The Hahnenkamm – a venue that has gone down in history as the home of the gnarliest downhill course the men’s circuit will ski all season. Throughout the month of January, the anticipation for the race steadily builds, peaking the week before the event when the men take on Wengen’s Lauberhorn, yet another classic downhill. Wengen draws big crowds and loud, energetic Swiss fans, but nothing quite compares to the masses that gather in the finish of the Streif in Kitzbuehel, Austria. Words like, “fear”, “terrifying”, and “intense” are some of the terms used by athletes to describe the track.
People around the world tune in to Kitzbuehel for high speeds and high stakes. Known as the Super Bowl of ski racing, Kitzbuehel draws over 50,000 fans to watch men hurl themselves down a slope the equivalent of an ice rink at over 80 mph, the edge of two planks separating them from disaster. The act is no longer as precarious as it was back in 1937 when the Hahnenkamm race first took place on today’s course. In 2020, on its 80th anniversary, the systems athletes ski on the Hahnenkamm have been adjusted and manipulated to the degree. But that doesn’t make the show any less thrilling. The only line of defense these men have are back protectors and a helmet. At any moment, one little mistake can lead to their season’s end.
Luckily for the athletes and spectators, the notorious Strief took no victims on Saturday. Although a few competitors collided with the b-netting, all walked away unscathed. The United State’s Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who had been competing in the Hahnenkamm downhill for the first time in his career, ran second and was the first to fall. The 26-year-old seemed to have set the standard for the day, as no other men that crashed were hurt.
“There’s no part of this course where you can just relax,” said U.S. Ski Team veteran, Steven Nyman. The 37-year-old has been skiing the Streif since 2005, and it has not gotten any less exhilarating. “When I first got here, I was intimidated, and it took me about eight years to figure this course out. Those first years, I didn’t really want to kick out of the gate. It’s the conviction and belief in yourself that makes good things happen.”
Although the Hahnenkamm is known for its danger, many athletes see the course as fun, because it pushes them to their absolute limit, each and every time they run it. The pressure is on from the first day of training to those final moments crossing the finish line on race day, particularly for the Austrians. The Austrian men hold the record in Kitzbuehel for the downhills wins, and their fans come out in droves, expecting a strong performance on home soil. On Saturday, Matthias Mayer chalked the Austrian win count up to 52, after conquering the Strief for the second time in his career, making him one of three active athletes to have won the Kitzbuehel downhill more than once.
Plenty of challengers for the top spot came before, and after Mayer’s run, but those tiny mistakes ate away and hundredths and tenths of a second. At the end of the race, Mayer’s teammate, Vincent Kriechmayr, and Switzerland’s Beat Feuz shared in the podium celebration, tying for second 0.22 seconds back. As he sat in the hot seat, Mayer experienced a roller coaster of emotions watching his competition come down through the final sections of the course, their split times in the green, only to cross the finish with the red light. After yesterday’s super-G finish, where he took second, Mayer had no expectations of being able to hold on to the win in the downhill Saturday.
“I have no words for it,” Mayer said exasperated. “I train so hard for this and it’s just amazing when I crossed the finish line to a green light again, number one, with all the people cheering here in Austria. It’s really something. It’s gonna be a good party.”
The atmosphere in Kitzbuehel on race day is just that, a party. Pop-up beer stands and food carts line the streets, just as fans line the sides of the racecourse in droves. Fans paint their faces and wear costumes to support their favorite athletes and country. Chants of “Matthias Mayer” and “Vincent Kriechmayr” can be heard throughout the streets. Kitzbuehel racing ‘alumni’ and a multitude of celebrities flock to the race to join in on the fun. There are not many ski races where Kitzbuehel winner, Daron Rahlves can be seen sliding down the course on touring skis during inspection alongside Lindsey Vonn, and Grey’s Anatomy’s Patrick Dempsey. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tommy Hilfiger sit in the grandstand amongst VIP fans, and Aksel Lund Svindal returns to do the honors of passing awards and accolades to his old competitors. The energy is palpable. And that’s exactly why USA’s Bryce Bennett opted for bib one, during Friday night’s bib draw, so he could be the first guy to push out of the start gate.
“Picking bib one was pretty special because I think everyone, no matter what, gets fired up for bib one,” explained Bennett. “Starting one, you have a plan, and you don’t deviate from it. I just had my plan and I was set on committing to it, which was a cool feeling I haven’t quite experienced that at Kitzbuehel.”
Bennett had the good fortune of setting a solid pace, one that many behind him could not catch. The 27-year-old American had some time to sit in the hot seat and soak in the glory of all that is Kitzbuehel for a while until Feuz came down and bested his time. He ended the day with a career-best finish at the venue – eighth.
“I thought it would be a little bit more relaxing sitting in the hot seat. But after [Aleksander] Kilde came, I was like ‘huh, I might have a chance here’…but not quite. I’m excited because I left everything on the hill and I don’t have any regrets. I’m pretty bummed I didn’t podium, but I learned a lot and I’m excited to try and win this thing.”
For guys with more experience on the course, finishing outside of podium is frustrating, particularly in a race like Saturday’s when splits fluctuate back and forth, and fans sit on the edge of their seat wondering if the current racer or the next is going to cross the finish line with the green light. Nyman fell victim to the game, leading the way as he came down in bib 14 until a small mistake set him back just far enough to finish the day in the 13th position. Although he gained time in the flats, it wasn’t enough to get him back into the top of the heap.
“I’m just pissed,” said Nyman in the finish. “I don’t have many years left of this, but I know I can do well, I just need to execute.”
On the other hand, for athletes that are brand new to Kitzbuehel, completing a race at the Hahnenkamm is thrilling in itself. 23-year-old American Sam Morse started in bib 48, finished 41st, and still was absolutely beaming in the finish.
“Coming into the finish you can see the crowd kind of in your peripherals, and then over that last jump you’re thinking, ‘wow man, this is Kitzbuehel, I’m in it.’ Crossing the finish line, you don’t even care what your time is you’re just stoked you made it,” laughed Morse.
A few months before having competed in Kitzbuehel, Morse had described the Strief as terrifying. Now, he sees it as a challenge.
“Now it’s not scary, I just want to figure out this puzzle. I wanna go up there and do it all again, absolutely.”
- 1. Matthias Mayer (AUT): 1:55.59
- 2. Vincent Kriechmayr (AUT): +0.22
- 2. Beat Feuz (SUI): +0.22
- 4. Johan Clarey (FRA): +0.27
- 5. Maxence Muzaton (FRA): +0.31
- 6. Kjetil Jansrud (NOR): +0.67
- 7. Romed Baumann (GER): +0.83
- 8. Bryce Bennett (USA): +0.89
- 9. Aamodt Kilde Aleksander (NOR): +0.90
- 10.Carlo Janka (SUI): +0.93
For full race results, click here.