Words: Sam Nelson Pictures: Bavo Swijgers
My first time snowboarding was on a real mountain, so indoor slopes had always felt like a step back from the riding experience as I knew it. Living in the British Alps doesn’t make it easy to get a fix though, so it wasn’t long before the itch to slide overcame my scepticism. I became a slave to the 90 minute Milton Keynes commute every other Friday. It was never quite the same as the mountains but it kept me sane until I could get enough bank to escape to foreign resorts. A few trips and a few years later, indoor slopes were the furthest thing from my mind. The torturous motorway journeys and extortionate lift passes – all for a snatched moment of joy on an inconsistent, mediocre set-up - just didn’t seem worth it. It wasn’t until January this year (some six years later and in Japan of all places) that indoors would come to my attention again. Belgian rider Pieter Simons - a 29 year old indoor supremo and general loose cannon - was the catalyst. Watching Pieter trying to ride Japanese powder had us all in stitches for most of the trip. But you could definitely tell he could ride by the way he was completely at home on park kickers. Here was a guy who since his first day on a board had spent most of his time riding the indoor halls of Holland and Belgium. Watching how controlled he was certainly made me think, “how did this guy get so good riding a dome?" I decided I needed to check out a few of the indoor slopes in Europe to see what I was missing.
Five months on and I’d managed to persuade Milton Keynes local Chris Chatt and Castleford shaper Damian Doyle to set out on a pan-European road trip. The plan was to navigate four halls in four days. Whilst ‘Chatt-Nav’ would later prove as useless as the real thing, he was invaluable assessing the indoor halls and generally provided amusement along the way. Lines like “why are there French flags all over Holland" did not go unnoticed. Despite both Chris and Damo being quite small guys, they managed to bring a lot of big stuff. The Alfa quickly became a cocoon of boardbags, decks, helmets, cameras and laptops. It would be five days before I saw anything out of my rearview mirror again.
Getting to Europe is pretty straightforward – you don’t have to book early to get a good ferry price. We sailed on an 11am boat for 19 quid booked a few days before departure. Our first stop was to be Ice Mountain near Brugge in Belgium, only an hour’s drive from Calais or Dunkerque. Unfortunately we had word that morning that it was closed on Monday and Tuesday - cracks were appearing in my hasty excuse for a plan. We decided to do the trip backwards and made our way 190 miles north to Hollands’ Snowworld instead.
A quick phone call to Dutch resident Tom Kingsnorth and three passes later we were inside. Situated in Zoetemeer 20 miles from Den Haag, Snowworld is big. Three 210 metre halls, two sideby- side and a separate, park specific hall accessed via a ride-through tunnel. In the park hall pommas lead up both sides, tugging you past a C-rail, 8m table, up-rail, down rail and a box section. June is completely out of season for the European halls (at times we were the only ones riding) however the effort put in by the park crew was obvious. We were all impressed with what was on offer, but 250 miles and riding late began to take its toll. A well-timed refreshment break saw Joe Cole’s volley against Sweden in the World Cup, and gave us a boost to session Snowworld into the evening. An hidden feature came into as you arrived at the top of the lift: a huge viewing window looking out over the Dutch countryside. This window spans the whole back wall and as the sun appeared a little lower every run it occurred to me that this was a much closer feeling to real, ‘outdoors’ snowboarding than I’d had in any UK hall. Despite it being incredibly quiet in the halls it was apparent the riding standard was good, since the park set up was more intermediate than beginner. The empty complex and the dim lighting throughout didn’t do a lot for the atmosphere, but credit was due for it even being open – and for having a good park.
A 40 minute drive to Amsterdam the next day saw us hit Snowplanet, an unscheduled stop but one highly recommended by our hostess from the previous evening. Being so close it would have been criminal not to pay a visit. If the previous hall had seemed dark, Snowplanet was incredibly bright. A high ceiling with wide halls and large lights made the space appear huge. It had an almost identical hall layout to Milton Keynes (a 230m slope with separate 100m learners’ area) but was a fair bit narrower, and without the dividing pillars it felt considerably bigger than Xscape. The park was looking great, probably thanks to the competition that was held the previous night (my lack of planning clearly apparent once again). At least we had the park pretty much to ourselves as we played around on a rainbow, up rail, a metre gap to flat bar, another respectable 6m table, and a nicely thought out snow stair creation which included a flat-down bar and a box on either side. Plenty of fun was had here as we disembarked the lift mid way (without reprimand!) just to hit a particular feature. It was another uncrowded, easy and relaxed place to ride. If anything Snowplanet’s park was a step above Snowworld’s and had us thinking - not for the first time - that the Dutch had better indoor parks than us. The regulars we met assured us it was pretty much like this all year round.
