It’s Christmas week in Kitzbühel, Austria, this week. No, not the kind with Old St. Nick climbing down chimneys lugging gifts. This holiday week celebrates the world of speed, snow, and a jagged strip of mountainside that hosts an annual downhill race named after the rippled comb on a rooster’s head.
All skier’s have heard of the Hahenkamm (“rooster’s comb” in German), the super scary race everyone calls “The Super Bowl of Ski Racing.” Some of you may have even skied here in the past and recounted tales of whipping down the famed Streif race course, the very same place legends like Toni Sailer, Franz Klammer, Didier Cuche and a group of mild mannered Canadians called the Crazy Canucks dominated from 1980-1983. But watching this Saturday’s Hahnenkamm on TV – or a preferred device – pales in comparison to seeing and feeling the buzz of life in during Kitzbühel week live in person.
It may be a bit clichéd to say there is an electric buzz here unlike anywhere else in the world of ski racing, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Most teams make their way here directly from the uber-scenic slopes of Wengen, Switzerland, which hosts the famed Lauberhorn ski races the weekend before the Hahnenkamm. Some pull in on Sunday night, while others, especially those who hail from Central Europe, often make 36-hour pit stops to visit loved ones and do laundry at home before making their way here. This year the quick home pit-stop was impossible with Training Run 1 pushed ahead to today due to a heavy snow fall forecast for Wednesday.
A Monday walk around Kitz, like the one I took yesterday after spending the day ripping around this massive resort on skis, is full of the sights and sounds of the circus coming to town. A symphony of banging nails and humming drills echoes above the ancient cobblestones of the town’s chic main street as workers scramble to put the finishing touches of grandstands and temporary buildings that will turn Kitzbühel a massive marketplace geared to satiate ski racing revelers with a penchant for ordering large quantities of beer, schnapps and some of the tastiest “wurst” sausages in the world.
By Tuesday, everyone who needs to be here, is here. It’s not uncommon to bump into old colleagues, be they racers, coaches, service staff, or members of the media riding up the iconic red Hahnekammbahn Gondola cars emblazoned with the names of past winners. I spent Tuesday morning riding chairs with the French Ski Team (who call themselves the Attacking Croissants…with a nod and a wink to the Attacking Vikings from Norway). When I wasn’t discussing my favourite type of breakfast croissant with Guillermo Fayed, Johan Clarey, Brice Roger and Adrien Théaux , I was posing for pix with Austrian pop-star and ski legend Hansi Hinterseer, or interviewing Canadian coach John Kucera.
All of this is part and parcel of the incredible holiday-season-like vibe in the town. There is a palpable, Dickensian Scrooge-on-Christmas-morning feeling in the air, with big smiling faces, twinkling eyes, and enough good racing cheer to fill up a million giant beer steins. But it doesn’t last. Wednesday is often the first Downhill training run of the week, and by this time, game faces are on, and as one really, really, really famous current racer told me when he was a Hahnenkamm rookie, “I nearly sh&t my pants in the start house,” when describing how he felt looking over the steep, icy, precipice that makes up the first few metres of Streif no-man’s land just beyond the start wand.
Downhill Training Run 1 this year was pushed forward to today due to a heavy snowfall forecast for Wednesday, and for the most part, the athletes were relaxed and smiling like kids getting ready to open holiday gifts. Still it didn’t stop me from asking many of them (as well as a host of other past ski racers who have battled their way down the Hahnenkamm) one simple question: What’s the feeling you get every year when Hahnenkamm week arrives? Excitement? Joy? Anxiety? A mix of all of these…some other feelings perhaps?
Here are some answers from the world’s most famous downhillers (past and present), some of them Hahnenkammsiegers (Hahnenkamm champions)!
Didier Cuche (1998, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“The first time I traveled to Kitzbühel, I was nervous and excited at the same time! I also felt a little bit proud! By the end of my carrier, it was more excitement and joy, but I still felt a little bit nervous because you never know what can happen during this tough week!”
Ken Read (1980 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“Kitz was the week we always looked forward to – THE test. A downhill where the best would win, regardless of weather, start number, skis …
This was the ultimate thrill & test…why we loved ski racing & downhill. The real challenge was to channel the adrenaline rush into positive reflection and analysis, to be focused on the main goal – perfection where perfection was impossible.
Never nervous, never anxious, always excited and ready to go right back up and do it again. In fact, the most disappointing moment was when we knew the race was over – and we had to wait 51 weeks before we could do it again.”
Daron Rahlves (2003 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“About ten minutes after entering town on the drive from Wengen to Kitzbühel I’d feel my physical and mental energy reach a crazy high. From day one in Kitzbühel I felt super energized. I was so ready to bring my A-game. Facing the Streif with the attitude to put it all on the line demanded digging deep for full focus on skiing fast and pushing the limit. I basically just willed it into me. It was the one race each year more than any other I wanted to perform my best.”
Kjetil Jansrud (2015 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“The feeling for me is a mix between excitement, and anxiety. Kitz is so big, you look forward to the circus and the privilege of taking part in it’s history, however; you also know it’s history and with that comes anxiety. It has injured as much as it has created legends. That makes for a potent mix and a reminder every time you drive into town.”
Aksel Lund Svindal
“It’s a mix of excitement and anxiety. You know it’s gonna be a great race with an amazing atmosphere, but you also know it’s not gonna be comfortable standing in that start gate.”
Peter Fill (2016 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“I’m always happy to race in the Hahnenkamm, but Kitzbühel is a hard, difficult race. Still I like to go there to show the world I can ski fast!”
Dominik Paris (2017 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“I’m always happy when I think about going to Kitzbühel because I like the course and I know I can do well there, it’s definitely something I look forward to every year!”
