The World Cup downhill in Kitzbuehel remains the ultimate test for an alpine skier, requiring nerves of steel, courage and raw physical aggression but also the mental ability to safely manage risk on the infamous course.
The “Streif” piste down the Hahnenkamm (rooster’s comb) mountain in the beautiful Tirol valley also has a deeper significance as racers tweak their form before next month’s World Ski Championships in Colorado.
Tens of thousands of spectators pack into the glitzy resort, turning the weekend into an unparallelled fiesta glorifying fast alpine skiing, with the finish area situated directly in the centre of the town.
They come to see their skiing heroes negotiate the most prestigious speed event in one of the circuit’s most iconic locations: racers touch 100km/h within 8.5 seconds of leaving the start and there have been some extremely gruesome crashes, notably Swiss racer Daniel Albrecht in 2009 and Austrian Hans Grugger in 2011.
Saturday’s 75th running of the downhill, which made its debut in 1931, is over a piste more than 3.3 kilometres long, with racers reaching motorway-coasting speeds of 140km/h while being forced into negotiating 80-metre jumps.
The roll of honour on the hill includes multiple winners Didier Cuche (5) and Franz Klammer (4), Swiss duo Franz Heinzer and Pirmin Zubriggen, the Canadian “Crazy Canucks” trio of Todd Brooker, Steve Podborski and Ken Read in the 1980s, and French legend Jean-Claude Killy back in 1967.
Austrian Fritz Strobl won in 1997 and still holds the record time for the full course of 1min 51.58sec.
– Ever-testing –
Not since Lasse Kjus (in additional races in 2004 and 1999) and Atle Skaardal in 1990 has a Norwegian won and the scene could be set for Kjetil Jansrud to step up to the plate in the absence through injury of successful teammate Aksel Lund Svindal.
Jansrud clocked the fastest time in the first training run, at other venues perhaps not always telling, but here in Kitzbuehel, on the ever-testing track, it is a very different story as skiers do not dare to hold back.
“I pushed myself right from the start because you never know how many training sessions you are going to get,” said the Norwegian who stormed to Olympic super-G gold in the Sochi Games last year and Beaver Creek downhill victory in December.
Hannes Reichelt, last year’s winner from Austria, was the only athlete able to keep up with Jansrud’s pace, even though he was not left completely satisfied with his performance.
“We have to get to grips with each other,” the 34-year-old Austrian said of the slope.
Reichelt claimed last Sunday’s downhill at Wengen on the Lauberhorn piste, the longest downhill on the World Cup calendar, to see off Swiss duo and previous Wengen winners Beat Feuz and Carlo Janka.
Jansrud, the leader of the overall World Cup standings, took fifth.
One racer not to have competed in Wengen was former Olympic and world champion Bode Miller, the 37-year-old American saying he was yet to fully recover from back surgery in November.
Miller is uncertain for the downhill, but the four-time former world champion and two-time downhill runner-up here did finish the first training run.
“The track in kitz is looking pretty mean this year. I haven’t seen it like this in a long time. #managainstnature,” Miller, an outspoken fan of demanding courses, later tweeted.
Daron Rahlves was the last American winner of the Hahnenkamm downhill, in 2003, with only Buddy Werner (1959) having previously won it for the US team.
Iced and groomed to make it completely unlike anything a “weekend skier” could possibly sample, the Streif is ready for a new king to be proclaimed.
Programme (all times GMT)
Saturday – downhill (1045)
Sunday – slalom (0915, 1230)