When you are asked if you want to go and inspect one of the most fearsome runs of the Alpine World Cup, the excited ski racing fan in me jumped at the opportunity. I have stood in the start gate and looked out down to Mausefalle before and slid down through the first few gates while talking to Gunther Hujara, the former Alpine Director of the World Cup but that was a few years ago. How was the 2017 Streif course faring up after the Europa Cup Tour had been through? What was in store for the World Cup racers. 77 racers, their coaches, servicemen and numerous other media folk had the all important arm bands to go on course.
Friends and colleagues wished me well as I headed off up to the Hahnenkamm Gondola that whisks racers, fans and the rest of us up to the start area. With each winner of a race at the Kitzbuehel weekend being honoured with a personalised gondola, Piero Gros, winner of the slalom in 1975, was the gondola I rode up in.
Sun shining but with a biting cold air, the Red Bull warm up tent for the racers was empty when I reached the start. This was just past nine in the morning and the racers were on course. Empty stools and static bikes as well as comfy chairs all waited for the return of the racers before their runs.
From a static point to eighty kilometres an hour within three seconds, there is no gentle start to the Streif. The entry point for course inspection was at Mausefalle. Bullet hard ice and a steep narrow section leading to Mausefalle meant that racers, coaches and the rest of us had to enter the course for inspection below Mausefalle for safety reasons. Not that I was complaining!
Once on course, the true feel of the slope and its aura could be felt. This was no motorway skiing. This was, even on the flat section after Mausefalle, not for the faint hearted. In Steilhang, one of the iconic sections of the course, it was just racers on the line. Coaches stood silently by the side, waiting to give them their advice if asked. From the moment racers were on course, the attention and focus was 100%. There was no joking around.
While the racers set the line they wanted, the rest of those on the course, made for the side of the slope looking for that morsel of soft snow that would allow them relative safety.
Down through Brueckenschuss and on to Alte Schneise, you could be excused the opportunity to dream about racing the course before heading down to Seidlalm and past the section where the Super G course joins the downhill course.
From here on to Hausbergkannte, where the Red Bull arch is, was some great skiing. Racers were still completely focussed on the course, looking to see what the image was as they approached drop off’s and corners. Visualisation of the course was paramount. Knowing exactly what to expect at each moment of the course is critical for the racer if they are to keep attacking the course.
The opportunity to slip down the course from Hausbergkannte, through Zielschuss and onto the finish was there. So too was the opportunity to take the route across to the slalom course, Ganslern. This section had been used a few years ago when the snow on Zielschuss was not stable enough to be raced down. I had always wanted to check this out and so took this route. Preservation was the better part of valour!
Memories of Kristian Ghedina’s spread eagle jump in 2007 flooded back as I approached Zielsprung with the finish insight. To have finished seventh that year having slowed himself down in his last race at Kitzbuehel was something that will live with Ghedina as a great memory.
As racers made their way into the finish area and relived the course, visualising the way they wanted to ski the Streif, the magnitude of their bravery could be applauded. This was not being run on hero snow that makes everyone feel a million dollars but on bullet hard ice in places and with bumps that make the knees earn their living. Speeds of in excess of eighty miles an hour would be realised during training and racing. These guys have huge respect.
After the training run had finished, I asked Beat Feuz, one of the leading Swiss racers, how his run had been, was he happy? “I am always happy when I have reached the finish in one piece here,” he responded in Swiss German and a straight face. Feuz had posted the second fastest time in the first training run, just behind Steve Nyman.
As racers reflected on their runs in the finish after the training run, analysing their split times and working out how they could get the better of the Streif, French racer Blaise Giesendanner explained that he would have to work out how to get closer than the three seconds he was off the lead at the moment, “I just have to keep attacking” he added. Giesendanner was in 45th spot.
The Streif is a legendary Downhill course. To understand it more, what it means and how it is every speed skiers goal, watch the film of the same name. It is definitely One Hell of a Ride!