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How an era-defining, espresso-loving Brit by the name of Dave Ryding went from Pendle Ski Club to winning gold in Kitzbühel. And back again. Kieran Longworth ventured into the frozen north (west) to find out more.
Photoshoot: Sam Bowles
The some say quaint, definitely unassuming town of Tarleton in Lancashire is a spot where life has its own particular pace.
A place where stones gather moss. Rolled or otherwise. And people go to wind down rather than amp things up. In that, it’s probably the last place you’d expect to find someone that throws themselves off the sides of mountains for a living.
Home to Britain’s greatest slalom skier, and with the town’s elevation barely reaching double digits, any alpine activity let alone achievement, seems all the more extraordinary. Typically Lancastrian. A northern soul with humble roots. Sitting across a plain wooden table, an infatuation with skiing could not be more evident. Meet Dave Ryding.
Aged 36 and able (and keen) to talk ‘edge angles’, ‘angulation’, and the ‘flex rating’ - relating to his elite-grade ski boots - each comment is brought to mind despite him learning to ski in a place where there is no snow.
Ryding's triumph on that almost perilous descent in Kitzbühel, Austria – a place hailed as the Mecca of slalom - is undoubtedly the crowning glory of any career. “People will go on to do better things for sure, but I'll always be the first. I knew I had it in me, but at 35 the doubts start to creep in. I thought maybe my chance had gone.” Recalls Ryding, on what amounts to a golden moment by any measure.
If you read Pitch Issue No.3, you’ll know how the defending champion followed up the gold with silver at the Hahnenkamm Races, at the same venue, this January.
Dubbed by Ryding himself as ‘the Wimbledon of slalom’, winning at this iconic venue further bore testament to his racing moniker (given to him, he says, at the side of a relatively flat hill in the Peak District), ‘The Rocket’ was re-launched.
Pitch caught up with Brit-bloke Dave Ryding at Boskins Cafe in Tareleton, Lancashire.
You’d think an Olympic flag bearer would have his sights solely set on podiums, trophies, medals and conquering the unconquerable. But it’s not as simple as that. And despite looking more than at home scaling the hard-packed snow in the Alps, this western part of Lancashire is the place it all began.
Growing up learning to ski on the modest-at-best dry slopes at Pendle Ski Club, a short drive from his childhood home in Bretherton, Ryding states that he never imagined he would make it to the podium - and further still claim gold. His sole ambition was to rank among the world’s top 30, overall victory seemingly a dream not worth the sleep.
One reason for what is a continued and ongoing attachment to the area is Boskins Cafe. Where we find ourselves now. Pursuing a new venture as a cafe owner is a dream he says he has held for years. "I love coffee. I love going to cafes. I love the environment. I love chilling out and just watching the world go by," he says. The décor ‘chalet chic’, and with double espresso in hand, he couldn’t look more at home.
It’s now near enough a year since he secured that ground-breaking first World Cup win. But despite his status as a household name in his sport, he remains untroubled by the clientele. Made especially surprising during what is a busy Thursday lunchtime in March. Him wearing a Team GB down jacket. With the ‘Rocket Ryding Breakfast’ a feature on the menu. And topping it off, on the mantlepiece sit three impressive Gams, the iconic goat-shaped trophies that symbolize his three podium finishes at Kitzbühel. In 2017, 2022, and 2023. However, despite those successes, spending time in Boskins washing pots remains a thing.
Admitting further that he knew nothing about cafes, he concedes that the venture was a sink-or-swim proposition. Certainly ‘risk’ is something he's well accustomed to taking. The most likely form of success – in Dave’s eyes – will come through hard work and dedication. By him and perhaps more consistently his wife Mandy Dirkzwager, herself a former skier.
Clad in his enviable GB stash – Rocket Ryding breakfast on order – Dave talks to Pitch about what lies ahead.
Commitment to both his profession and the business is not always easy. "I have a lot of training so I can't give up too much time," he says. “The best way to learn is to do it. I’ve had to learn about the other side of life. All I had done is skiing before this."
And skiing isn’t forever. Despite all the success. "You hear a lot of athletes finish their sport and enter a spiral. I hope that after skiing – whenever that might be – I’ll have a greater understanding of what the next chapter might bring.
"Every day there's a new challenge with the cafe," he continues. "It's an ever-evolving organism, almost like its own little baby as such and you've got to nurture it." He adds, glancing as he does so in the direction of his new-born daughter, Nina.
"You have to apply the same things to business. If you want to be the best in your field. Skier, lawyer, barista, or whatever it might be, you must put a lot of time in. You have to put a lot of work in. And it’s vital that you develop. You simply cannot stand still”.
