The Sportsman For All Seasons
The extraordinary career of Luc Alphand is the stuff of sporting legend. For not only has this charismatic Frenchman won World Cup glory in downhill skiing, he has also enjoyed dazzling success in the very different world of car racing.
“It is all about pure instinct and passion for speed,” explained Alphand, now 51, who started skiing when he was just three years old. The son of a ski instructor, he grew up in Briancon, high in the French Alps. By the age of eight, the boy with speed in his blood was already racing competitively, and at 13 he was on his way to the junior World Cup squad.
Sharing with Sporty Henri his memories of those early years, he said: “I loved it from the beginning, going off-piste and jumping rocks, doing 60-metre jumps at 140kms an hour.”
He admitted: “There are times when of course you are scared, but you have to get over that fear and push yourself to the limit.”
Juggling school with his burgeoning skiing career was not easy – “I was always a little distracted!” –but somehow he managed. He won his first Junior World Downhill title in 1983, going on to claim eight more national titles as he moved towards senior level.
“It is almost like you are a Formula One driver,” said Alphand, still relishing the sheer thrill of those youthful wins. “It is something you cannot do unless you are vigorously trained. Of course, it was dangerous - I had a few accidents and a few surgeries. But I always got back on the skis.”
It was once he had reached senior level that Alphand discovered just how competitive world-class skiing could be. As he describes this time, the crushing disappointment and mounting frustration of trying to replicate his sparkling junior form is still palpable.
“Having enjoyed success reasonably quickly when I was young, I lost my way. I had injuries, confidence-issues and I found it really difficult to succeed.”
When he did finally manage to claim that elusive win, scooping the World Cup in 1997 after almost a decade of competing, even Alphand was not prepared for how much it would mean to him.
“Wow! It was utterly fantastic, a dream that I had realised. Sport is the best school in life. You learn to lose first, before winning.”
It was a long journey, which had pushed this remarkable sportsman to the very limits of endurance.
“After you win for the first time, you suddenly realise that on the slopes everyone will wait for you. I had the joy of being 'favourite' for three years, and the pressure of matching up to those expectations. I was struggling mentally and physically and it almost turned into a nightmare before finally I won the World Cup.”
Following three years spent at the pinnacle of the sport, Alphand decided to retire, a decision he has not looked back on. But he had barely dusted the snow off his skis before he embarked on another, equally challenging career.
During one of those late evenings with friends when shared dreams begin to spiral into the night sky, an audacious plan was hatched: to compete in the Dakar Rally, one of the most famous off-road endurance races in the world.
Alphand and his novice team took part for the first time in 1998 and, although they were forced to retire three days from the end, the fire of enthusiasm was lit.
“Everything was so new to me. I had never driven in the desert. It was so scary to me at first, so big and hostile. It was like a wall, a train in your face.” Luc Alphand
Hungry for more, he went on to compete again and again, quickly realising that the skills he had employed in downhill skiing were equally useful in mastering some of the world’s harshest terrains. Eight years after his first rally, Alphand was on top of the world once again.
“It took me some time and I put a lot of energy into it. I slowly improved and to finally win it was stunning!”
He went on to win off road events in Dubai, Portugal, Tunisia and Morocco. The 2009 Dakar Rally, where his team was forced to retire, proved to be his last. A short time later, he was involved in a serious motocross accident that, leaving him temporarily paralysed, threatened to destroy the life he loved.
Looking back over this dark period today, however, he points firmly to the positives.
“I made a mistake, I fell, and the bike landed on my head. It caused a dislocation of my spine. Although I remained conscious, I had nearly no feeling. I was suddenly in a wheelchair and facing up to surgery,”
After a brief pause, he adds: “It was a very difficult time. As a sportsman - your body is everything to you. It is your integrity. It was so hard to not be able to do the things that I had always found second nature.”
But with the gritty determination that has won him so many prizes, he insists: “You have to take the positives, even from these kinds of situations. I can remember that sweeping feeling of relief when, after the surgery, I could feel my hands and legs again. I try not to forget this moment.”
With his love of the mountains that have always formed the backdrop to his life, Alphand still takes every opportunity to walk up into the clouds.
“Following my recovery, I am even more grateful for these times. These quiet moments are so important.”
Since surgery, Alphand has embarked on a new journey into the one place on earth he had not explored - the oceans.