11 seconds over the second-place finisher and 30 seconds over the third.
Obviously, the competition has tightened up. In fact, in his haste to get a fast start Pitzer almost blew the race then and there, coming close to falling off as he hurtled down a 120-yard opening slope that tilts the racers onto two severe bumps and through two tight turns. Brenter, the defending world downhill champion and heavy favorite, had sailed spectacularly out of the race only minutes before by turning on more juice than he could control. About half a mile down from the start, Willi and his ski bob came soaring off a high mound. Man and ski bob described a majestic double-reverse gainer in the tuck position. Then, high over the panicked spectators who lined that stretch of the course went Willi-nilly—and out of the action. Poor Willi. On Sunday he had more bad luck. A bolt came out of the back of his ski bob and the frame sagged down onto the snow, forcing him to quit a quarter of the way through the giant slalom.
"The early starters were making some good times," explained Brenter after his downhill disaster. "I just thought I'd try to break two minutes."
Coming from anyone else that would be put down as mouthing off, but not from Willi. He meant it. In a thoroughly agreeable way ski bobbers may be the wackiest creatures in sport.
Willi says he competes so hard in training races with his older brother, Erich, that one will often wind up dangling from a tree branch.
However, Willi does not train so hard that he cannot enjoy an occasional beer. To tell the truth, Willi may be the Oktoberfest of ski bobbing. Two years ago, on the night before a big international meet in Crans, Willi and his Austrian teammate, Josef Haunsperger, stayed up until 3 in the morning, splitting three dozen beers and arguing violently over who was consuming the most. Came the morning and Haunsperger started the downhill. He crashed after just one good long schuss. "You could only see his feet sticking out of the snow," Willi said. "I thought, 'That's it. I'm not going to make it after all that beer.' " But he did, and won easily.
The days of training on beer are gone because the appeal of the sport on the competitive level is growing stronger. "The thrill is very similar to racing a motorcycle, I would imagine," says James Cox, the fastest member of the British team, a tall young London stockbroker whose face is burned a deep ski-slope brown. "Going down even a difficult course on a pair of fiat skis securely attached to your feet can get a bit tame. With the ski bob you have to hang on for dear life. It presents the challenge of controlling yourself and controlling a machine as well."
Cox's good looks and English public-school charm could fool you, but he's as much out there in the midday sun with the mad dogs as those British colonials Noel Coward used to sing about. Prior to coming to Crans-Montana, Cox was burning to set a world speed record of 120 mph down the back side of the Matterhorn on a specially built ski bob, but the front end shattered like dry straw when a photographer merely sat on it before Cox was ready to go.
Austrians and Englishmen have no monopoly on daredeviltry. North Americans get in there as well. Redheaded Dave Brown of Montreal, a ground crewman with the Canadian NATO Air Force group in Germany, took a tumble in practice for the downhill that dented his crash helmet, twisted his left knee, smashed his lower lip, loosened several teeth and laid him out cold by the edge of the course for almost 10 minutes. When he came to, he thought he was in Austria.
"He's had a few of those knocks," moaned his petite wife Kathi, the only member of the Canadian women's team. "Maybe it's time he gave this up."
But there was Brown on the starting line the next day with a stiff and swollen knee and a horribly puffed right eye and cheek. "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't go down," he said.
Fred Petersen, a 24-year-old welder from St. Paul, flew to Switzerland on his own and then talked his way onto the U.S. team. In fact, he was the U.S. team. Petersen competed wearing a gleaming silver crash helmet so small it pinched his ears, a corduroy jacket, corduroy Levi's, a pair of welder's glasses with plastic lenses and a neat red beard. He didn't do too badly either, finishing 39th in the field of 57 starters. But, as he said, "It was too fast for me. I've never been on anything like that in the States. Next time I'm going to have a better helmet."
While competitive ski bobbing is certain to zoom in popularity in the next few years, it is the safe and sweet side that enchants prospering manufacturers and winter-resort directors. At moderate speeds a ski bob handles as easily as a bicycle. There is a ski beneath the saddle and a separate forward ski that can be swiveled from side to side for steering. The rider sits astride a long, narrow, padded seat, crouched forward and grasping the handlebars. On his boots he wears a pair of 18-inch-long mini-skis, on the back edge of which are attached sharp steel claws. Under the lash of the world's best, now mostly Austrians, West Germans and Swiss, the ski bob can hit speeds of 80 mph in a downhill race. The world record for a straight run, held by Erich Brenter, is just over 103 mph. But a less ambitious man can coast gently down trails that only a skilled skier can handle. He can also glide across deep powder snow that a pair of skis would be buried in. Lessons are not essential. What the ski bobber has is instant skiing, and perhaps an entrée to schusses he hasn't seen since that black winter years ago in Zermatt when he broke his leg executing a clumsy Christy on the Riffelberg run.
"When I saw a ski bob for the first time I thought it was laughable," says Rinaldo Jacomelli, a skier himself and the leading ski entrepreneur of Montana. "But one ride and I knew the ski bob had come to stay. Suddenly I had found a way to do something for the 50% who come to ski resorts only for the apr√®s-ski." Jacomelli, a short, wiry man, not only has sold ski bobbing to his visitors, he has taken it up and now is one of Europe's leading racers in the Senior-Over-40 Division. Last week Jacomelli finished second in the giant slalom but hit a fence at 50 mph in the downhill—thereby losing 20 seconds which would have provided him with a winning margin. He eventually came in sixth.
The first man to start teaching in the Crans-Montana area was another wiry little Swiss named Erwin Zenhausen, who works out of Alex Sports, the swank ski center of very swank Crans. He saw a ski bob at a sporting-goods show in Wiesbaden, Germany eight years ago, brought one home and fell in love with it one night on a moonlight ride over the slopes above town. Now he communicates his love affair to about 200 students each winter.
Switzerland has at least a dozen major resorts with ski bob schools and/or facilities; Austria has 50. There are an estimated 80,000 ski bobbers regularly skidding down the snowy slopes of Europe and—another sure sign that the sport is reaching major status—the two main ski-bob manufacturers, Brenter, founded by Willi's father in 1958, and Hari, a rival Austrian producer, are signing up the top racers to exclusive contracts—and suing each other.
In the U.S., where there are 6,000 to 8,000 ski bobbers, resort managers still gaze with a certain skepticism at the phenomenon taking place across the Atlantic. About a dozen resorts provide ski-bob facilities, but mostly on a sort of every-other-Tuesday-from-2-to-4 basis. Those ski-bob claws chop up the ski runs and the area operators are not yet ready to splurge on special lifts and trails for what is, so far, a trickle of action. Perhaps all that will quickly change. In Crans-Montana for last week's world championship was a delegation from Missoula, Mont. headed by a white-haired, optimistic ski bobber named Bill Cartwright (a descendant of Alexander Cartwright, who pioneered the growth of baseball). Why this group from Missoula? Well, that is where the next world ski-bob championships are going to be held, in February 1971. Having the world championships in Missoula makes about as much sense right now as holding baseball's World Series in Crans-Montana. but riding ski bobs is such glorious fun that it could boom into something as big as skiing. Maybe Bill Cartwright, who heads the U.S. Skibob Association, will be as successful in getting across his message as was Alexander a good many years ago.