Kitzbuhel’s Hahnenkamm downhill is skiing’s wildest race

Forgotten Olympic sports
Per-Arne Andersen via Wikimedia Commons
Speed skiing, in which skiers speed downhill in a straight line as quickly as possible, was demonstrated at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. During the competition, Michael Prufer, a 31-year-old French medical doctor, improved on his own 1988 world record by reaching 229.299 kilometers per hour. Finland's Tarja Mulari achieved a top speed of 219.245 km/h, also breaking the previous women's world record. The event was marred by the death of Swiss speed skier Nicolas Bochatay, who died on the morning of the speed skiing finals after colliding with a snow grooming vehicle while skiing on a public slope outside the racing area.

Hearts thumping under thin race suits, eyes wide beneath goggles, they edge their skis under the starting wand and let out one big, final breath.

Below, the hard, icy track, smeared blue by the course markings, plunges away. In the distance, on a clear day, the Kitzbuheler Horn pierces the Austrian sky. The ancient spires and roofs of historic Kitzbuhel nestle in the valley.

But these helmeted athletes can only focus on the first few feet of the beckoning course — a sharp right and left turn, and then the lip of the infamous Mausfalle jump, an elevator drop of 60 meters. When they explode from the gate, they’ll rocket from 0-60mph in about three seconds.

Kitzbuhel’s revered downhill, raced on a snaking, tree-lined ribbon of rutted ice known as the Streif off the Hahnenkamm peak above town is ski racing at its most raw.

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Wengen’s classic Lauberhorn downhill might be longer and clock a faster top speed, but for sheer pedal-to-the-metal rock ‘n’ roll racing, Kitzbuhel is the one.

“It’s skiing at its best, skiing on the edge, the ultimate test of a ski racer,” Canada’s Ken Read, the 1980 champion, told CNN, looking back up the course as he recalled his glory days. “The Streif is without question the most challenging downhill in the world.”

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Suppress fear

Launching off the Mausfalle, racers are fully committed and swoop quickly towards the Karusell, a tight right hander where forces of 3G are generated on the body. Next up the Steilhang, a slick, bumpy, steep wall followed by a narrow right-hand exit with two rows of safety nets beckoning those who overcook it.

American Bode Miller did once, but rode the netting on two skis and raced on. The features come quickly, the names dripping with legend built up over the years since the Kitzbuheler Ski Club (KSC) organized the first race in 1931.

Only once you’re in a settled tuck position on the gliding Bruckenschuss can you take brief stock.

“You have 35 seconds of absolutely the most intense ski racing you can imagine,” adds Read. “No other downhill has such a long, intense period with one thing after another. You have no time to think, you just do it.”

Austrian great Franz Klammer, who won the race four times, likened it to “jumping into cold water without knowing how to swim.”

The ability to suppress fear and bury bad thoughts is key at Kitzbuhel. Some embrace the challenge and attack it, others are overwhelmed by it.

“My first time I braked twice before the Mausefalle,” two-time champion Dominik Paris told CNN’s Alpine Edge.

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Guts for glory

Read, who was one of the group of pioneering Canadian racers known as the “Crazy Canucks,” faced fear head on at Kitzbuhel and scored three thirds to go with his victory.

“For me fear was never a factor,” adds Read, who won in Wengen the week after his Hahnenkamm heroics. “Nervousness, yes, because you’re pushing yourself to the limit and it’s a competition and you want to pull out an exceptional performance.”

His face lights up: “For me it was the most exciting thing one could imagine. For a young downhiller it was like being let loose in a candy shop.”

Klammer, the 1976 Olympic champion, says the defining features of a great downhiller are “guts” and the willingness to “take a risk.”

“Downhill racing is freedom,” he told CNN. “That’s the special part, so you have to be ready, even though it’s very risky, and go for it.”

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But Klammer insists it’s not all about brazen bravado. The Streif has a number of gliding sections in which aerodynamic position, feel for your skis and carrying your speed are a”big part” of being successful, he says.

The midway point of the course is the fall away jump above the Seidlalm chalet, but the cruising straight of the Larchenschuss below offers only brief respite before racers have to think about the perils of the Hausberg jump.

“The fatigue factor is starting to come in, but not so much physical as mental because you’ve been so on it and so focused,” says Read, who like all winners has his name on one of the Hahnenkamm gondola cabins.

Into the red room

Taking air off the Hausbergkante, the racers must land and quickly absorb a compression before standing hard on the right ski to make a left turn.

But the Hausberg has caught out some of the biggest names in skiing over the years. In 2016 Aksel Lund Svindal and Hannes Reichelt both suffered spectacular crashes and ended up tangled in the “red room,” as the safety nets are called. For Svindal, the current Olympic champion, it was season over.

“Coming over Hausberg, all hell is breaking loose,” adds Read. “You’re dropping, accelerating, going through a compression turn and into another blind turn where you have to be on line to come across the traverse and into the finish.”

After the bouncing, chattering, icy traverse which tries with all its might to pull you downhill and off line, there’s a final sting in the tail with the Zielsprung, a vicious, high-speed jump into the finish.

It nearly cost Swiss racer Daniel Albrecht his life when he landed on his back and catapulted onto his front in 2009. He was placed in a coma but recovered to race again in December 2010.

Those still on their feet are enveloped into the finish area by a pulsating mass of cheering, pumping beats, color and flag waving from tens of thousands of roaring fans, for whom the legendary race is an annual fixture on the social calendar or a cherished one-off pilgrimage. The party is in full swing.

“When you cross the finish line and you the have good fortune of being in first place and you hear the reaction of about 40,000 people screaming and yelling, it’s the best moment in sport,” says Read, nowadays a regular visitor who always receives a warm welcome.

“If you’re Austrian, you’re God.”

For Paris, winning for the first time at Kitzbuhel was “the greatest day of my life.”

On Friday, he clinched his third Hahnenkamm title.