Dave Ryding says he has done his job now. By achieving his country’s first victory in an Alpine World Cup event, he has brought British skiing in from the cold. “I’ve always said to the younger generation that it’s possible, just work hard,” he says, “but I don’t have to say that any more. I don’t have to say it’s doable having never done it. Now I just have to put on the video and say: watch that.”
Ryding’s feat in thrashing through the classic slalom at Kitzbühel last weekend, on perhaps the most difficult course in the sport, was the best ever by a Briton. It drew worldwide attention – “Ein Brite? Ein Brite!” was the headline in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung – and came one hundred years and a day after Sir Arnold Lunn invented the sport of slalom racing itself on the slopes of Mürren in Switzerland. There was one more milestone, too, however: at the age of 35, Ryding became the oldest winner of a World Cup slalom in history.
“Sitting here right now I have not one part of my body that is aching. I don’t know if that’s a miracle or not,” says Ryding, speaking in the brief window before his next challenge, a flight to Beijing and a fourth Winter Olympics. “Touch wood, I’ve never had a big injury. I feel healthy. I follow, not a strict diet, but a good diet and I don’t know if this helped, but I didn’t ski much when I was growing, so I didn’t smash my body when it was maturing. Maybe when I stop then the niggles will show more, when the muscles aren’t holding everything together.”
Ryding lives in the borough where he was born, Chorley in Lancashire, though he also runs a coffee shop, the Boskins Cafe, in Preston. He says his parents – Shirley, a hairdresser, and Carl, a gas engineer – raised a family that had a smile on its face. “They weren’t really bothered about these materialistic things,” Ryding says, “they just wanted their kids to have fun and enjoy their upbringing.” Part of that involved regular trips to the dry ski slope in Pendle 30 miles away, where Dave went from the age of six and soon got hooked.
While his rivals in elite competition have been hurtling down mountains since they could stand, it wasn’t until he was a teenager that Ryding could afford a trip to ski on actual snow, the result of parental scrimping. “They sacrificed loads. They buried themselves financially for me,” he recalls. “I remember we had a sofa, they got it for a wedding gift, so it was already 25 years old. Then one day it broke. My dad just put a piece of plywood underneath it and cracked on. That really brought it home to me.”
As much as he thrills to memories of watching British skiers such as Alain Baxter or Chemmy Alcott, with Baxter now working on his team, Ryding’s parents are his guiding role models. In fact cracking on, making do and mending, could be the secret of his success. While he received funding support from GB Snowsport, Ryding lived with his parents until he was 30, working out in a shed his dad built for him and doing interval training over clothes props. It saved money but also time and, Ryding insists, allowed him to maintain an element of fun in the otherwise gruelling process of training. “It’s not felt like a chore all the time, which is probably why I’m still happy to do it,” he says.
Now he has his own place with his girlfriend, Mandy Dirkzwager, herself a former skier, but he made sure there was a garage he could convert into a gym, does his aerobic work in the local Park Run and can be found practising his turns in the street. “The funniest thing,” he says, “is when I’m doing some training on rollerblades. I’m going around the cones and my neighbours just have to laugh because a 35-year-old on rollerskates, you shouldn’t have to have that on your estate. But fortunately I’m a skier and they know that, and they certainly know now that the rollerblading wasn’t for nothing.”
The Winter Olympics starts next Friday, with the men’s slalom scheduled to begin on 16 February. Ryding says he is ready for the “closed loop” quarantine system installed by Beijing, bunking up close to the British bobsleigh team who share a similar sense of humour. He’s ready, too, for the dry fake snow, which is closer to the old slopes of Pendle than the Alps. He’s also hopeful of his chances of improving on his previous ninth-placed finish (the best British performance in 30 years), boosted by his own triumph but also the lack of a stand-out rival. “There have been six different World Cup races this year and six different winners. I don’t think any other sport is quite like it,” he says. “I can do it. I’ve done it once, let’s see if if I can do it again, but don’t forget the process that has got you there.”
More late-blooming success and who knows, but at this point in his career retirement is not far from Ryding’s mind. He wants a family – “I don’t think there’s a better feeling than when you see kids running around enjoying themselves, so I would love to one day, but whether they’re skiers, I’d have to seriously consider that” – and there’s also the business of Boskins Cafe to consider.
“I know now what life after skiing will be like and that’s one of the reasons why I did it,” he says of his journey as a barista. “I also know how hard it is so I don’t know if I’ll be pouring the coffees every day or doing more of the background work. But I’m an ambitious guy and maybe, I don’t know, this sounds nuts, but I’d like take on these Starbucks. I’d like to make a British one, make something the Brits are proud of.” When you’ve done it once, after all, it must be tempting to try again.