KITZBUEHEL, Austria (Jan. 20) – It’s quiet in the Kitzbuehel start. The stark white walls wash away sound and blend into the glassy snow beyond the start wand. Ski tips slide toward the storied abyss below. The next two minutes are the most frightening and exhilarating in all of ski racing. This is the Hahnenkamm.
“You’re in the start and you are amped at Kitzbuehel,” said Steven Nyman (Sundance, UT) “You’ve got to get amped for this race because you just stare straight down and in three seconds you’re going 60 mph and then the earth drops out from underneath you.”
For 70 years, legendary names have crashed and conquered in Kitzbuehel. Champions such as Erich Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy, Franz Klammer, Herman Maier and Daron Rahlves have been hoisted on shoulders and celebrated for swallowing nerves and staring down the Streif. Only the euphoria of victory can drown the roar of 60,000.
“Growing up, this is what you hear about. If you’re a downhiller, you know what Kitzbuehel is,” said Erik Fisher (Middleton, ID).
The U.S. Ski Team arrived last Sunday. Already, miles of wire are strung above the cobbled medieval streets. Hundreds of speakers are set to roll the pulsating crowd from the race hill flanks into a town-wide three-day party. Many fans and racers will head to the infamous Londoner, a local pub where athletes will man the bar – a tradition that started with the Canadians in the 1980s when they won the Hahnenkamm for three straight years.
Even before the first downhill training run, athletes feel the energy.
“Kitzbuehel is an unbelievable place,” said Head Coach Sasha Rearick. “It doesn’t take much to get the guys fired up. They come in here and are excited about it from the first day.”
Bode Miller (Franconia, NH) first felt it in 1998, but didn’t attempt the downhill for three more seasons. Now, he and his skis are etched into Hahnenkamm legend, despite not yet winning the notorious downhill.
A 2008 skis on the A-Net ride to second place was in some minds, as good as victory. This season, warm air, rain and a night of snow has molded the Streif into a twisting washboard of ice similar to the track that sent him sailing toward the fence in 2008.
He was fourth in Thursday’s training run, racing after Austrian Hans Grugger was helicoptered off the slope.
“Sure, it’s dangerous, but that’s the Hahnenkamm, it’s dangerous either way,” he said. “That’s a big part of what makes this race so cool.”
Miller, Nyman, Fisher, Ted Ligety (Park City, UT) and Kitz rookie Travis Ganong (Squaw Valley, CA) will race the downhill Saturday. NorAm super G champion Chris Frank (Windham, NY) will join them Friday for the opening super G.
After crossing the finish line 24th in Thursday’s training run, Ganong’s smile began a new story.
“It’s the Hahnenkamm,” he said. “It’s the toughest downhill race in the world and when I crossed the finish line, it was easily the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”