How James Bond’s Q branch is helping Britain become alpine sports force

Posted at 4:21 AM, Feb 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-04 06:37:06-05

A fibre-glass mannequin stands strapped into a pair of ski boots angled at 45 degrees and somewhat bizarrely spray painted in pink.

It bears an unnerving resemblance to the British slalom skier Dave Ryding on which it was moulded.

Occasionally, the mannequin gets clothed and disrobed in a variety of cutting-edge ski wear in between taking a battering from the elements inside a wind tunnel on England’s south coast.

It is one of many schemes the British ski and snowboard team is using to transform from a nation of once plucky amateurs into one of the alpine powerhouses. Others involve harnessing the expertise of the McLaren F1 team, emulating the innovations of James Bond’s Q branch, and turning netballers into ski jumpers.

“We’re in a building phase that’s exciting and dynamic,” Britain’s performance director Dan Hunt tells CNN Sport. “It might be that some of the decisions we’re making now won’t be felt until three or four years down the line.”

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Ryding, who learned to ski on a dry slope, is spearheading a new era for British ski racers, with two second places in World Cup slalom races in the last three seasons. He also claimed the scalp of Austrian superstar Marcel Hirscher in the parallel event in Oslo at the start of 2019.

His efforts are equal to compatriot Konrad Bartelksi’s second in a downhill in Val Gardena, Italy in 1981, but otherwise, Britain’s success is scant, perhaps unsurprisingly given its lack of natural resources and top-level participants.

Then again, Britain has become one of the dominant nations in skeleton with women’s gold at the last three Winter Olympics as well as a handful of other medals.

It’s the job of Hunt, who took up the role with governing body GB Snowsport in 2016, to try to emulate that success with Britain’s skiers and snowboarders.

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His approach has echoes of the marginal gains philosophy set up by Sir Dave Brailsford at British Cycling and Team Sky, understandable in that Hunt was formerly a key coach behind much of Britain’s early track cycling success.

His body’s innovation team is known as Q Division — a nod to the fictional character in the Bond movies — working out how to gain mere hundredths of seconds for its skiers and snowboarders.

Hunt’s habitual question is to ask whether an idea will make Ryding and his fellow skiers go quicker. If the answer’s “yes,” they tend to tackle it.

With Ryding, it was seen that he was on average 0.87 seconds off the World Cup podium last season. So, the primary goal was to see how to cut that deficit. Such innovations have ranged from new skis, to wind tunnel activity to perfect his race suit and the waxing of the skis to given the least friction between snow and ski.

“I can spend a whole winter myself trying to eke out three hundredths of a second,” said Ryding, who is on course for another top-10 finish in the World Cup season slalom standings. “If a race suit can do that alone, you embrace that.”

In addition, the organization is taking on board ideas from Formula 1, the military and Ineos Team UK, the Sir Ben Ainslie-led team looking to win the America’s Cup for Britain for the first time.

The McLaren link-up is through Tom Stallard, more regularly known as the race engineer for Carlos Sainz Jr, but also a former Olympic silver medalist in rowing.

“Tom’s the perfect fit as he’s got the engineering brain but he very much gets the athlete side of things,” explains Hunt, whose remit covers alpine, cross country and freestyle skiing, park and pipe snowboarding and snowboard cross, ski jumping, speed skiing and telemark.

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Impostor syndrome

Hunt jokes that he suffers from “imposter syndrome” in his role and instead surrounds himself with innovators, leading coaches and sports scientists.

“I didn’t know about cycling when I went into, so too football [he worked for the Premier League] and now this,” he said. “But I don’t like to turn ideas down.

“My philosophy is to recruit the experts and then not to tell them what to do, but just leave them to get on with it.”

At the last Winter Olympics in South Korea, Britain finished 19th in the medals table with two medals from the sports under Hunt’s umbrella — Billy Morgan won bronze in snowboarding big air and Izzy Atkin won bronze in the women’s skiing slopestyle.

The budget of £5.15 million ($6.7M) for Hunt’s sports was a fraction of powerhouses like Austria, Switzerland and France, but a significant improvement on the £1.5M for the four-year cycle leading up to Sochi in 2014.

Some of the extra cash — which comes from the National Lottery and exchequer-funded UK Sport, and is based on medal potential — was spent on a gargantuan air bag to enable its freestyle skiers and snowboarders to practise their tricks more readily without the risk of major injury.

One area Hunt is looking at is identifying athletic talent that can cross over into winter sports. Morgan was an acrobatic gymnast before getting into snowboarding at 14.

Hunt hopes to launch a scheme to attract new female ski jumpers — netball is seen as the ideal talent pool — and female cross country skiers, for which endurance athletes would be well suited.

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‘A lot of motivation’

A former version of the governing body, Snowsport GB, went bust shortly before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, but Ryding insists British skiing and snowboarding is flying high. Based on performances and potential, Hunt’s team will have an increased £5.25 million ($6.9M) — plus £1.5M ($1.9M) worth of individual awards to athletes — to spend in the build up to Beijing 2022.

“I remember the old days when the organization went bust back in 2010,” added Ryding, who was 27th in slalom in Vancouver, 17th in Sochi and ninth in South Korea.

“In comparison it’s night and day. The federation’s in a great position and Dan has been pushing really hard.

“To have all that backing gives me a lot of motivation. I’ve never had this sort of support. I love that I’m spearheading the charge.”

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Other recent success stories include multiple Winter X Games skiing medalist James Woods, cross country skier Andrew Musgrave, who has achieved two World Cup podium places and was seventh at the 2018 Olympics in skiathlon, and visually impaired ski racer Menna Fitzpatrick, who won four medals at the 2018 Winter Paralympics

For all the innovation, Hunt is not satisfied: “We’re nowhere near there yet and we’re not in the situation of a waterfall of medals just yet. But what we’re showing is it’s not just about strapping on your skis and going down the hill.”