From the town of Kitzbuehel, the Hahnenkamm downhill course dominates the view and you can’t help but stare at it as much as you possibly can. It is training day but the excitement around Austria is ramping up as the biggest race of the year draws nearer. This is the big time!
The gondola that takes you to the top of the Hahnenkamm course is steeped with history. Each red gondola has the name and national flag of a racer that has won in Kitzbuehel. My first lift up was on the Felix Neureuther lift, he won the slalom race in 2010. It isn’t just the downhillers that are celebrated here!
On the lift up you can see the course from a high perspective. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you recognise each section of the track with each metre you climb up the mountain. The weather conditions are perfect too: bright sunshine and cold temperatures, which means the racers can start from the top of the course with great visibility during the training.
Step off the gondola and immediately you are greeted with the starting area. A huge Red Bull building and a Audi start gate banner draws your eyes straight away to the start. It is one of the most exciting starts on the World Cup because the views through the valley are breathtaking. During course inspection you get a real sense of the bullet proof ice and steepness of the parts of the course.You can hear the skis scrape against the ice violently as athletes, coaches and media go through to check the course before training. Dribs and drabs of fans are quietly nosey during inspection but they are really waiting for the full training run.
Skiing around the area you can see staff from all corners of the world with their national ski jackets. In fact, some of the racers whizz past you on the piste as they warm up for their training run. At the top of the course, fans can literally be within arms length of their favourite stars. The access to athletes and views of the course are very good, especially during the inspection session.
After a small break everybody is gearing up for the second training run of the week. It is not the full race day but it is a good indication of who is feeling confident on this beast of a course. Standing near the start, twenty minutes from the beginning of the session, you can see the increase in fans standing near the fencing. Thousands queue around mountain just to get a glimpse of the downhill machines taking on the Streif. First the camera men, including BBC’s Graham Bell, leave the start gate and they get as big a cheer as the actual racers.
Bib number 1 was Norwegian skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and even on the top section of the course you can notice the real race pace compared to the camera men. Barely three seconds into the run, the athletes are catapulted off the Mausefalle jump. There’s no time to settle on the course because it is full on from the go. The pistes adjacent to the course can give you good sneak peeks of parts of the course and a real sense of the speed the racers are going. Even though it’s training, thousands of ski fans and tourists watch in awe as the fastest alpine skiers on the planet flash past.
You can tell if there’s a big name or an Austrian racer on course by the raised noise level from the fans. The cheers echo down the valley and it makes the whole occasion electric. The only trouble is moving down the mountain with the sheer amount of people trying to get down. All levels of skiers are scattered on the icy steep runs and it is hard to manoeuvre through the crowds at pace.
At the end of the session, Kilde had the fastest time but the top five were only separated by 0.16 seconds. Despite the many features and length of this downhill, fine margins are separating the gladiators of alpine skiing. Television doesn’t do the jumps and steepness justice, the palms of your hands sweat a bit just watching them fling themselves down the mountain. The hype is huge and it’s not even race day yet, bring on Saturday!