In golf it’s St. Andrews. In cycling it’s Alpe d’Huez. In surfing it’s the Banzai Pipeline. Well, ski racing too has hallowed ground: The Streif. Carved into the side of the Hahnenkamm, a mountain just outside Kitzbuhel, Austria, the Streif is a wicked, twisting, insane snake of a run, one filled with blind drops, 260-foot jumps, and 85-percent grade steeps. This weekend marks the seventy-fourth time they’ve run the superbowl of ski racing, The Hahnenkamm. It’s a harrowing experience from start to finish, but three spots on the Streif (or the “Stripe”) regularly devour victims, often in catastrophic fashion.
Before we break the course down, have a look at one of the greatest downhill racers in recent history, Didier Cuche of Switzerland, hit almost ninety miles per hour in his winning attack on the Streif in 2011.
Didier makes it look almost easy. Here’s proof that it’s not.
If you can wipe the second video from your memory, let’s move back to the start haus and talk about the three most infamous sections of the Streif, starting from the top.
Eight seconds out of the start gate is the Mausefalle or the “Mousetrap”, a blind 260-foot jump taken at 70 mph (think how steep the start slope must be to accelerate you to that speed in eight seconds, even though you’ve made two turns). Unable to see the landing until they’ve been launched high in the air, a racer can only pick a mountain peak in the distance, race for the horizon of snow and sky, trust their training, and hope. Watch Didier Cuche navigate the Mausfalle (:08 in the video) and ask yourself how he maintains his aerodynamic “tuck”, holding his knees to his chest, against gravity while flying through the air. It’s simple: pound for pound, ski racers are some of the strongest athletes on the planet.
If you clear the Mausefalle, flying 260 feet through the air in just the right position—aggressive, forward—and landing with a minimum of cartilage-rattling crunch, you have to remain upright through an immediate compression (0:18), a section of the slope that flattens out or goes uphill slightly, causing weak or off-balance skiers down and back on their skis, resulting in a loss of control and a high-speed crash. Downhill ski racers pull some 3.5 G’s while trying to carve turns through the snow rather than skid sideways, which scrubs off speed, at the same time trying to be as aerodynamic as possible to cut through the wind and avoid speed loss due to drag. It’s all a high-wire act.
“Steep rock slope”, that’s the English translation of Steilhang, a single right turn at the end of a series of super-steep switchbacks filled with teeth-chattering bumps. Steilhang is especially hard because this is a fall-away turn. Meaning: The natural “fall line” of the slope (the direction gravity naturally pulls objects tumbling downhill) is counter to where you want to go—in this case the fall line is off the course and into the net. Not only is the Steilhang a fall away turn where you have to fight the pull of gravity, the exit of Steilhang narrows. If your line isn’t 100 percent accurate at any point in the Steilhang, you’ll be in the netting.
Steilhang is legendary, the ultimate in risk and reward in downhill ski racing. Crash here like Canadian Brian Stemmle and you could rip your pelvis open “like a book” (Kitzbuhel downhill crashes video above: 0:10 – 0:35). Ride the edge of disaster without exploding and you get to carry all that speed across the first relatively flat section of the Streif. Nailing the Steilhang is essential to winning the Hahnenkamm.
Here’s my favorite Steilhang moment, courtesy of American Bode Miller:
Almost two minutes in and on the verge of complete exhaustion, you hit the final challenge, The Zielschuss or “goal shot”, a pitch culminating in a jump that launches you 200 feet down slope at 85 mph. In 2008, American Scott Macartney hit the Zielschuss at almost 90 mph, but shifted his weight too far to the right. Since Macartney didn’t miss a gate, he technically finished the race in 33rd place. More important than his finish position is that Scott Macartney recovered fully. By the next season, he was back on the World Cup circuit, racing downhill again. He even took on the Hahnenkamm downhill in 2010, which is hard to believe when you watch this video from that day in 2008:
Only two Americans have won the Hahnenkamm since the inaugural race in 1931. America’s first great ski racer, Buddy Werner won it in 1959 and Daron Rahlves won it in 2003 (Daron will be forerunning the Streif tomorrow, a ceremonial running at high speed to clear the track before the actual race). Bode Miller has come close, finishing second twice, but tomorrow he’s got another shot, possibly his last, in his long, very successful career. He could do it: Miller dominated the training runs today, the day before tomorrow’s seventy-fourth running of the Hahnenkamm.
Who will win tomorrow? No one knows. Only one thing is for certain. The Hahnenkamm is the most challenging downhill ski race in the world. It’s one hell of a ride.