Rough Guides editor Helen Abramson tried out the unusual extreme sport of buggy rollin, headfirst down the Olympic Bobsleigh Track in the French Alps resort of La Plagne.
The French Alps in summer are a wonderful sight. The mountains are lush and green after a wet few months, and Mont Blanc’s snowy cap twinkles in the distance. A two-hour hike took me from La Plagne Bellecote, at 1930m, up to the top of the Roche de Mio cable car, 2700m above sea level – high enough to notice the thinning air in my lungs. The bubble-shaped gondola was running all through the summer, so several people, especially families, opted for the easy route up to take a gentle stroll back down, past herds of cows clanging their bells.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the fern-covered slopes would be like to ski or snowboard down in winter, and what a dramatically different place it must be. But I was delighted to be experiencing such a different side of the Alps for the first time, and I wasn’t short of things to do, as during my weekend there in August, the annual late-summer events of Beton on Fire and its sister festival Urban Plagne were taking place.
Urban Plagne hosts the World Skate Cross Series and a pro/amateur BMX competition, but what really seemed to attract people was the range of events attendees could try their hand at for free, including skateboarding, capoeira, hip-hop dancing, graffiti, parkour, circus tricks and even DJing. The classes were aimed at children, so anyone above about the age of seven who joined a class stood out like a sore thumb (me very much included), but for those with kids bored of walking up mountains, it was the perfect place to keep them merrily occupied for a day.
The participants at Beton on Fire, on the other hand, were certainly not little children. In-line skating, luge and longboard downhill bobsleigh races took place – and, for the first time, buggy rollin. (Who needs that final “g” anyway? It’s so conformist.) This bizarre extreme sport involves wearing body armour, covered in dozens of little wheels, and travelling headfirst down a slope, or, in this case, La Plagne’s Olympic Bobsleigh Track. In previous years, Jean Yves Blondeau, the buggy rollin creator, wowed the crowd with show-runs; showing off is something he seemed (justifiably) more than comfortable with. He explained to me that in some ways he prefers these “aesthetic” runs to the timed ones, as he likes to create fluid wave patterns by taking high curves down the track. Jean Yves won the timed race that day though – his three competitors didn’t stand a chance – and he did a show-run afterwards as well. The spectators loved it.
But then it was my turn. When I was little, I didn’t exactly excel at standing up on my older brother’s skateboard, so I gave up on that method and chose to lie down on the board on my front, at the top of the driveway, and roll down into the street, pushing my hands along the road surface every now and then to keep up my momentum. Rather than focus on the huge levels of stupidity and risk involved in this hobby, I’d like to highlight the (almost certainly sole) positive outcome: excellent buggy rollin practice.
I was trained by Jean Yves himself. He created this sport twenty years ago and designed and built the suits – which sell for several thousands of euros – so it’s an understatement to say he knows what he’s talking about. I felt pretty lucky, as it’s not the kind of sport you can try all that easily; his pupils are mostly film stunt performers. His speed is intimidating: on the day I met him, he travelled at 91km/hr down the bobsleigh track, and his record for street speed is 112km/hr. We practised on a gentle slope in a deserted car park and I got a girl’s suit that was used in a film for someone much smaller than me. It had oversized rounded breasts, fake corset frontage and a wheel right in between the legs.
By the time I was ready to begin, I was sweating profusely, from a mixture of nerves, overheating and severe embarrassment. The men’s suits mainly differed between them in the number and arrangement of wheels on their chest, and they all looked like a cross between Power Rangers, Transformers and Robocop, with added wheels. Mine made me look like a desperate, confused fembot.
I had wheels attached to all my joints and on my chest, stoppers on my arms (an extra feature not usually added) and in-line skates on my feet with wheels further forward than normal, so they ended in front of the toes. I hadn’t skated since I was a child, so I was a bit wobbly on my feet at first, but soon got used to it. We began by trying to move around on all fours, and progressed to lying down. It was actually fairly simple to get the hang of turning and stopping. Being able to roll down a hill using every part of my body to manoeuvre myself felt like I was cheating the world somehow – it shouldn’t be allowed.
It gave me a great buzz, and I realised I was no longer nervous about the bobsleigh, just excited. Jean Yves didn’t fancy my chances of 1.5km of increasing speed down the track (and nor did I), so I started about halfway down.
“Allez, allez!” I got a push and was off, gritting my teeth. As instructed, I tried to stay at bottom of the track rather than climb the curvy side. Everything was quite slow at first, and then I turned a corner into a dip and suddenly concrete was rushing past my face and everything was shaking. I needed to hold all my limbs firm. I plucked up the courage to put my arms behind me, by my sides, and just let go.
In the last dip I knew if I did anything to upset my balance I could really injure myself, and then before I knew it I was moving uphill and slowing to a stop. I was just a fraction of the way up the incline compared to where the racers finished; I couldn’t imagine how fast it must feel for them at 90km/hr – I felt like the world was about to explode all around me, and I was travelling at a tortoise-like pace by comparison. “One more time?” “Bien sûr!”
NEED TO KNOW
Beton on Fire is a free event over three days during the third or fourth weekend of August at La Plagne Olympic Bobsleigh Track, with in-line skating, luge, longboard downhill and buggy rollin’ races. Urban Plagne immediately follows Beton on Fire, with 3 days of events including the World Skate Cross Series, BMX, skate and trottinette competitions. Visitors can try skateboarding, capoeira, hip-hop dancing, graffiti, parkour, circus tricks, DJing, pedal go-karting, freestyle BMX and more. Email FaceJean Yves on [email protected] if you’re interested in trying buggy rollin’. He teaches people at Beton on Fire, and is based near La Plagne.