It's two weeks before the start of the Sochi Olympics, but if you're on the World Cup men's alpine ski team, the only thing on your mind this weekend is winning the most challenging race of the season, the Streif downhill course at Kitzbuhel, Austria.
Good luck, because the treacherous course will have you airborne 10 seconds out of the starting gate, only to force you to regain your terrestrial turning skills in a split second, while you're hurtling down the hill at 80 miles per hour. The reason is that the Streif was designed for a different time. Combine the route with today's equipment and man-made flakes and you've got the ride of your life.
Nathaniel Vinton covers downhill racing for the New York Daily News and he's been to Kitzbuhel many times to cover the Streif. "It's a long downhill on a course that was laid out in the 1930s, a time when the sport wasn't as fast as it is now," he says. Skis were made of wood and snow was mostly natural. Now, much of it is manmade.
"It took a lot longer to down it back then. But now it's gotten very, very fast — on a track that wasn't designed for this kind of speed," Vinton says.
The course is challenging, the topography shifting all the way down.
"It's a narrow dash through the mountains and it's got some enormous jumps, including one that comes about 10 seconds into the course," says Vinton. "Then there's a very challenging bottom section. It's scary and difficult from top to bottom."
Vinton should know. He's skied the course, for recreation, he's quick to add. "I can't compare what I've done to actual racing, but every time I ski it, I can't believe skiers actually race it. It's astonishing."
The Streif downhill course is steeped in tradition and foreboding. "On every one of those jumps down the course, there's a separate mythology about the terrible accidents that have happened there and the brave exploits of the winners," says Vinton.
So any talk of making the course more safe is fraught with soul-searching. That said, organizers have altered the route a bit for this weekend's race because of warm temperatures. "There's a very tricky section and they don't think it will be safe to send the racers over it, so they're actually bypassing the bottom section this weekend," says Vinton.
The downhill event in alpine racing is all about speed. Top speeds at Kitzbuhel are typically in the 80 miles per hour range. And, in theory, that's not especially fast.
"There are places on the World Cup tour where racers exceed 90 miles per hour," Vinton says. "Last year, a few racers reached 100 miles per hour on a course in Switzerland."
But Vinton says the Streif track at Kitzbuhel presents a special challenge. "The racers have to make tricky moves at high speeds. It's one thing just to be in your aerodynamic tuck position going 80 miles per hour. It's a whole different thing to be exhausted after almost two minutes of racing and then have to execute a very technical, difficult turn on one leg."
The favorite to win this year is American downhiller Bode Miller. "He's 36 years old and he's won so many trophies and titles in the sport, but the Streif course is the one he hasn't quite got a victory in," Vinton says.
Miller is a well-known skier, and he's not your typical downhiller either. "Every year, it seems he's done something that sort of steals the show: a sort of acrobatic recovery. One year, he skied up on one of the safety fences. So everyone's expecting big things of Bode Miller," says Vinton. Fans really got keyed up after Miller won Thurday's training run by a huge margin. Vinton says winning the Streif at Kitzbuhel would be a huge achievement for Miller.
"If he won Kitzbuhel and somehow didn't get to go to the Olympcs, I don't think he would call it a disappointing season," he adds.
The Streif course at Kitzbuhel has everything: glitz, crazy Austrian fans, cow bells, and challenging courses. The one thing it doesn't have is women competitors, but Vinton says it used to.
"As skiing got much faster in the 1960s, based on equipment and the snow preparation, they divided the venues between the men and women." They now compete on separate tours and Kitzbuhel became a men's race. "There were women that raced the Streif at Kitzbuhel all through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but it hasn't been the case since." In fact, one of the most famous performances at Kitzbuhel was by American Andrea Mead-Lawrence, who won the downhill, slalom and combined events in 1951.