Born In Mecca
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc feels like home to almost any freerider out there. To Léo Slemett it actually is.
“I don’t think there is another place quite like this,” says Léo Slemett about his hometown of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc and the amazing possibilities it offers to passionate freeriders like himself. In fact, hardly any other place is linked to off-piste skiing more closely than this town of 9,000 souls in the East of France, the “mecca of freeriding”. From the Grandes Jorasses to Aguille des Grands Montets and, of course, the mighty Mont Blanc, the mountains here offer countless steep couloirs and impressive routes, including the world-famous Vallée Blanche descent. So it is clear to see why the Freeride World Tour – bringing along the world’s best riders – comes to Chamonix every year.
A complex passion
It is the third year for Léo in the tour, a circuit of events that is a lot like the Alpine World Cup for skiers, yet also very different. Just like the regular ski racers, participants in the Freeride World Tour compete in several events throughout the season, and there is one winner at the end. In freeriding, however, it is not about who’s getting down fastest, about winning by the hundredths of a second. Instead, five categories are taken into account in the jury’s judgment: The Line, Air & Style, Fluidity, Control, and Technique. “In alpine skiing it’s simple: You’re either faster or slower than the others. Everyone gets that. In our sport it’s a little more complex,” says Léo.
Léo was 14 and about to become a classic ski racer when he realized how much he favoured freeriding over training for slalom or giant slalom. So at 17, he rode his first freeride competition. What is it he loves so much about his sport? “There are just a lot more ways to put your own ideas into action. All you get is your spot and then it’s up to you what you make of it,” he explains. “Also, there is no professional association to support you. You have to do and organise everything yourself. That can be challenging at times, but it also gives you a lot more freedom. Being free is the most important aspect to me.”
Being a local, 22-year-old Léo is in high demand during the tour’s stop in Chamonix. Still he doesn’t see himself as a local hero: “There are so many great athletes in Chamonix, climbers, skiers, you name it. Here you really have to accomplish something great to stand out.” Not that standing out would be his main goal, of course.
Sharing the passion
Still it is special for him to ride here, where he knows the mountains, where family and friends are rooting for him in the finish area. Is there some kind of home advantage for him in this competition? “Well, I don’t think so, aside from being able to sleep in my own bed,” he says, laughingly. But of course he loves being home, also for the special atmosphere in the commune: “When you go to a bar after a day of skiing, you will always meet a bunch of people who love to talk about skiing too. There are so many people around here who share my passion.”
This connection is also tangible among the participants in the Freeride World Tour. Watching them at the Riders’ Meeting on the eve of the event, you can’t help but see them as a big group of friends on a skiing holiday and not as lone fighters competing against each other. “Of course everyone is under a certain amount of pressure before a competition, but there is no resentment. We assess the situation together, talk about the lines we plan. There is a lot of respect for each other,” explains Léo. And, with a grin, he adds, “And sure, sometimes we also have a little party after an event.” It does not bother him that freeriders are seen as being more relaxed about it all than other top athletes. “I actually think that’s a good thing and I think we should keep that spirit alive. Sure, we are all professionals, but why should we hide the fact that we are having a lot of fun as well?”
Text: Matthias Köb // friendship.is
Photos: Dom Daher; Heiko Mandl // friendship.is
April 13, 2016