As we speak, it becomes clear that one thing dominates Ryding’s mind more than anything. Slalom. And it's impossible not to be moved by that triumph at Kitzbühel.
His story being everything that the British public hold dear. From an improbable start on a dry ski slope. Of humble background. Training undertaken in a backyard shed built by his father, and an unyielding determination that propelled him into the elite level of his sport at 30.
It's made even more remarkable when considering the fact that most mortals would be fast-approaching the twilight of their career not its peak.
Upon becoming his country's first-ever World Cup race winner, the following day's headline, "Ein Brite? Ein Brite!" in newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, summed up the unlikely nature of the achievement in the Alps to a tee.
“Ein Brite? Ein Brite!”
– Süddeutsche Zeitung, January 2022.
On that day, The Rocket was on odds of 80-1 to win the slalom gold medal in Kitzbühel. In and of itself, there is something joyously improbable.
And those odds were in place for good reason. In alpine skiing, Great Britain collectively has won exactly nothing in almost a century of trying. They almost did when Ryding’s coach, Alain Baxter, finished third in the slalom at Salt Lake City in 2002, a turn-up so unexpected that not one of the band of British journalists covering those Olympic Games were there to see it happen. Nobody figured he had a chance of anything, let alone a top finish. Even that was stripped from him after controversially testing positive for methamphetamine that he had by all accounts inadvertently ingested after using a Vicks inhaler.
So where and why did it all start to fall into place? Fast forward two decades, and the now 35-year-old Dave Ryding finds himself in sixth place after a solid first run down the icy Ganslern. Following on from that more-than-decent first run, Ryding remembers listening to his coach’s report ahead of his second attempt, but more than anything, he recalls how he was feeling. “I woke up that morning really ill. My coach was going through all of the details of how the course was looking, but all I could think about was that ‘it'd really help our chances if I could bloody breathe.’”
This time out: 'The Rocket' lays down a silver-medal winning second run despite worsening conditions.
Despite impossible odds, illness, and what amounted to worsening conditions on the slopes, the Lancastrian produced what transpired to be a tremendous second leg. With sleet now falling, the Brit delivered a stunning final run of 49.86 seconds to secure the green light and as it transpired, the win.
Italy’s 2010 Olympic champion, Giuliano Razzoli, made a mistake, straddling a gate near the finish, while Norway’s Sebastian Foss-Solevaag, France’s Clement Noel and Italian Alex Vinatzer also made costly mistakes at the close. Dave did not. In an outpouring of pure emotion – and the unknowingness of previously uncharted water – Ryding found himself compelled to kiss the snow at the conclusion of his final run. “Then you're left to stand there. On the podium. Waiting for the rest to finish. You're just wondering how good your run actually was? Good enough, or not?
“Waiting for the last three to finish was agony. It seemed to go on forever. In the end it was more disbelief that I'd managed to do it. Every emotion just came flooding out.”
Tears, the lot. Scenes no-one begrudged of someone who had dedicated what seemed like every waking second to their craft. Ryding by all accounts thrives when the odds are stacked against him. In the immediate aftermath, he told Eurosport “There’s life in the old dog yet. I’m 35 now but I never stopped believing, I never stopped trying.”
Up goes the green light and it's celebrations for the Brit who still needs to hold off the remaining challengers. None more so than Giuliano Razzoli of Italy.
One year on from winning the sport’s most prestigious event, those emotions remain stronger than ever. “It was disbelief. A lot of thoughts went through my mind. A lot of gratitude to sponsors, coaches, family, and my wife at home. To finally do it. British skiing had finally got a win.”
The legend of Kitzbühel is not limited to the minds of those now chasing glory. Alpine phenomenon and eight-time World Cup winner Marcel Hirscher places Kitzbühel as the race, both metaphorically and physically standing above everything and anything else. The Austrian marking that, “If you want to be among the greatest skiers, you have to win in Kitzbühel. It’s as simple as that.”
For Ryding, this pressure to perform exists only as fuel. “Everyone on that start line knows it's Kitzbühel it’s so big to them, so it brings a bit more expectation on their shoulders. I've learnt to love it.”
His podium finishes aren’t just a hot streak. To Ryding, they feel something more profound. “Until 2017 [his first of three podiums in Austria], I hadn't even as much as finished the course, it was just so difficult. I worked tirelessly to improve. Now I know I'm good enough to win.”
You don’t simply reach the pinnacle of a sport, or anything in fact, without enjoying some success along the way. But success looks different to everyone. “The first podium I got; my only aim was to finish the race. Leading the first run, the same emotions I felt leading my early races back home came flooding back.
“I don't get nervous anymore; it's more a case of being up for the race. It's so normal for me to be in the start gate, I’ve done it well over a hundred times now. So the shouting, the talk, and reaching the right levels of aggression are so important.”
