The crystal globe awarded to the overall World Cup winner is the most coveted trophy in alpine skiing. In 1997, Luc Alphand won the overall title, the only Frenchman to do so since Jean‑Claude Killy in 1968. Immediately afterwards, Alphand surprised the world by retiring from ski racing at the relatively young age of 31.
But his thirst for speed and adrenalin had not been sated, and in 1998, Alphand entered his first Paris-Dakar rally. After eight years of motor racing, he reached the top of the drivers’ podium in Dakar in 2006. He is now as famous in France for his motorsport and TV work as he was for ski racing success.
Alphand was practically born with skis on his feet. He was delivered in hospital in Briançon, just 5km from his home in Villard-Laté, at the heart of the Serre Chevalier ski area. His mother Josiane, whose family had lived in the village for generations, worked in the post office. His father Aimé had grown up in a neighbouring valley, and worked in Serre Chevalier as a ski instructor and mountain guide.
“My parents became the keepers of the Refuge du Glacier Blanc in the Parc National des Ecrins when I was six,” Alphand says. “I grew up in the mountains, climbing and riding bikes in the summer and skiing in the winter.”
I hated slalom from the beginning. I was fond of going fast
However, ski racing was not something Luc took to naturally. “My older brother Lionel won every race when we were young, but for me the most important thing was having fun.”
Alphand found his real passion for racing once he started skiing downhill. “I hated slalom from the beginning. I was fond of going fast, and it was only once I started winning regional downhill races at 15 that I thought about maybe one day racing in the World Cup.”
Aged 16, Alphand joined a talented French junior ski team that included Franck Piccard, Jean-Luc Crétier and Denis Rey, who all wanted to lift French skiing out of the doldrums in which it had been languishing since the early 1970s. Lionel was not so lucky – a torn knee ligament when he was 18 and a shattered humerus at 19 ruled him out of the sport for good.
In 1983, aged 17, Alphand won downhill gold at the World Junior Championships in Sestriere. But going up against powerful Austrian and Swiss teams at senior level proved more difficult. The French ski team was still living in the shadow of Jean-Claude Killy, who won overall World Cup titles in 1967 and 1968, going on to become a triple Olympic gold medallist at the 1968 Grenoble games.
“When I started on the World Cup tour, the team entered me into every race – downhill, giant slalom, even the slaloms which I hated. It was too much for me. I realised I wasn’t an all-rounder like Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg or Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, who were winning at the time.”
At the Calgary Olympics in 1988, the French ski team finally got the breakthrough they had been waiting for. Franck Piccard won bronze in the downhill and then the super-G gold medal, the first time this event had featured in the Olympic Games. Alphand was still on the all‑round programme, coming tantalisingly close to a medal with a fourth-place finish in the combined event (involving one downhill and two slalom runs).
“Franck Piccard’s gold in Calgary removed all the mental barriers about winning races. If it was possible for him, it was possible for me.”
The following season, Alphand focused on the speed events of downhill and super-G and stopped skiing in other disciplines, but he was dogged by injury. “I went full speed ahead and crashed so much that I knew all the hospitals near all the courses.” He achieved a number of top 10 results in World Cup downhill races, including his first podium place, a bronze medal in Val Gardena in 1990. His fourth place in the 1993 World Championships downhill in Morioka, Japan, was encouraging, but just weeks later, in Whistler, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee threatened to end his career.
“I knew if I made a comeback from injury at 28 years old I would need to make some changes. I got married that summer, which stabilised my home situation, but I also changed my training. I wanted to get bigger to carry more speed on the flats, even if it meant putting on a bit of fat, and I told the coaches I did not want to run like a hamster on a wheel any more.”
Alphand made a good recovery, and in the 1994 season he scored seven top 10 finishes in World Cup races. At that year’s Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, he came eighth in both the downhill and the super-G. Although these results were not spectacular, in Alphand’s mind he had turned a corner. “I thought I was almost there. I was building my confidence, building physically, and I changed my mental approach to be more calculated with my risk taking. I actually started to ski faster times by going slower.”
At the start of the 1995 season in Val d’Isère, Alphand came very close to winning his first World Cup competition, only to be pipped into second place by the young Austrian Josef Strobl. Poor snow conditions that winter led to many cancellations and postponements, and by mid‑January the International Ski Federation (FIS) was so desperate to hold a race that two downhills were scheduled on the same day in Kitzbühel. Alphand won them both.
“Winning in Kitzbühel after nine years of sacrifice and suffering on the World Cup circuit meant so much to me, because I had finally won a race, but I had also won on the toughest course. That evening I was king of Kitzbühel.”
In the space of a few months, Alphand had gone from a solid top 10 skier to a double Kitzbühel race winner, with an outside chance of gaining the 1995 World Cup downhill title. “I had to win the last race of the season in Bormio, and Kristian Ghedina of Italy needed to place worse than fourth. Ghedina started early and did not ski well, so I suddenly had much more pressure on me. When I won that race and took the title and heard the Marseillaise on the podium, that was a big turning point for me.” It was the first men’s World Cup title for the French team since 1971.
