“Just before the last dragon, I catch my heel edge and suddenly I’m skidding, losing speed, trying to keep it together. Then I hear Belle Brockhoff, right behind me, scream and crash and I’m like: ‘Oh shit.’ And I’m telling myself: ‘Stay on your feet, you can’t crash. You’re not allowed to do that.’”
Charlotte Bankes’s mind is tumbling back in time, to the scene of her greatest victory, the 2021 world snowboard cross championships in Sweden. She has watched it back only a couple of times – it’s not a perfect race, which makes her wince – but she retains total recall. As she talks through the final, move by move, moment by moment, every zig and jump and zag, it is as if she is watching on ultra HD.
The race lasts just under a minute and a half. But, listening to Bankes, each second almost becomes a short story in itself. And, when put together, they give a compelling insight into Team GB’s best shot at gold at the Bejing Winter Olympics, which start on Friday.
“What was I thinking about on the start line at the worlds? I’m going all in. Whatever happens I’m going for the win. I’ve got Michela Moioli, [the 2018 Olympic gold medallist] and Eva Samkova [the 2020 world champion] and Belle, the best girls basically, with me. But once I put my board on and I’m in that start gate, the pressure has gone and I’m really calm and then PULL! and we’re under way …”
Few sports at the Winter Olympics are more exciting or chaotic than snowboard cross. The idea is simple enough. Four competitors, a mountain, whoever gets down first wins. But jeopardy lurks on every sharp turn and steep bank. And crashes and calamities are a fact of life.
Bankes, though, insists she feels comfortable amid the chaos, trusting her ability to make the right decision even when one competitor is weaving inside her, another is barking at her shoulder, and a ramp is fast approaching. Having competed internationally since she was 15, she says that little fazes her – even, as at the 2021 world championships, if she makes a slow start.
“Early on in that world championship race, we have a choice: stay on the ground or go into the air for a double. I am losing speed, so I go for the double. I know I am slow but my aim is to generate speed for further down the mountain. It is tough when everyone is in front of you. But once I get past the first three features I am thinking: ‘Right, now my race starts …’”
While Bankes’s name is unfamiliar to most British audiences she has competed in two previous Olympics – but in the red, white and blue of France, not Team GB. She was born in Hemel Hempstead but her parents moved from the UK to L’Argentière-la-Bessée in the French Alps when she was four. It meant that competing for Les Bleus, including coming 17th at the Sochi Games in 2014 and seventh at Pyeongchang in 2018, seemed the natural thing to do.
Behind the scenes, though, she was increasingly struggling. A long-term hip problem, sustained in 2011, was blighting her performances and her enjoyment of the sport. At one point she contemplated retirement, frustrated at both her injuries and a perceived lack of support from the French system.
So when Team GB offered her the chance to transfer four years ago, she seized it. It has taken some time for her body to recover – she repeatedly stresses how helpful GB Snowsport has been – but a silver medal at the 2020 world championships, followed by gold in Sweden a year later, proved she was on the right track.
“Just before halfway in the world championships, I realise I’m on the inside of Eva, which is on the toe side on the next turn, and I don’t really want to be there. So I make a split-second decision and change my line to go over her board and on to the outside. Without that, I would have had too tight a turn and I wouldn’t have been able to properly come out with speed. Now, though, I can slingshot off the bank and go from third into first …”
Her victory in Sweden made her the first British woman to claim a world title in a winter sport in 85 years and she began this calendar year with back-to-back World Cup wins in Krasnoyarsk, in Russia, to climb to the top of the snowboard cross standings. To prepare for Beijing she spends her mornings on the slopes and her afternoons in the gym, beefing up her legs for the battles ahead. There is every chance, she concedes, that victory could come down to hundredths of a second.
“When you are behind in a race, like I was in Sweden, you’re looking at everything. But now I’m in the lead, I have this extreme tunnel vision. I’m just looking ahead, trying to choose the fastest lines. But it’s not easy as the others are trying to draft off me. The other thing I’m doing is to cut the inside lines on the entry to all the banks as we hit the bottom section. Now I just need to put the legs back on, and give it everything. But they are starting to hurt, and then I hit the dragon …”
Bankes, 26, has been to China before and raced in a test event in November, where she was second to Samkova. She did not find the course as spectacular as those at Sochi or Pyeongchang, although she expects it to be changed for the Olympics. But whatever she faces in Beijing, there is a quiet sense that she will be ready.
“After Belle’s crash I know I’ve lost quite a lot of speed. So I am trying to push and generate as much power out of every feature just to stay in front, because I know they are hunting me. Then I start to hear them. I can’t see anything, but I hear them getting louder. And then I hit the back of the roller and I’m just like: ‘Oh no,’ and I’m losing more speed and I don’t believe I am going to manage to stay in front. But the line comes just in time.”
Her margin of victory over Moioli at last year’s world championships? Just 0.08sec. She admits it was a fantastic race, but when she is asked about her prospects of gold in Beijing – and the suggestions that Bankes is the British banker – it is like a Team GB media manager has given her an autocue to read.
Suddenly she becomes vague, talking only about the unique pressures and challenges of an Olympics and her hopes to do well. Yet when asked if she is looking forward to what lies ahead, the fire returns to her eyes.
“Nobody never ever knows what’s going to happen in a board cross race. That’s what makes it so so fun.”