Downhill: The Experience Factor

“Finally I’m figuring out how to mentally attack these downhills. Before I was always kind of nervous because it was my first or second time skiing these courses. But this is my third year in Bormio and I feel like I can just relax a little bit and have fun. I love to ski and in the last few years I had to tone back how I ski because you have to really learn these downhills before you can attack. Now I feel that I know them, I can attack and I can be up there with the best guys.”

Travis Ganong in December 29, 2012 after finishing 7th in Bormio

Moving to the elite level of any sport is not supposed to be easy. It takes time and courage. There is a blend of physical and mental maturity. In ski racing, and especially in downhill, the experience factor is critical. And there is only one way to earn experience: by running the track.

Gaining the intimate familiarity necessary to succeed in downhill has evolved over time. From the earliest days, which where completely unregimented, safety and speed have shifted the fundamentals. First it was straw-bales and mattresses. A training free-for-all evolved to a starting order and then to disciplined starts and tight supervision within the race arena. In todays’ World Cup, training is serious business with security to control movement on the track; a clearly defined starting order with a competition surface and course set intended to be safe and as fair as is possible for a sport that lives with the elements.

So from those early years of the sport where Ernst Gertsch secretly “trained” on the Lauberhorn downhill so he could best the visiting Brits; to the tightly regimented downhills of today where the maximum number of training runs would be three – gaining experience remains fundamental.

I look back on my own experience of the 1970’s and 80’s, where two training runs per day was the norm, giving us five to six runs down the track before a race. Only on one occasion did I get anything less than three: Kitzbühel in 1983, which was beset by weather challenges. By todays standard we were well schooled.

A rookie moving up to the World Cup from any of the Continental Cup circuits faces a pretty big hurdle to learn the track these days. With the usual standard of 2 or maybe 3 training runs – but quite often only one – a newcomer to the Tour faces a daunting task.

There are very good reasons for so carefully prescribing training. The World Cup is our showcase to the world. The focus on maintaining an exciting and safe track is paramount. The World Cup is not where you train athletes: it is a gathering of the best to compete.

So if experience is key, yet the goal of each event is to produce the best athlete in the world, how do rookies earn their spurs?

Well, it’s been said so many times: program patience is an essential element. Insightful athletic leadership knows it not unusual to take up to five years (or more!) to transition from a rookie to a contender. Time to fully know and appreciate the nuances of each track, to be in the position to think about winning.

Using Travis Ganong as an example of one of the “younger” athletes to recently make this transition, the 28-year old World Champion silver medalist raced his first World Cup in November/2009 (Lake Louise), scored his first top ten in December/2012, his first downhill podium in February/2014 (Kvitfjell) and his first win at Santa Caterina in December/2014. A five-year journey to the top.

A sampling of prominent speed pilots reveals the same pattern: several years of gaining experience before the results come. Norwegian rising star Aleksander Aamodt Kilde transitioned quickly (within three seasons: November/2013 to his first win at Garmisch in February/2016) – but still only has three top 10 results. 2014 Olympic Champion Matthias Meyer took four seasons (December/2010 to February/2014). For 2016 World Cup Downhill Champion Peter Fill it was six years (November/2002 to November/2008). In every case, their early races are populated with plenty of results out of the top 30.

Several World Cup venues are working on ways to shorten the gestation period, actively promoting these options to help younger talent “learn the ropes”. The common goal of each project is to give Europa Cup or Nor-Am athletes time on a World Cup track.

Lake Louise (since 1995), St.-Moritz (since 2006) and Wengen (since 2009) have become speed-track staples of their respective Continental Cup Tours and a proving ground for young talent. Other World Cup organizers including Val d’Isere, Zauchensee and Bad Kleinkirchheim have regularly provided similar opportunities. In 2017, the men’s Europa Cup Tour will get their first taste of racing on Kitzbühel’s Streif.

Most of these organizers do not offer the full track. Cost and preparation time limit the ability of each to do the entire build-out, keeping in mind their primary focus is to ensure they run the best possible World Cup. But each understands the importance of providing experience to the next generation. “Our sport cannot survive if we only have three or four nations competing,” says Dr. Michael Huber, President of the Kitzbüheler Ski Club, in explaining why one of the speed classics is joining the group. “We need to establish special projects like this – and it is the private undertaking of our ski club to run this event – so younger athletes can learn and our sport starts to create heroes before they reach the World Cup.”

2009 Kitz - John Kucera

Focusing on the Kitzbühel project, as it is a new for the coming season, athletes racing in the Europa Cup calendared for Jan 14-16, will start just above the Mausefalle and run to the Oberhausberg. “We requested the Europa Cup Race Director Peter Gerdol to use the actual setting for the Hahnenkamm-race, so we can focus on building the safety and slope preparation of the track” continued Dr. Huber. “We feel this shortened version of the race track still is a tough test, but it takes away sections where the athlete is pushed to the limit.”

Even a shortened version of these classic downhills gives younger athletes a solid taste-test of the real thing. It’s a sensible training session at a level where the focus is on developing talent. The goal of every Continental Cup circuit is (or should be) to prepare athletes for the World Cup. It’s also cost-effective use of the extensive safety setup. And as these projects are FIS calendared, all nations can enter which provides an effective training environment for more than the host nation.

A similar positive trend has emerged with World Championship organizers and aspiring World Cup candidates, who provide “early access” to younger athletes through staging of the FIS Junior Alpine World Ski Championships. Garmisch was first, hosting the 2009 World Juniors. Åre is following suit this winter (2017). Crans-Montana tested their newly rebuilt venue for World Cup in 2011 and Jasna in 2014.

Projects such as these are some of many needed to bolster the speed disciplines. Arguably, the toughest transition in alpine ski racing is the final one: to the World Cup. It is also where our sport can take immediate and effective action to give younger athletes a leg up in gaining experience. To have such a prestigious collection of World Cup and World Championship race venues going the extra step to invest in the future is a clear message of support to National Ski Associations and to younger athletes.

More still to come on this topic.

White Circus – Weiß Zirkus – Cirque Blanc is usually updated on Thursday of each week.


About Ken Read

Tough, Informed, engaged. Athlete centred, committed to good governance.
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1 Response to Downhill: The Experience Factor

  1. Pingback: Downhill: The Experience Factor | Robert G Richardson

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