It’s often said that getting to the top is hard, but staying there is harder. In Alphand’s case that was far from true. “Finally I discovered the potential of my mind, and 40 per cent of my improved performance was down to confidence. The pressure of being the favourite to win was so much easier to deal with than the pressure I felt during all my lost years of struggling to be fast.” Alphand continued his form into the 1996 season, defending his World Cup downhill title with three race wins, as well as a World Championship bronze in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
Going into the 1997 season, French team coach Mauro Cornaz had an idea to push Alphand harder still. “He said to me, this season you will win the super-G World Cup as well as the downhill title.” Alphand had finished on the podium in super-G a couple of times, but had never won a race in this discipline, which combines the speed elements of downhill with the technical skills of giant slalom.
1997 was such an amazing year – it was like a dream I knew I could not repeat
But a boost in confidence can do wonderful things, and Alphand transferred his winning touch to super-G, with results that were good enough to bring an unexpected bonus. The best all‑rounders at the time, Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, had been struggling with injury – so without even planning it, Alphand scored enough points between the two events to win the overall World Cup title.
Historically, the overall title had only ever been won by all-round skiers, or great slalom and giant slalom skiers such as Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark and Italy’s Alberto Tomba. To this day, Alphand is still the only ski racer to win the title without racing either slalom or GS. He gave the globe‑shaped trophy to French coach Mauro Cornaz by way of thanks.
The following summer, Alphand made the surprise decision to retire. “My goal when I was racing was to finish with the best result possible, without injury and at a time that I chose. And 1997 was such an amazing year – it was like a dream I knew I could not repeat.” The Nagano Olympics were less than a year away, but he was worried about getting hurt again, and was not sure what the conditions would be like in Japan. Not only that, his Swedish wife Anna-Karine was pregnant with their third child.
Nevertheless, it can be hard to say goodbye to an adrenalin-packed life on the road. Although he had no experience other than racing ski team cars around snowy car parks, Alphand was given a celebrity start in a couple of motor races in 1997. That summer, after a post-race dinner at the Castellet race track in France, the challenge was set to enter the world’s most gruelling off‑road motor race, the Paris-Dakar rally.
On the Dakar rally, the road book only gives you safety advice and directions, so you are racing over dunes you’ve never seen
The 20th Dakar rally in 1998 was particularly gruelling, and Alphand was in for a rough time of it. “Everything was new for me, but it was a complete nightmare. We retired with a broken gearbox after spending two nights lost in the desert. I felt really vulnerable, and it was a big shock.” Alphand and his co-driver Arnaud Debron were taken by helicopter to the finish in Dakar, leaving their car in the desert.
Back in Serre Chevalier that winter, Alphand could not resist entering one last ski race. With only a couple of weeks’ training at the tail end of the 1998 season, he entered the French Championships downhill, held on the run that bears his name. Amazingly he placed third, behind Jean-Luc Crétier (who won the gold in Nagano) and Nicolas Burtin, who had claimed his first World Cup win just a few days before.
After that, Alphand dedicated all his time and effort to motorsport with the same professional attitude that made him so successful as a ski racer. He found that the skills he had learnt on snow could be transferred to driving on sand.
“The main advantage I brought from skiing was the vision. I had the capacity to analyse terrain at speed. On the Dakar rally, the road book only gives you safety advice and directions, so you are racing over dunes you’ve never seen.”
Alphand persevered for four years, improving and learning all the time, racing in rallies and on the track in endurance competitions such as the 24-hour Le Mans road race. In 2002, he was picked to drive for Mitsubishi’s off-road team. “Mitsubishi were like Ferrari in Formula 1 at the time and we won a lot of races. Racing against my heroes like Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz was pure pleasure. It was like a bonus career.”
In the end, motorsport almost cost Alphand his life. Ever since he was a child he had ridden motocross bikes, and he had used them to train for downhill ski racing. Mitsubishi were not too keen on him riding while he was driving professionally, but during a quiet period in 2009, Alphand decided to take part in a two‑day endurance event. On the second day he crashed on a jump, breaking vertebrae in his neck.
“I dislocated the C7 and T1 vertebrae, and broke T2. My doctor told me 70 per cent of people with that injury would have died and I might end up tetraplegic.” Luckily, Alphand is still able to walk (and ski), but the injury meant an enforced retirement from motorsport.
Alphand has since returned to the Dakar rally seven times, working for French television. He can also be seen at ski races, supporting his children. Estelle won four medals at the Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck 2012, and is now part of the French World Cup team. Of the boys, Nils loves the speed events and Sam is more of a slalom skier. Both of them are on the French Europa Cup team.
“I’m quite tough on the kids and remind them to live their lives professionally. The spirit is the same as when I was racing. You have to be strong in your head, be prepared to work and be happy with your life. Then you will be fast.”