In the TV coverage of that fateful run you can hear Tristan Glasse-Davies roaring from the coach's area. As Ryding’s coach of 13 years, he was willing to put his life on hold, as the pair set about competing against the greats of their sport. As a takeaway from Ryding’s first Olympics in 2010, Vancouver was a learning curve – a steep one – and Dave by his own admission could have easily given up. In Kitzbühel, as the camera pans to Ryding’s support team who are by now in various states of joy, disbelief, and near-unbridled pandemonium, among them is the figure of trainer Jai Geyer, whose words summed up the scene perfectly. “Oh god… he did it.”
So where do years of hard work, training, sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears, all culminating in two beautiful runs down the sport’s most historic venue leave things? “I guess because you train your whole life for that, it’s done. You’ve won. What now?” With echoes of Jonny Wilkinson labelling the moment he won the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England as the worst moment of his life, Ryding elaborated on his point slightly more optimistically. “When I grew up, I never thought I could win a World Cup. As I said, my only goal was to be ranked in the top 30. So, winning the biggest prize, I didn’t know what to do with it. I still don’t.”
Achieving the unachievable. Something the now-37-year-old (and second-oldest podium winner) is starting to get used to.
One thing clear is that forging a path from the dry slopes to the very pinnacle of his sport was no easy task. And the burden of being his nation’s greatest skier is one that The Rocket doesn’t take lightly. “Being from Britain it was not easy, put it that way. I was rubbish until I was in my twenties.” Not a remark you expect to hear. From anyone. Particularly not from a man – a specimen of a man at that – who is as skilled as they come in his sport. Undeniably the nation’s greatest between the gates, his success isn’t something that has been gifted. Or earned by birth right.
As a fast-twitch sport, slalom has historically favoured younger, more aggressive skiers. Think Mikaela Shiffrin, the 28-year-old American who already has 87 World Cup wins under her belt. The first aged just 17.
Ryding is currently ranked 14th in the world and entering his eighth season on the World Cup stage, comparisons to a fine wine ring truer than the cliché does for most. In his own words, ‘getting better with age’ doesn’t lie far from the truth.
Well into our coffees now, Ryding talks about his almost obsessive commitment to improvement. "I never want to feel like I've reached my peak," offers the now six-time visitor to the podium. "Look at cricketer, James Anderson. He's still one of the best bowlers in the world at 40. That's insane. It just goes to show that age is just a number, and if you take care of your body, you can keep performing at the highest level.
“I was still learning the trade through my late 20s. Still developing as the oldest-ever winner of a World Cup race and the third oldest on the podium in slalom. I'm proud because I'm motivated. I love what I do, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.”
And with that, Ryding is off again. “With the thousands and thousands of kilometres of gates, thinking about repetition and technique, equipment, the jumps at the side – all still remain something of a release.” He adds, “I always loved skiing as a kid, you just throw yourself into it. I’m still the same now.”
The discussion moves on to strict diet plans as the lunch hour continues. Counting calories an example of the everyday sacrifices made to pave a way for an unlikely career. “It's half a per cent that is the difference between being first and last. Those milliseconds are crucial. It’s a marginal gain and perhaps there’s a bit of me being an idiot – a person that does everything for skiing. Absolutely everything.”
Training through the summer is another aspect of the impossibly busy schedule. A time when he spends just three weeks at home each year. “At the start of the season everything has to be peaking, my whole life is geared around that.”
The Olympian – unbelievably so – has only skied with his wife once. He does mention, however, that his daughter, Nina, will ski – despite him wanting to put a ball at her feet for what might be a more prosperous career on turf.
Ryding has since found himself back in the Alps, this time it’s Ötztal for one last race at yet another World Cup finals. “Racing twice a week, with travel, takes its toll. It’s not just the two runs, it’s a 24-hour nature of the job. You can't replicate that in the gym because you’ll just batter yourself.”
But the fire burns inside The Rocket, “It’s certainly not a God-given talent; it’s hard toil that has got me where I am today. Nothing came for free which has taught me to value what I do. Skiing is an expensive sport, and the sacrifices made by my parents were incredible.
“They buried themselves financially for me,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget the sight of the old, worn-out sofa they had received as a wedding gift, now held together by nothing more than a piece of plywood. It’s, for me, a vivid reminder of the sacrifices they made so that I could chase my dreams. I should probably buy them a new one, come to think of it.”
Whilst his rivals had all been hurtling down mountains since day dot, it wasn’t until his teenage years that Ryding could afford to ski on actual snow. The direct result of his parents’ selflessness. Only with time spent watching British skiers such as Alain Baxter or Chemmy Alcott on that very sofa.
