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.