Finlay Mickel gives the low down on the new Meribel Downhill course

Finlay Mickel is a multiple winner of the British Championship Downhill title, a three time winner of the British Title in Meribel alone. Now helping out with the Scottish Team, Mickel gives the low down on new layout for the Downhill.  The terrain has changed down the Meribel course for this year due to the changes required by FIS for the World Cup coming to town and the World Cup Finals in 2015. Does Finlay Mickel feel that the changes to the terrain, have they been a huge improvement to the terrain? “Yes. They have been really good improvements to the terrain for me.” The main change has been the construction of a tunnel for the public to ski through as the racers come past the Poma corner and then making the terrain wider through ‘A Nets’ and into the area down to ‘Panorama’. All the snow cannons from the GS start have also been removed off the racing slope. “The safety element of removing the cannons all the way down the Stade as well, is a massive improvement,” Mickel feels. “We have been fortunate that nobody has beefed it through the two B nets and onto the metal work over the years,” Mickel adds. “Skiing is dangerous but you can make it safer in certain ways,” Mickel continues, “and removing the cannons off the Stade is one of the ways.”

“The ‘A Net’ turn is a highlight for me as it was something that in the past was set so that you had to straight into and wait for it. Even as a World Cuper, it was tough, it was a challenge. For someone to have had six turns on downhill skis in your life and then to take on the A Net turn, it was tough. It was really difficult – it was all about the timing, if you got the timing wrong, you were in the nets. There have been plenty of people in the nets over the years. Now it is much more open, much better option. It is not two separate pistes any more.”

Before after the A nets turn racers would head down a road before rejoining the piste. Now it is much more flowing and skier friendly as the fall line of the hill is used more. Mickel explains: “The line is set now so that it naturally brings you away from the nets, everything is set further away from the nets so there is less chance for the racers going into the nets.”

With the full length of the course being used this year and many of the racers novices in downhill, what advice does Mickel give to his young charges on the way down the course? “The first thing for me is putting the long skis on and kicking out the start, the skis will feel different. The amount of times that I have seen people fall over their inside edge from skating because they are used to slalom skis and how they react, so I talk to the guys about skating through the middle of the ski and practicing it with their downhill skis on as it is a very different experience with the downhill skis on.

“Then it is into the tuck and having to exaggerate for the first two turns before the downhill skis get up to speed. Until the skis get up to speed, they do not work. when you are at full speed they feel a lot more like GS skis. Then it is on to the third turn and making sure you have done the turn as you can kill the speed by turning on the flat. The guys have to use this steep wisely as it is the only real steep before ‘A Nets’ really.

“Then it is down to the first jump, this is no big issue really as it is more like a skip really. The racer needs to get their chest down out of the wind so that you dont catch air before the flat landing.” Mickel pauses and talks about the lines of some of the Italians in the Super G before emphasising the courage needed to go straight off the first jump. “The nervousness of a young racer will see them over turn before a jump but they have to run straight, run straight, I keep telling the guys this.”

“The kicker is back on the second jump,” Mickel reflects. A few years ago Chemmy Alcott took a slightly different line to avoid the kicker, Mickel tells his young racers “to get out of the tuck and absorb the roll,” though he feels this is a hard thing to get them to do. “It is not dangerous but it is challenging,” he feels. “The racers will get some decent air of that. The chances are that there will be some flailing hands off that but that is Downhill, that is learning.”

With more terrain on the Poma turn this year due to a wider piste. “After you land off the second jump the next two turns are more across the hill. When you exit Poma turn you have stuff to do, you have turns,” Mickel explains. When you come round the turn you have to do a little shimmy before going over what we have christened ‘breakaway,'” Due to the new terrain, this is giving the racers much more to think about, Mickel believes, “you now have to take a high line due to the fallaway.” Mickel thinks that this area will see a number of people battling to stay on the line: if they go early they will fight at the top and struggle at the bottom or if they wait they will go low at the bottom and Mickel believes that “that is not the fast line.” This is a key turn on the reconstituted course Mickel believes.

The line through the new ‘A Nets’ turn leads to a new jump, nicknamed ‘Airplane turn.’ Mickel believes this is a more natural jump than the course was before. “It runs really nice,” Mickel feels yet the key point on this is staying balanced as you take off and keeping the feet balanced and off the edges as when you land it is on to a left hand bend that leads off to Panorama. There was a jump here before but now that the racers are running more direct there is more of a jump.

With the snow cannons gone, the terrain is much more open and this has allowed the course setter to have more turns. While it may seem open and easy, there is a double banana gate and Mickel feels that if a racer goes to straight at that speed could be scrubbed by the time the racer exits the long sweeping turn. For the inexperienced racer, Mickel believes that they will want to go straight at the gate, they will have to resist this urge. With the section being fairly flat, Mickel believes that getting one gate wrong on this section, can result in the problem getting worse and speed evapourating quickly.

The entry to Panorama is not so dissimilar to last year but then the exit is much changed with more terrain being used as the racers head into the meadows section that leads down to the top of the Stade. The left handed double in this area, Mickel believes will cause people trouble as it is different and new. “There is more terrain, it is better set and it is exciting,” Mickel enthuses. Mickel is a great believer in course setters using the terrain rather than just setting gates and he feels excited by the course this year.

The Stade is where Mickel would regularly pick up time on his rivals. The gate onto the Stade brings the racers from the left high over to the right and then the racer will rapidly pick up speed, Mickel feels. The final gate is on the flat then the “change of terrain is massive: from flat to 35 plus degrees on the steep,” Mickel exphasises this with his hands as we talk. They will go from 40 – 45 miles an hour to over sixty and the better racers will reach seventy. Mickel has suggested to his young racers that they do a high tuck through the Stade but keep a clean line rather than tuck the whole way, certainly for the training run.

The course has one final trick up its sleeve as once the racers go through the finish, they are hit by a compression and then having to slam on the breaks to stop before they hit the friends and family and ski racing fans in the finish. “You are not done until you are stopped!” Mickel has been telling his trainees all week.

As we sat talking, you could feel the warmth and desire that Mickel still has for the sport, would he still want to race it? He had a pop off the new jump and he felt the fun in it alongside his old training partner and now coach to the British Mens speed racers, Craig Branch. Yet with the need to feel like he could win it again, this was another feeling. Mickel is older and wiser than when he last raced the downhill in Meribel but he has the wisdom that he is now willing to pass on to the next generation of racers. It saddens him that some British Team racers, especially in the girls races, have not taken to the Championships with greater honour. Mickel always enjoyed the British and the feeling of beating the Team guys when he was on the way up was something he took great pride in. He does worry about the lack of respect the racers are giving to those below them and worries that it is sending out the wrong message to the younger racers.

While FIS points count, so to do British titles. Sponsors want to see the best of Britain racing in the end of season Championships and British Titles help in looking for support for the next season.

So while all is done and dusted, who does Mickel feel will be taking away the Sir John Ritblat trophy for winning the Delancey British Alpine Downhill Championship? Tough one that but I think….

To see why the training was cancelled for the day, click here