Well this was Hahnenkamm weekend over in Austria. The Super Bowl of Downhill – the speed event in ski racing. I love to watch it every year on the Olympic Channel as I had the opportunity a while back to view it in person. Nothing can prepare you for what you see there in course preparation. The Streif as they call it, it literally a sheet of rock hard ice all the way down the course and that is the way that the World Cup downhillers like it. Years ago, Kenny Griffin and I had the opportunity to witness this event along with about 50,000 other rabid Austrian fans.
Kenny and I were skiing in Austria and made our way to Kitzbuhel to see this world famous race. We packed our daypack with apple strudel and some fruit, Orangina, and some cheese. As we made our way to the famous jump called the Hausbergkante, we were amazed at the speed of the racers as they soared off the jump and into the distance on the course. The finish is 90 plus miles per hour into a sea of roaring fans. No fans this year due to Covid, but when Kenny and I saw it, it was a real spectacle. But the really sobering thing was the condition of the course- rock hard, ice.
We had the opportunity to ski parts of the course the next day, and believe me, it was like skiing on a mirror. A real challenge just to get down let alone average around 70 MPH on that course for the World Cup. Now I am no stranger to ice. I grew up in the east where we have alternating snow and rain events – freeze, thaw which builds a nice base of ice for us to enjoy. LOL!! The key is sharp edges and a technique that is rooted in self belief that your equipment will win the day over the ice. Oftentimes, when it is real hard or ” scratchy” as the Maine people say at Sugarloaf, you have to glide over the tough parts until you can find a place to turn. Not so on the Streif. Those turns are mandatory and at high speed. Very impressive indeed.
I always chuckle when I ski out west and I hear someone say it is “icy”. They really don’t understand the magnitude of that statement for an easterner. I always joke and say ice is when you can see last summer’s dandelions underneath that black, mirror like glaze. They are fortunate out there in that they can ski on the nice days and leave the cloudy, not so nice, “icy” days to us visiting easterners. Bullet proof ice is what we cut our teeth on and my years skiing in New England with my friend Eric Durfee, and my season at Sugarloaf honed my appreciation for the slippery, rock hard conditions. They used to have the Can-AM Races( now the Nor-Am races) at Sugarloaf on the Narrow Gauge Trail. I watched the Canadians( Todd Brooker, Steve Podborski, and Ken Read) roar down that trail with reckless abandon. No fear of the ice and looking for speed at every moment. The tech guys worked real hard to put a razor edge on the skis and prepped them all the way to the start of the race. Skiing the Narrow Gauge after the races was a real interesting experience. Very hard and “scratchy” .
But again, nothing is more intimidating than a World Cup ski race course. Oftentimes the course preparation crew uses a technique called water injection to harden up the course with dropping temperatures. Or if the course is soft and sloppy, salt is used to firm up the conditions. When Kenny and I witnessed the race, the Austrian army hosed down sections of the course. It was as bullet proof as any trail I had ever seen. If you get the chance to see a World Cup race in person, do it. You will be amazed at the skill, strength, and technique of the world’s finest skiers. It will make you appreciate the meaning of the ski report phrase- ” icy conditions.” Thanks for reading and think snow.