Kitzbuhel: Feared downhill race demands guts for glory

Story highlights

  • Kitzbuhel downhill most feared in world
  • Steepest section has gradient of 85%

(CNN)It is skiing's ultimate test of guts for glory on the world's most famous and feared ribbon of snow and ice.

The Kitzbuhel downhill on Austria's Hahnenkamm mountain is skiing's Super Bowl, its Masters or its Kentucky Derby, the one race they would all desperately love to win.
Victory at Kitzbuhel sets racers apart, a supreme display of skill, courage and risk-taking when the line between success or a high-speed crash is as thin as the sharply tuned edges of a race ski.
Bravado is not just needed on the hill, either. The legendary status of the race brings out fans in their tens of thousands to party and toast the downhill daredevils in Kitzbuhel's historic streets.
"It's not only about the danger and the course and how to manage that, it's about the atmosphere around Kitzbuhel," record five-time winner Didier Cuche told CNN's Alpine Edge.

'These guys are nuts'

The race, which takes place Saturday, is run on the Streif course, a slick, steep, twisty track which propels the skiers up to speeds as fast as 95mph and plunges them from 5,462ft to 2641ft in under two minutes. The record of one minute 51.58 seconds, set by Austrian Fritz Strobl in 1997, still stands.
"You just have to be a tiger, getting out of the cage and try to attack the slope," said three-time winner Luc Alphand of France.
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The drop out of the start would terrify many recreational skiers, but that's not even the steepest part. The Mousefalle (mousetrap) jump, reached in just over eight seconds, has a gradient of 85% and launches the racers 260ft through the Austrian air.
"The first time I came here and I saw the downhill I said, 'no, I am not doing it, these guys are nuts,'" revealed Austria's four-time winner Franz Klammer.
"You have no time to get into the race, you accelerate from zero to 100kph in three seconds."
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The Streif also features the hard-banking 3G turn of the "Karrusel," the icy and technically demanding "Steilhang" section, the flatter "Bruckenschuss," which tests gliding skills, as well as bumps, compressions, and the "Seidlalmsprung" and "Hausbergkante" jumps.
The final "Zielsprung" jump shoots the skiers into the finish arena with the raucous masses cheering out below them.
"It's a unique spot, the way the crowd is spread out up the hill, you feel connected to everyone. It's definitely the most exhilarating finish line you have," American Bode Miller told CNN. "When you do something great there it's a special feeling."

'Accepting the risk'

Just making it down is special enough, compared to the alternative. The Hahnenkamm has witnessed some spectacular -- and serious -- crashes in its history, which began on the Streif in 1937.
Swiss racer Daniel Abrecht landed on his back and bounced forward onto his face at nearly 86mph after losing his balance over the final jump in training in 2009. He was placed in an induced coma with severe head injuries for three weeks, but made a full recovery and returned to the World Cup in December 2010.
Aksel Lund Svindal walked away from a spectacular crash in Kitzbuhel last year.
Last year, World Cup leader Aksel Lund Svindal suffered a season-ending knee injury in a brutal catapult off the Hausbergkante compression that also claimed Georg Streitberger and Hannes Reichelt.
"Every racer at the start in any World Cup downhill, but especially Kitzbuhel -- at least any racer willing to win -- they know it is going to be risky, they know [that] to win this race means I've accepted that risk," said Svindal.
"When it [crashing] happens you can't be that surprised because it's actually a part of the game."

'They'll be back...'

Italy's 2016 winner Peter Fill celebrates with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kitzbuhel.
Kitzbuhel is awash with Schnapps-fuelled, cow-bell clanging fans, celebrities and sports stars during Hahnenkamm week, which also features a super-G on the Friday and a slalom on the Sunday. A record total of 100,000 people attended across all the disciplines in 1999, while the average crowd for the downhill race is 45,000.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a regular visitor, and told CNN last year no-one who crashes in the downhill is a loser.
"You can only have one winner, and many of the athletes fell but they are not losers," he said. "Losers are the ones that stay down, winners always get up. Those guys are tough guys, great athletes, they will always get up and they are going to be back."
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Svindal, however, will not return this year after being diagnosed with a detached meniscus in his knee after a successful start to the season.
The World Cup leader opted to undergo surgery again, meaning his teammate, close friend and 2015 champion Kjetil Jansrud is favorite for Kitzbuhel's 74,000 euro first prize.
The winner of the downhill also gets their name daubed on one of the mountain's gondolas for posterity.
Another tradition, started by the Canadians after a string of wins in the 1980s, is for the top racers to jump behind the bar in the infamous Londoner pub and pull pints for the frenzied, beer-swilling masses.
No guts, no glory. It could have been coined for Kitzbuhel.