Downhill racing: 'You are skiing on the limit all the way down'

Careering at 80mph over corrugated ruts - Kitzbühel's Hahnenkamm offers the ultimate challenge for downhill racers. By Graham Duffill
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It is the steepest, bumpiest, nastiest course on the alpine World Cup circuit and of the 60-odd racers who summon the courage to launch out of the start gate of the 66th downhill on the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel this morning all but a handful will have an ambition no greater than getting to the bottom in one piece.

"Kitzbühel isn't different, it's unique," says Konrad Bartelski, the only Britain to stand on a downhill podium. "The first time you stand in the start and look down what you see does not add up - you don't know how it's possible to do it."

Downhill legend Franz Klammer, who has won here more than any other man, says: "The first time I stood in the start gate I couldn't believe people were pushing out of it. You accelerate from nothing to 70kph in about three seconds."

But what defines Kitzbühel is not steepness. "No mountain is ever smooth, but in Kitzbühel you feel the mountain very closely," says Bartelski. "You don't have a second - from when you are in the start gate you are in free-fall over corrugated ruts."

Finlay Mickel describes standing in Kitzbühel's start for the first training run on Tuesday having achieved the first top 10 downhill finish by a British man in 18 years in the Swiss resort of Wengen, three days before. "I watched Aksel Lund Svindal go out in front of me - the first turn is fine, the second is really bumpy and then you fly off the Mausefalle so far - Aksel went miles."

Ferdinand Friedensbacher took 4min 34.12sec to finish the first downhill in 1931. When the race moved to the Streif piste, in 1937 it still took 3:53.10 to complete the two-kilometre descent. The winner of Tuesday's training run, reigning downhill gold medallist Fritz Strobl, holds the modern course record of 1:51.58 in 1997.

By leaving in place the old bumps and obstacles, by refusing to adapt an old classic course to the modern perception of safety standards, while cranking the speed up from an average of 88kph in the 60s to 110kph today, the result is, as Bartelski says: "A course that would never be allowed to be built in the modern age."

There was clearly something perverse in the mentality of the 1937 course builders because they set the start gate in a steep gully directly above a cliff. Today they add a couple of turns to try to control the skier's speed, but within 300m he is funnelled straight over a 70m drop.

Survive that and the compression at the bottom which forces the skier back on the tails of their skis, squashing energy out of the legs, and a mere 10 seconds of the race have passed.

Kitzbühel then throws down a 180-degree S turn across a hanging slope called the Steilhang. The racer is asked to carve a turn on a reverse camber in bullet-proof ice.

Kitzbühel even kicks a man when he is down, reserving its final test for the end - a long hanging traverse and the fastest, bumpiest finish in racing.

"You are tired, the lactic acid is going through your legs and you are hanging on by the tip of your fingernails," says Bartelski. "For the next 15 seconds there is no escape, you are skimming across the surface of the snow at 140kph skiing on instinct and relying on everything you have trained for to keep you on your feet."

This finish schuss has ended racers' careers. The Canadian Todd Brooker fell down here, cart-wheeling madly out of control like a rag doll, is often shown in the chilling start-up sequences to TV ski programmes.

"It's got a little bit easier and safer, but it's still the biggest challenge of all the downhills," said Klammer. "You are skiing on the limit - on the edge - all the way down. Only about the first 10 guys will be confident and feel reasonably comfortable on the downhill."

He tips the Austrians Fritz Strobl and Michael Walchhofer and America's Daron Rahlves, the winner at Wengen and a man determined to prove himself on the full-length course at Kitzbühel having won on a shortened course in 2003.

Hermann Maier cannot be ruled out. "He's in form and desperate to make a comeback," adds Klammer. "Mickel - maybe it's too rough for him here - but he could become a top 10 skier."

Despite his 10th place on the other classic course and 11th on the tough downhill at Bormio at last winter's World Championship, Mickel has no doubt Kitzbühel is in another league.

"This is my fourth year at Kitz, which means I have not skied it that many times and it takes longer than the others to learn. I had a pretty bad training run. I was getting bounced about and I wasn't confident in the start gate.

"Guys like Rahlves love the challenge because they push themselves to the limit, but I have never had a fully confident run down there. I know I could do it well, it's just a question of getting myself in a confident place in the beginning.

"Belief and confidence are tough things to come by and you can't fake them. I have tried to force it but it doesn't work - it comes from deep inside. It's hard to find that level of confidence at Kitzbühel."

TV Coverage (tomorrow): Channel 4 Skiing 7.55am, BBC 2 Ski Sunday 2.15pm