As we left Snowplanet for Amsterdam central there was a feeling amongst us that the halls were getting better day by day. Another (regretted) late night fast food hit, a longer sofa for me, and slightly more floor space for Chatt and Damian set us up for some much-needed rest. Even by now our arms were exhausted from the constant pulling on the bars, our eyes tired from bright snow, dim lights and night time driving. We woke up the next morning two hours too late to avoid a parking ticket, and two hours behind schedule. Yet again we would be arriving at our next destination in the late afternoon, following another 200 mile journey.
Originally our first destination, Ice Mountain in Komen, Belgium lies a mere 50 miles from Dunkerque. Needless to say we felt pretty dumb as we made our way back down the motorways we’d only come up two days ago. However we knew it would be worth it as David Doom was the parks’ chief. Having ridden with Doom for a few years, and knowing his meticulous attitude towards shaping and crafting, we sensed something special might happen. If Damian was disappointed that we hadn’t ventured into the murky Amsterdam streets the previous night, it quickly turned into high school giddiness once he set eyes upon Ice Mountain. By far the smallest place we’d visited, with only one 210m slope, it was by far the most inviting. A wide, wooden-beamed low ceiling lit the slope perfectly, leading up to another outside viewing window - this time looking across the Belgian countryside. Dooms’ craftsmanship and general park knowledge certainly showed in Ice Mountain’s snowboard set-up. It looked like a Slope-style course had landed and taken over the whole piste. As Damian began to hyperventilate, Chatt and I could no longer convince him that he was only on the trip to hold a camera! Luckily Belgian photographer Bavo Swijgers joined us and began popping flashes all over the place as we explored the park’s various lines.
Whether it was the fresh snow, the fact that a few more riders were here, or maybe just the involving set-up, Ice Mountain was fun. This, with the natural daylight from the window and pleasant overhead lighting, made for a near perfect atmosphere. Ice Mountain felt closer to a mountain park than any of the other halls we visited. The super-wide kicker complete with transfer and banners, the three choices of box hits at the bottom of the slope as well as the other features definitely wouldn’t have been out of place in many European resorts. Earlier thoughts that the halls were getting better throughout the trip were being confirmed. It would have been great to spend a few more days at Ice Mountain, but there was still one hall left to check out. Bavo assured us that we would be pleasantly surprised by our next destination too, so we agreed to meet there the next day.
Snowvalley is 140 miles west into Belgium, in a seemingly too small-for-a-hall town named Peer. Here we met Pieter Simons, the original inspiration for the whole indoor trip back in Japan. Pieter has been riding at Snowvalley since its construction in 2001. He genuinely considers the park to be his. As such he lavished a lot of his attention and time upon it for everyone’s good. Snowvalley has three halls, a huge 235m main slope where you could easily pick up enough speed to crank out some decent carves, and a 100m learner slope that then leads into the park-only hall. We were shocked. Although short (at 85m), the park hall was steep enough and every possible space had been utilized. A 5m and 10m kicker with an 8m landing, a 2m wall ride, two rails and four boxes including a burly flat-down-flat box complete with ledge. Again these features would’ve improved many resort parks. The kicker came in closer to 15m thanks to the 3m high drop-in ramp at the back of the hall and was the one of nicest I’ve ridden indoors or out. The short piste and speedy tow-rope meant that you could notch up quick laps and session whichever feature in rapid succession. Knowing this was our last stop of the tour we rode late into the evening. Once more with little energy to go on, just the willingness to ride a park that would be hard to match in England.
That night Pieter took us to a small town Belgian farmers’ disco, and as we messily wound down under the marquee and strobe lights, the trip began to feel complete. We were sore and tired but had seen four amazingly unique places in four days and 600 miles. Each one seemingly led onto the next, taking us closer to the actual Alps they were attempting to imitate.
So what were they doing that was so much better than the UK domes? Even out of season, each hall had a well-maintained park and included them as an integral part of their hall. The features were also more in tune with what you would expect to see in a mountain park. Due to actual riders being in charge, the parks felt safe and seemed well planned out. Having rails and boxes that aren’t dug out every few days, and jumps that stay in place for at least 3 - 4 months, means they get it right all the time. Riding a consistent park is ideal, giving you the confidence to get to know and trust the setups better. Plus you can turn up any day, anytime, and at any hall and find yourself practicing freestyle. The buildings themselves are situated on their own sites and are not just part of a larger retail centre, which means they’re not seen or treated as a novelty by people visiting shops, cinemas, pubs and fast-food outlets. The rationale seems to be that slopes are appealing enough without having to rely on the add-ons of a commercial complex. Recently Tom West, who undertook a similar trip, put it well when he said to me, “the European halls seemed more core than corporate."
Setting out on this trip, we were all anxious to see what Europe would offer compared to our previous experience of indoor snowboarding. These slopes totally altered our perception of what’s possible, and what it could - and should - be like to ride indoors. We have the halls in Britain already.
Every hall was happy to accommodate us and we would like to thank them. Infomation can be found at their websites:
Also thanks to Laura, Elli, Martine, Tina and Daniela for their hospitality during our trip.