Photo: Andreas Hartmann

It’s the off-season, so I went on a ski trip with the Bora boys

Here's what it's like to 'crush fresh pow' with Germany's most prestigious cycling team.

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There’s a few photos circulating on the internet, published in mid-October, that depict a collection of the world’s best bike riders laughing, smiling and having a jolly good old time on a mountain in the Alps. All the photos are very heart-warming, definitely very cute, and above all great #content.

The subjects were Bora-Hansgrohe’s riders, the location was the Rettenbach Glacier in Austria where, for the second year in a row, they were going skiing as part of the team’s renewed partnership with sponsors Ötztal Tourism.

It was a glorious day out, the various social media profiles later informed the world via posts, tweets and stories. Laughs were shared, memories were made and connections became even stronger. Toni Palzer even rode his Specialized S-Works in ski boots on the snow because, well, why not. Anything in the name of #content. “Likes, guys, think about the likes,” was heard whispered rather loudly.

Yet I’m about to provide the unfiltered version of what really went on at Bora’s mountain get-together.

Because, even though the German team’s cluster of riders did enjoy themselves skiing, mountain biking and hiking (actually, definitely not this one; my favourite critique from an unnamed rider who might be the current German champion was “why the fuck do we have to go up there?”), there was a lot more to the three-day camp than the social media images suggested.

For every photo published of Max Schachmann ripping down the pistes like a seasoned skier, there was a noticeable lack of photos uploaded of Sam Bennett not-so-skillfully managing to avoid colliding with some of the world’s best downhill skiers, who happened to be sharing the same slope that day.

The Irishman, you see, was scared to go skiing. He went the year before and didn’t like it. He therefore had a plan: ditch the skis and opt for a ski-bob, which as the photo suggests is as dangerous and uncontrollable as it looks. 

Your man here ready for action. Photo: Andreas Hartmann

But still, Bennett, one of the world’s fastest men on a bike, decided that a ski-bob was safer than a pair of skis. How wrong he was. “I may have started too hot,” is how he eloquently begins the tale of his adventure.

“It’s been a year [since his last ski] so I took off and at first was like, ‘right, this is going quick, this is going quicker’, and then you know when you hear the wind picking up as you go faster? I was like, ‘well, this is fucking fast now!’ But I couldn’t jump off!

“There were these skiers and they had aerodynamic shit on and I was like, ‘they look expensive to hit so I can’t go over that way but I also can’t go over this way!’ I just had to pretend that I knew what I was doing. 

“Eventually I got down. After that I was ok, but the ski kept coming off. I crashed once and I looked down and the ski was just trailing behind me. I thought ‘fuck it, no more’. It was too risky.”

With Bennett safely removed from the mountain, next up to Jay Hindley, winner of the 2022 Giro d’Italia, to provide the second dose of humanisation, informing us all that, yes, elite athletes can also suck at sports, just like we do on a daily basis.

Jai Hindley: champion cyclist, miserable skier. Photo: Andreas Hartmann

You see, Jai was also on a ski slope for only the second time in his life. He might be among the world’s best at climbing up a mountain on a carbon bike, but clip him into two carbon skis and he becomes as shaky as he did in 2020 when he hopelessly tried to put on his jacket riding up the Stelvio.

Hindley tells us that his two hours of skiing were “pretty unforgiving”, but I think it’s best to let his teammates describe the Australian’s torture. Nils Politt, who as one of the 13 German/Austrian riders was at least able to lap pistes without stacking it, imitates a hunched-over Hindley, before crying with laughter: “Jai was like this! So funny!”

Palzer, who only 20 months ago was crowned the second best ski-mountaineer in the world, joins the chorus of chuckles. “Ah, Jai on the skis,” he says. “His skiing skills are so bad!”

In between laughs, Palzer gets his phone out of his pocket. “Look, I’ll show you a video,” he excitedly grins, before his phone screen shows Hindley alone on the mountain. Thankfully for everyone, there was no one within the immediate vicinity of Hindley who was bent over at the waist, poles pointing to the skies, skis wide apart, and clearly extremely petrified of pointing the skis downhill.

After a lengthy pause, he finally went. He headed left, came back right, but on his third turn his balance was off, his rhythm was shunted and his right ski came up in the air, as if he was trying to bring back the now-defunct Olympic ski discipline of ski ballet. He was wobbly, very unstable, and to the roaring laughter of Palzer filming from a nearby chairlift, Hindley crashed to the floor. He was beaten.

For those familiar with what a Jerry is in ski parlance – someone who provides limitless laughs through their own hapless misfortune – you’ll appreciate that from hereon in the Giro winner ought to be referred to as Jerry Hindley.

Photo: Stefan Kothner

The best bit of all this carnage? That it was predicted by Bora. Upon inviting me to the camp, a team spokesperson informed me that the riders would be going skiing but “alone…because for most of them it’s embarrassing.”

It felt at odds to receive such a message because we spend all year exalting these athletes, wishing so much that we could match their abilities on a bike, but yet here they were failing so spectacularly in another sport – and it was what was meant to happen. 

Perhaps that will explain the presence of an Irish bar outside the team’s hotel, and also why one rider didn’t take water with him to the glacier but shots of alcohol. What goes on at an end-of-season camp stays at an end-of-season camp – except when Bennett happily divulges his own sorry state, that is.

“Yep,” he confirms the rumours of his own hangover. “When we got to the glacier my headache intensified. I drank water but I felt worse – I did the wrong thing with water.”

A day later, before undertaking an hour’s hike through the autumnal Alps that many of his teammates most definitely did not want to be on, Bennett’s Irish teammate Ryan Mullen opined of the morning’s skiing: “Thankfully it was only two hours”.

I did not ask Sergio Higuita about his experience, but I didn’t have to, for the Colombian – also skiing for just the second time – had uploaded an Instagram story of him in the gondola. “Muchachos, aqui estamos” – guys, here we are – before turning the camera back to his horrified and nervous face.

It was in sharp contrast to the heavily-curated profiles and soundbites that we have grown so accustomed to seeing from our heroes. Posts and images that hint very little about the athletes’ true personalities and instead portrays them as robotic cogs in a machine, taking it day-by-day, seeing what will happen and thanking all their fans. Blah, blah blah. Show us the real you, guys! We want to see you failing!

It turns out Bora were on the same page, for this is exactly what they intended from the camp (apart from the all-important corporate smiles, of course). They wanted to throw their riders into an uncomfortable situation that they’d have to adapt to and where they’d be forced to learn new skills. Their failures would prompt hilarity, bonding and, above all else, humanise them. 

Just like it’s hide-behind-the-cushion protocol every time a cyclist tries to play football – we’re specifically looking at you, Ineos Grenadiers – it’s also must-not-miss material whenever a cyclist tries a different sport. Because it invariably is disastrous for most of them.

We rightfully glorify these phenomenal athletes having begrudgingly accepted that we’re never going to win a sprint on the Champs-Élysées or earn a maglia rosa, but at least most of us can get down a snowy mountain without threatening to kill anyone else on the slope. 

I’ve already reserved my lift pass and popcorn for next year’s Bora ski retreat. 

Photo: Stefan Kothner

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