Highway to Hell: THE HAHNENKAMM
Living easy, living free...that’s what the downhillers are doing this weekend in Kitzbuehel, Austria - where copious amounts of glühwein will be slung, massive cowbells will be rung and bodies will be flung down the Streif, at speeds upwards of 100mph. This is the White Circus, and the athletes are the performers on a Streif stage for the 70,000 fans, foaming at the mouth and in awe of the ski racing gods skiing before them. Ahhhh, the revered Hahnenkamm.
Nothing prepares an athlete for the first time they step into the start gate at the Hahnenkamm. Out of the start gate, they will be hurling their bodies down an ice hockey rink flipped sideways, going from zero to 60 mph faster than a sports car. Want to know what it feels like to fly? Ask a downhiller. They fly more than 150 feet off the first jump alone. It’s in your face from the moment you leave the start gate. One must find the right balance of control and a solid position in order to build speed and defy gravity. Resist? Nope. Not a good idea. Better to go with the flow.
Organizers use fire hoses to spray down the surface so it’s responsive and slick. This year, the surface is definitely slick. And it’s bumpy. Downhiller after downhiller came to the finished wide-eyed, saying “I’m glad that’s over” and “I couldn’t grip at all” on Tuesday’s first training run. This track is a track where you have to take the skis for a ride...not the other way around. You must become one with the distractions. Find calm amidst the chaos. Highway to one hell of a ride indeed!
The “Highway to Hell” isn’t necessarily the ride down the Streif, but it starts with the five hour drive from Wengen, Switzerland, to Kitzbuehel, Austria, and it’s a steady build in nervous energy throughout the week until race day hits. Eerily quiet when you enter town on Monday, and then the anticipation builds as quickly as the crowds and the noise builds until BOOM - you’re standing in the start gate and it’s eerily quiet once again. Then the gong strikes and it’s go time. No looking back now, boys. This year, it just so happens that the schedule is all jumbled up due to the weather - a common occurrence in an outdoor sport that deals with variables. Due to the weekend’s weather forecast, the premier event - the downhill - will now be on Friday, followed by the slalom on Saturday and the super-G on Sunday.
Team veteran and leader Steven Nyman (Sundance, Utah), has already announced that he will sit this weekend out, due to a concussion sustained from his crash in Wengen, Switzerland. “I’m not going to be an idiot and go when I’m not prepared,” Nyman said after he opted to sit out of Tuesday’s training run. “My body is surprisingly fine. My head is not. I don’t have the quickness in my brain or the energy within me and the risks are just too high. To go through a boxing match and then come back and ski the Hahnenkamm is not easy.” Understatement of the century? I think so. “It’s not just me and the mountain anymore,” he continued. “I have a family.”
Nyman’s teammate Bryce Bennett (Squaw Valley, Calif.) has had a banner season, snagging personal best results at each World Cup venue this season with 12-9-4-4-5, respectively, continues to show consistency and prove that he’s not a one trick venue pony - establishing a home for himself among the greats on a stacked men’s tour. When asked if he could stick it in there in Kitzbuehel, he laughed and said, “I haven’t quite figured that track out yet.” Funny, considering his previous best at Wengen was 17th in the downhill, and he finished fifth there last weekend. His time will come. Soon enough.
“They’ve used so much water and it’s so bumpy and so physically demanding,” he said. “You feel forces in your body unlike anything you’d ever imagine you’d experience. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s a violent ride down an extremely icy track, where knowing the line and committing to the line are two very different worlds. I remember my first time four years ago. Inspection was the scariest part of the day. It was so steep you could barely hold an edge. The margin for error is so small. If you make a mistake, you end up in the nets.”
“I can’t believe this sport. How *enter expletive* crazy is this?! ‘Hey, we’re going to water this mountain and then throw our bodies down it.’ Cool. I see the line I need to take but I’m really not sure I’m ready to commit,” Bennett admitted, and with that he turned around and left the finish area.
The only question that remains, is will Bennett and his teammates Tommy Biesemeyer (Keene, N.Y.), Travis Ganong (Squaw Valley, Calif.), Jared Goldberg (Holladay, Utah), and Wiley Maple (Aspen, Colo.) choose to commit or not? Game time, baby! No stop signs, speed limit...nobody's gonna slow me down!
On the women’s side, Laurenne Ross (Bend, Ore.) and Alice Merryweather (Hingham, Mass.), will look to build on their solid results from Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, while in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, this weekend for a downhill and super-G on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Olympic Champion Lindsey Vonn (Vail, Colo.), who returned to competition in Cortina, announced on Thursday that she has decided to sit out this weekend’s speed series to rest her body as she deals with a lingering knee problem. Mikaela Shiffrin (Avon, Colo.) - who has gone three victories for three super-G starts - will take Garmisch off to focus on training for the Maribor, Slovenia, tech races next weekend.
Catch all of the action on the Olympic Channel, NBC Sports Network, and NBC Sports Gold.
Saturday, Jan. 26
3:30 a.m. - Men’s slalom run 1 - Kitzbuehel, AUT - NBC Sports Gold
4:00 a.m. - Women’s downhill - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, GER - Olympic Channel-TV, OlympicChannel.com & NBC Sports Gold
6:30 a.m. - Men’s slalom run 2 - Kitzbuehel, AUT - NBC Sports Gold
10:00 a.m. - Women’s downhill - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, GER - NBCSN*
Sunday, Jan. 27
5:30 a.m. - Women’s super-G - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, GER - Olympic Channel-TV, OlympicChannel.com & NBC Sports Gold
7:30 a.m. - Men’s super-G - Kitzbuehel, AUT - NBC Sports Gold
9:00 p.m. - Women’s Super-G - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, GER - NBCSN*
Monday, Jan. 28
4:00 p.m. - Men’s downhill and super-G - Kitzbuehel, AUT - NBCSN**
Tuesday, Jan. 29
11:00 p.m. - Men’s slalom - Kitzbuehel, AUT - NBCSN**
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