It started as an afternoon hike.
Our planned day of training on the Hintertux glacier had been rained out. Nine o’clock that September morning the rain was teeming down. There was no point in attempting skiing. So what to do?
Steve Podborski and I decided to make the most of the situation and not waste the day. Kitzbühel was just around the corner, only a 90-minute drive away. The puzzle of this, the most famous and testing of downhills had eluded us. We were now into our seventh season on the World Cup and between us the best we’d accomplished was a mere 8th place. Perhaps a closer inspection – a hike up the Streif – might familiarize us a little better to the nuances of the challenge.
That afternoon hike proved to be time well spent in solving the riddle of the ultimate test on snow.
Kitzbühel is ski racing. The name stirs images of thrill and disaster. In the world of the “White Circus” no downhill track is more storied. This 900-year old Tyrolean village is to ski racing, what Wimbledon is to tennis, Henley to rowing or St. Andrews to golf.
The Hahnenkamm-berg rises sharply out of the south edge of the village. Distinctive red cliffs cap the peak from which it derives its’ name – the rooster’s comb or Hahnenkamm. Snaking down the north-facing flank is the “Strief”, virtually unchanged since 1930, which drops into the natural giant amphitheatre that forms the finish of the downhill and easily hosts raucous crowds that exceed 100,000.
At a mere 860 vertical metres, it isn’t the highest downhill. And it certainly is not a very good recreational ski run. But no other race track in the world offers such a complete test. The Streif measures every aspect of ski racing skill. This challenge draws the world’s best who have gathered once again this week to test their limits.
Kitzbühel is tradition. A classic downhill, with two sections of the track are far narrower that the recommended 30 metre minimum width – a remnant of earlier days of ski racing. The town treasures its’ connection to sport, honouring the race and the mountain in a museum in the top terminal of the Hahnenkamm-bahn. Gondolas of the lift are emblazoned with names of Hahnenkamm champions.
Kitzbühel is intimidation. Out of the start, you face the toughest 35 seconds anywhere. An intense plunge that draws you through names that have joined the lore of the sport – the precipitous “Mausfalle” (mousetrap) followed by a sharp compression and roundhouse turn into the convex “Steilhang” (steep wall) before scooting out onto the Bruckenshuss, a narrow cattrack for 15 seconds of calm respite. Then the “Alte Schneise” (old cut) rudely shakes you out of any reverie and thrusts you through the jumps and narrow twisting turns of the “Seidlalm” and “Larchenhang” (Larch Wall). Another short flat, even a slight uphill section lulls the senses before all hell breaks loose. A quick “S Turn” sets up the “Hausebergkante” (Hauseberg Jump) and the remaining 40 seconds are nothing more than a blur as rote reaction carries you through jumps, compressions, a 70% sidehill and into the “Zielschuss” with speeds that exceed 150kph.
And please note: I use the term “intimidation”, not fear. Yes, there are the normal butterflies of competition and anticipation of a profound athletic test. But no one at the start is afraid – such athletes who harbour fears are long gone from the sport. The World Cup is not for the faint of heart – the fraternity of speed pilots revel in the challenge and excitement.
Kitzbühel is pacing. Each challenging section, which presents the most intense ski racing to be found anywhere in the world, it’s easy to let down your guard and relax. Which can be the crucial mistake. Any distraction only results in disaster. It takes just under 2 minutes to complete the full decent from peak to valley. To win requires complete focus, from start to finish.
Kitzbühel is the highlight of the season. Even the Olympics and World Championships pale against the pure athletic challenge. This is the unofficial World Championship of downhill racing. Ask any ski racer from around the globe what downhill is the toughest. Without exception, the Strief on the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel is the choice.
Tradition, history, location, speed and a sense of impending disaster can certainly draw a crowd. The Streif is the ultimate test. The most extreme ski racing you could find anywhere. Not a death defying challenge or a foolish plunge towards disaster, Kitzbühel simply pushes the athlete to the limit, both physically and mentally.
I’m proud to wear the mountain chamois pin, as a winner of the Hahnenkamm. It’s a badge that states one day in January 1980 it all came together. The moment of convergence: years of training, the experience of so many coaches imparted over a career, the relentless effort of sport administrators and countless hours invested by volunteers – coupled with respect for the mountain. All this combined with the understanding that success in downhill comes with the confidence to relax and let the skis do the work – to flow with the mountain.
On that day, the Streif was easy. The Hahnenkamm became a life-long friend.