• Caitlin Kennedy

Pioneering Speed-riding

By Caitlin Kennedy

Maxence Cavalade is not only one of France’s top speed-riders, he’s also a boss at skiing, snow-boarding, telemarking, diving, sky-diving and judo amongst many other things. We caught up with him on his down time.

How did you get into speed-riding?

The first time was 2003. I went to Les Arcs and Jerome Baud (a paragliding and ski instructor) said to me “Max, I have something that you have to try”. This was really at the beginning of speed-riding, because the sport began in 2001.

He already had the canopy ready and I tried it with him for half a day. In Les Arcs, there is a huge area which is perfect for beginners because it is very open, with nothing to crash into. And just skiing straight with the canopy overhead was the most amazing feeling. So when I came back to Val d’Isère, I had a friend who had an old parachute and I borrowed it to try speed-riding on Super L, Banane, places like that. I was a beginner and I probably did way too much too soon. But we didn’t know yet how to learn speed-riding because the sport was so new. If I’d known how dangerous it could be, I wouldn’t have learnt the way I did. There was a lot of trial and error early on- I crashed every time and although I never injured myself, I definitely could have done. That was a really enjoyable experience, testing it out by myself. At this point there were maybe only 10 or so speed-riders in France. After that I met another guy called François Bon, one of the pioneers of speed-riding, as well as a World Champion of acro-paragliding. I met him at a skydiving centre and we started riding together.

It must have been amazing to have been there at the inception of a new sport.

Actually, I wasn’t really conscious of that at the time. I just knew that it was so new and exciting for me. But at the beginning when I practiced it in Val d’Isère, I was the only one doing it here and it was quite funny because every time I did it someone would call the Securité des Pistes. From the old Solaise chairlift, I could ride all the way down to UCPA where I was working and when I did this run, I disappeared behind a cliff and people on the chairlift always thought I had fallen to my death. So I would get back home and immediately get a call from the Ski Patrol who would wearily ask “Max, was it you again?”.

Where’s your favourite place to ride?

Val d’Isère is the best spot, probably in the world. Of course we haven’t tried it everywhere but of all the places I’ve been, here is the best. There are amazing links that have big vertical gains. And the off piste areas where we can go are amazing, long and quite easily accessible. There’s a lot of variety with big steep slopes, couloirs and a few forests. So you never get bored.

Do you think your parachuting/sky diving background helped you with learning to speed-ride?

Honestly, no. Firstly, when I was a beginner at speed-riding, I’d only just started learning to skydive, with around 80 jumps under my belt. But the other thing that I noticed when teaching speed-riding courses with UCPA was that those who come from a skydiving background tend to be harder to teach and they have more problems. They think that they know how to control a canopy. But the thing is, they only spend a few seconds just before landing gliding close to the ground, so really they have no experience piloting a canopy. They don’t have an understanding of the 3D movement of the canopy which is such a vital component of speed-riding. Paragliders and especially acro-paragliders come from a much better starting point to learn the sport.

Tell me about the film Ride-and-Fly 3D come about?

In the 2000s at the epoch of speed-riding, film-makers got in contact with François, Jerome and I to ask if we could feature in ski films. So we did some segments in those, but after a while we thought it would be cool to have a film exclusively devoted to speed-riding so people could learn what it was. We had a few sponsors who gave us some money, about 500,000€, to make a short film. My girlfriend at the time asked me, “OK Max, what is it that makes Speed-Riding special?”. And I realised that it was the way we move in three dimensions within the terrain. So that flourished into the idea of making the film in 3D. I happened to have a drink with a friend I hadn’t see in 10 years who was in the film industry, and he serendipitously told me that his specialty was 3D movies! There were many more steps; in fact I worked on the film for 3 years. The process was such an amazing experience- we really did the whole thing on a shoestring and I made the soundtrack with some friends. Eventually we emerged with a 51 minute 3D documentary about the birth of speed-riding and how we were practicing it. We won the European award for the best 3D documentary and it was bought by Universal.

Was competing ever an interest for you?

No, I never competed in speed-riding. I was riding with the guys that pioneered the sport so I never felt the need to compare myself with anyone else. I did a lot of competition in Judo when I was younger- that is my main sport originally. But with speed-riding, I preferred to just discover and explore with my friends. Also, if you do a competition, you have to pay a lot of money to go to another resort for the weekend and do maybe two runs. I could do 50 runs in that amount of time.

Or lap the Bellevarde! How did your world record attempt, when you dropped 47,768m in a day (amounting to 56 laps of the Olympic bubble), come about?

Originally it was just an idea for fun. I like to have projects and to try something new. One day about 5 years ago, I was speed-riding and the conditions were so perfect that I just kept lapping the Bellevarde all day without stopping for food or anything. And when I looked at how much vertical descent I had done at the end of the day, it was more than 30,000m, which was insane. I thought of Felix Baumgartner, the world record holder for greatest vertical fall in a sky dive with 39,000 meters (about 24 miles) and wondered if I could do the same distance speed-riding in a day. Also, I want to be part of a World Record Attempt to create the biggest aerial star ever done by 200 skydivers that will take place in Chicago in 2021. But to be selected, I have to do plenty of training and jumps, which costs a lot of money. So the other aim with the Speed Riding Record was to raise money from sponsors to allow me to do that. I tried to do the attempt 5 years ago with Radio Val but the conditions weren’t right. And then the last few years I have been studying so it wasn’t possible to try again until last year.

What were you studying and why was academia important to you?

Physiotherapy and Osteopathy. I did a 4 year Masters course in Belgium. I probably won’t want to teach skiing until I’m 60. So the idea is to have an alternative career to fall back on, but one that is within the snowsports world. The other option is to become a coach, but I’m not very good at racing- I only started skiing when I was 20. I knew some racers from the French Ski team and they told me about the physiotherapists that work with them, so I decided I wanted to be the Physio of the French Ski Team, or maybe the French Judo team.

What do you think drives people towards extreme sports?

People talk about ‘extreme’ sports but from my perspective, they can be practiced in a way that is not extreme. It all depends on how you do them. I used to call them environmental sports. You are in an environment, which is changing and you evaluate your surroundings with the goal of adapting your way of doing that particular sport to the conditions. I am someone who is quite cautious so have never felt that I was in danger because I am always assessing what is around me and whether I should be doing something or not. I think people that get into extreme conditions are trying to do something beyond their capabilities because they aren’t prepared for the length of time it takes to practice. Using speed-riding as an example, people feel comfortable very quickly because the initial stages of learning are not difficult and then they believe themselves to be more capable than they are.

Doing my first barrel took me 5 or 6 years, riding every week, all season. Plus I was already a ski instructor, with a good knowledge of off-piste conditions. But people expect to be able to advance more quickly than that. So they might get a barrel right the first time but to land it safely every time, takes a lot more practice and requires greater understanding of the conditions.

What makes teaching so fulfilling for you?

Teaching and passing on knowledge is really my calling. I have 4 qualifications to teach in skiing, judo, sky-diving and scuba-diving. Sharing these experiences with people is really something I love and I like to do it in different environments. But even more than that, I love learning. I love being a beginner and I always need to discover new things.

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