As a racer, Ryding hit the big time in 2010. And with that visit to the Vancouver Olympics. The Rocket, in the full gaze of the public for the first time and aged just 23, found himself qualifying as one of the fastest Brits. “I went to my first Olympics very naively. These guys were way better than me. Stronger, fitter, and quicker. I could’ve easily returned thinking ‘no, that’s not for me.’”
But he didn’t, and it was Glasse-Davies who was there to rewire Ryding's technique. Enduring training undertaken in indoor snow parks for months on end. To the point where the 36-year-old has now been deemed in possession of ‘the most technical turn on tour’.
Even that first Olympics was no easy process. One month before getting on the plane the British Ski and Snowboard Federation were declared bankrupt. “We had a horrendous lead-up. You don’t need anxiety like that. It was a similar thing when we lost the UK sport funding last year. It just creates so much mental stress that it tires you out.”
Skiing can be an unforgiving sport, with success and disappointment often separated by the barest of margins (sic). Ryding knows this all too well, having come agonisingly close to victory on two occasions at the now-defunct Levi course.
In 2017, the Brethertonian entered his ‘Goldilocks Zone’ as an athlete. Leading the first run and halfway to extending his lead in the second. It seemed like gold was within his grasp in Finland, but a fall dashed his hopes of what would have been his first World Cup podium.
Two years later, he found himself in a similar position, sitting in second after the opening run and poised to take gold. But once again, fate had other plans. “I knew I didn’t have many more of these chances,” he states. “I couldn’t keep fucking this up. Levi is the place where I'm really fast, and I should have won there. The top is very flat with some rolls – growing up at Pendle dry slope, it’s got the same undulations.
“I remember training there with the Austrians. The number of cameras that were on me at the top section was ridiculous. Because I was doing things that the Austrians just couldn’t do.”
The Brit now has his sights set on Madonna di Campiglio, Italy*. “The crowd is great, it’s like a cauldron down there.” He says, cracking a smile at the thought. “And it gets really icy, which suits my set-up, I’ve done so much training on ice. When I first came to the World Cup, we highlighted that as a weakness.” It's yet another example of the idiosyncratic fidelity Ryding and his team have put into mastering his craft.
*Dave Ryding secured his seventh World Cup podium with a third-place finish in the slalom in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy on December 22, 2023.
With the proof being in the pudding, British skiing has never been in better shape. Last year, six athletes banked World Cup points. Billy Major and Laurie Taylor are comfortably ranked inside the world’s top 50. “The bar has been raised," says Ryding, as this cohort’s pioneering figure. "Finishing in the top 30 used to be feel unattainable, but now it's just another day at the office. The podium is no longer a dream, it's the new standard.
“I know that within the next decade, someone will come along and surpass what I've done. They're more talented than I ever was at their age.
“It's a grind, no doubt about it," Dave adds. "Early mornings and late nights, the monotony can get to you. I've seen first-hand the level of commitment it takes. But if the Federation can put the right programmes in place, I have no doubt that Britain will continue to thrive in the coming years.”
But that is easier said than done. September saw more instability for British skiing. And a lack of funding, in the wake of the discipline being axed from UK Sport’s World Class Programme. Without that backing, the group faced the prospect of raising £800,000 in two months to cover the onrushing economic shortfall.
“My stomach just sank,” GB skier Charlie Guest told The Guardian months after she recorded Britain’s best result for a woman on the World Cup Slalom tour in 33 years. “I’m in skiing, I’m very used to raising money, to finding money, to finding sponsors, but to have to find hundreds of thousands. I don’t know how I can do that.”
Ryding speaks equally candidly about the insecurities that come with competing in what is ultimately a poorly funded sport. “We didn't know what was going to happen. We were in the dark, not knowing what's going to be there for us next year. You have to switch off from that during the season. Hopefully, they'll pull their finger out.” He concludes. And for the sake of the watching public, let’s hope that he’s right.
As Dave takes the last sip of his double espresso in the now settling down Boskins Cafe, you can sense what has to be the bittersweet feeling of an athlete who has shouldered the hopes of a sport his entire career. Without a ton of recognition. Or support. His is still – despite all that success - the story of an uphill battle in a downhill sport.
Our closing exchanges explore where life might take him next. “I don't even know when I'm going to finish skiing. There’s probably not too many years left in the tank, if not only one.”
With that closing remark, Dave finishes his coffee and heads back to his family. And we’re done. Next time you inadvertently tune in to Ski Sunday - or whether it’s your very- favourite appointment to view - don’t be surprised if it’s Dave Ryding you’re watching, tearing up the Ganslern yet again. Committed. Focused. Prepared. Know that The Rocket will be giving it the absolute beans. Coffee, or otherwise.
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Fernando Augusto Pacheco - Presenter ‘The Stack’ by Monocle