Didier Defago (2009 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“I never felt anxiety going to Kitzbühel. Every year I was happy to go there, but it was always a new challenge and very exciting. I wouldn’t say anxiety, but I would say respect for this mountain, for me this is the best word. Every real athlete knows what he has to do and you know you don’t have to go over the limit there specifically. The first training run is always about respect. The goal is to be in the finish area in one piece, to feel out the mountain, and then build on that step by step every day until race day arrives.”
Marc Girardelli (1989 Friday Hahnenkamm Champion)
“The Hahnenkamm-Race was the most successful event in my career. However, every time I slid down the Streif, I was scared like hell and I couldn’t understand why I was skiing down this deadly hill. Waiting at the start gate always felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute!”
Bruno Kernan (the elder & 1983 Friday Hahnenkamm Champion)
“The Hahenkamm is pure adreneline!!! When you are at the finish you would like to be up there once more, then five minutes later you’re worrying about the next run! Didier Cuche and I had a chat a Kitz a few years ago. We both agreed that on the Streif you can try to find the 100% risk line, but never go and try find the 105% line!”
Willi Forrer (1962 Hahnenkamm Champion)
“I would always feel nervous, but also very excited and happy to race there. You didn’t have to be afraid of the Streif, but you did have to respect it. When you’d be up in the start you’d have to think carefully about what you’d be doing shortly to get down the mountain…and you’d have to think hard. You’d say to yourself, ‘I will go fast, but not too fast, not stupid fast!’”
“Excitement. The one and only race on the tour to show the world that you truly are the best in the world.”
“A healthy mix of excitement, joy, fear, respect and anxiety, I’d say. On one side you were excited to see what you could do and challenge yourself against the mountain, and on the other side you also realized that there was risk involved in racing in Kitzbühel.”
“It’s a particularly unique week. We’re usually coming off a physically demanding week in Wengen, and we transition into a week in Kitzbühel and a course that I think is the most beautiful on tour. There’s always a lot of stress, but that’s why we love this sport and do what we do. We always leave here with a good feeling even if we don’t have great results.”
Hansi Hinterseer (1974 Kitzbühel Slalom Champion)
“If you don’t respect the Streif you’re in big trouble. I think everybody respects it though. When you stand up there you’re nervous of course, and you know what you have to do, you’re very focussed and then you’re on the course and you feel okay. But when you’re on the course you know anything can happen. There are ruts, you’re going a high speed, sometimes it’s very icy and hard, sometimes the light is flat, it’s all these things together that you are battling. You need a good day to win here and if you win, you’re one of the top guys!”
“For sure I’m a downhill guy so I’m quite happy and excited, but with a lot of respect. We have respect for all the downhills we race, but this one needs a little more than all the others. It’s nice to be in the start because it’s such a different climate. Everyone is so focussed when the first inspection and training run day arrive. It’s really exciting for us as racers. For a downhiller, just skiing down this slope is a goal, but after the first time you do it you want to improve and do better. The Streif a really nice track, I’ve been fast here before, and I hope I can do something good here this year again.”
“When I began my career it was intimidation and a lot of anxiety. As I progressed and learned the hill and respected the energy the week brings, my comfort levels grew. I anticipate it now. I’m excited to be there and chomping at the bit to move with the Streif.”
“It is definitely a feeling of joy when Hahnenkamm week starts! Racing in your home country with the incredible fans is the best you can imagine as a racer.”
“I had a special relationship with Kitzbühel. I began my World Cup career there and also finished it there with bad crash – literally! In 1999 I crashed in the last traverse and injured my knee badly, and that injury stuck with me for a very long time. Even when I was on top of my form, the Hahnenkamm always seemed like it had something against me. I guess I never became friends with the Streif, even though I went there in summer couple of times, walked up and down just to be one with it. Still, at the very end, I crashed there again.”
“It’s a mix of nervousness, excitement, respect, joy, fear. I’m scared of Kitzbühel. I really try to focus on skiing there. I’m nervous in the start before the race, but I just try to keep my routine and push forward. I try to push the mountain and not let the mountain push me, and of course I’m really proud when I cross the finish line. When I see what I just skied, where I just skied, that’s a really good feeling in the end.”
“I always want to ski there, but as Hahnenkamm week approaches the stress gets bigger. It’s an amazing week, but you’re happy when you leave, especially with a good result. It’s also really good to cross the finish line and you’re still on your feet!”
“It’s a mix of alot of feelings. We know Kitz is the biggest race, with the biggest crowds and the most beautiful course. The organization is also excellent and for us, the athletes, this is fantastic. But there is also apprehension, because we don’t know how the training runs are going to play out. We’re also very interested in seeing the state of the track. We know how to navigate it, but the course prep is different every year so we are excited to see what it will look and feel like.”
“I think it’s a big mix of a lot of different feelings! I’m very excited and I look forward for it – but I also know it’s one of the most dangerous things I do in my life.. so I’m always looking forward to it but there is also a lot of respect!”
Bruno Kernen (the younger)
“Kitzbühel is special, it’s not just the race, but it’s also the crowd, the show and the spectacularly difficult downhill. Huge numbers of people at the public bib draw and then when if you made it to the prize-giving ceremony that was like a piece of Hollywood! But back to the Streif, it takes a lot of mental work to push yourself to go to the limit. So in the years when I knew I was in great shape, it was a mixture of happiness, excitement, challenge and respect. But no matter how good you were, Saturday after the race, every downhiller was also a bit proud that he made it down the mountain!”
–By Michael Mastarciyan (@theskiwriter) for S-Media. Photos by Red Bull Content Pool