The Hahnenkamm Race at Kitzbühel is the world’s most famous – and ferocious – downhill ski event
The view from the start house on the Streif course at Kitzbühel is one of the most frightening in sports. Below the tips of the racers’ skis, the mountain falls away in a steep drop. Then, after one icy turn, there’s the lip of the Mausefalle – the “Mouse Trap” – a long, wind-buffeted jump with a 85 degree gradient that can render you airborne for up to 60 meters. A crash here during training in 2011 put Austrian Olympian Hans Grugger into a week-long coma. The accident, resulting from a slight mistake in skiing technique, effectively ended Grugger’s promising career at the age of 29.
It’s no surprise then that, as skiers warm up for a training run, there’s a tense, deferential silence for the legendary course: If you get it right, it can make you a legend within two brutal minutes – but if you get it wrong you might not walk away unscathed.
Swiss skier Didier Cuche, who won a record-tying fifth title in 2012, admits that when he first looked down the Streif as a rookie racer he was so terrified he wanted to throw off his skis and exit through the back door. “It’s definitely intimidating,” says 30-year-old American racer Andrew Weibrecht, who managed second place in last season’s Super-G, “but there’s so much energy coming from the crowds that it sort of compensates that and makes you willing to do it and to push yourself.”
The crowds at Kitzbühel are a sight to behold. 80,000 ski-crazed fans, most of them very thirsty,
descend on the Tyrolean town for the Hahnenkamm Race weekend, named for the jagged, forested mountain that is home to the 2.6 km long Streif. Friday features a Super-G and an old-school slalom takes place on Sunday, but it’s Saturday’s downhill that attracts the biggest crowds.
They come early, spewing out of the train station that is a short walk from the finish line arena, wrapped up warmly and spilling mulled wine on the snow. The fans wave flags striped red, white and red, hoping, cheering, even praying for an Austrian win, but showing charming equanimity for the recent triumphs of Italian, Swiss, French and Norwegian racers. Whoever wins, the party in Kitzbühel goes on deep into the night.
This year marks the 77th swashbuckling edition of the race, famous for its high-speed hairpins and ferocious g-force compressions, with racers reaching speeds of over 140 km per hour. It has transcended the status of mere athletic competition and become a fixture of the Austrian national (sporting) identity, akin to the Wimbledon finals in Britain or the Super Bowl in the U.S. At midday on the third Saturday of January, millions of Austrians, unable to make the pilgrimage to Kitzbühel in person, will huddle together in front of the TV with their hearts in their mouths.
“It’s nice to know that you are racing in a place where you know that if you win, you will be leaving a legacy in the history of ski racing,” says Weibrecht. “Just looking back in the books, some of the great legends of skiing have won here.”
Each gondola cabin on the ski lift going up the course pays immortal tribute to the race’s winners. You might ride up in Toni Sailer, Franz Klammer, Karl Schranz; possibly Pirmin Zurbriggen, Didier Cuche, Hermann Maier or even Peter Fill, last year’s winner from Italy. The most understated of champions, after his victory Fill remarked laconically, “You always have to push your limits in Kitzbühel.”
The price of entertainment
Last season’s race was one of the most furious and controversial in recent history. As Fill lifted the trophy on Kitzbühel’s town square, two of his rivals, the Norwegian World Cup co-favorite Aksel Lund Svindal and Austrian Georg Streitberger lay in hospital beds trying to accept that their seasons had been abruptly and painfully ended. Both had fallen victim to heart-stopping, high-speed crashes that catapulted them off the bumpy, sharp left turn after the Hausbergkante into the safety netting. Former Streif winner Hannes Reichelt also crashed at the same spot but walked away with severe bruising. The organizers decided to stop the race prematurely after only 30 out of 57 racers had started.
We all want to see spectacular racing, but looking on from a commentary box as the medical helicopter evacuated the injured, thwacking away with that stomach-churning sound, I felt like a spectator at a bloodthirsty gladiatorial contest. All this human pain– all in the name of our entertainment.
The post-race banter in the bars and streets of Kitzbühel afterwards wasn’t about Fill’s thrilling victory but whether the Streif was too dangerous. Svindal’s injury had robbed fans of an exciting rivalry between the Norwegian star and Austrian Marcel Hirscher for the overall World Cup.
With races sometimes won by a hundredth of a second, skiers are constantly at their limit and must take risks to compete for podium places. Fortunately, much has been done in the past years to make ski racing safer. Athletes now wear an air bag vest under their racing suit that inflates during a crash, softening the landing. At Kitzbühel, several helicopters are on hand to quickly airlift skiers to a state-of-the-art clinic in Innsbruck, where experienced medical staff are on standby during the race. But is it really all worth it?
I met Streif casualty Hans Grugger to talk about the dangers of downhill ski racing. The scar from the surgery he underwent to relieve the pressure on his brain was still easily visible on the side of his shaved head. “I can’t remember anything for four weeks after the crash and for two months before,” he told me. “I’m just so happy that the emergency services looked after me so sensationally so that I can talk about it now.” He said he had no regrets about the dangers he faced. “The racers are prepared to take these risks because it is an incredible feeling. It’s fun and beautiful.”
This sanguine response to the brutal setbacks seems typical to downhill racers, who are by all accounts a breed apart. Hours after his season-ending crash, Svindal posted a message on his Facebook page, reassuring distraught fans: “Kinda sucks in the middle of the winter, but that’s life. Ups and downs and just gotta deal with whatever comes.”