Your Backstage Pass to Kitzbuehel
After a short hiatus with travels from Val d’Isere, France, to Prague, Czech Republic, and rendezvous action in Madonna di Campiglio, Bormio and Venice in between, the travel column is back by popular demand. Phew. Just in time for the “Super Bowl of ski racing.”
Consider yourselves lucky to get a VIP ticket to the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel. Okay, okay, that’s a stretch. I know all too well VIP tickets are hard to come by – but nevertheless, you can thank me for some sweet information. Kitzbuehel week sucks the energy right out of you. In fact, I need a coffee already. Double espresso me up, please.
-Brief intermission for a double espresso-
Yep, I’m back. Let’s do this.
Every year since 1931, thousands of frothing ski racing fans make the pilgrimage to a small town called Kitzbuehel. And every year, the population grows from 8,000 to nearly 60,000, and I’m just talking about the fan count in the finish area. I’m not joking. Of course, the main stage is the downhill on Saturday, where emerging victorious ensures a entry to an elite-level, badass club, the Pantheon ski of gods…and your name on a gondola, of course. Each gondola bears the name of a Streif victor. Daron Rahlves is one of the only American Downhillers to earn that honor so far. Absolute legend.
The nervous tension is palpable, growing throughout the week. The build-up to race day is equally excruciating and thrilling for athletes. For fans, it’s the calm before the storm. And by storm, I’d liken it to a natural disaster, complete with gluehwein-imbibing, flare-throwing, Goesser-slinging, drunk and stumbling ski racing fans, dancing naked on tables at the Londoner. This is not hyperbole, my friends. This is the Hahnenkamm: Oktoberfest on a mountain. With much, much more cowbell.
I thought it might be fun to experience Kitzbuehel from three different perspectives: athlete, coach, and fan. Let’s do this, huh?! Kickoff time!
THE CHAOS-CALMING COACH
Johno McBride, the U.S. Ski Team’s head men’s speed coach, has had a lot of success here. By that, I mean numerous podiums with Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves, including two victories – both super-G and downhill – for Rahlves. As a head coach, Johno’s biggest challenge is helping the guys get perspective on how important it is to actually be in the driver’s seat here in Kitzbuehel. They’ve gotta own it.
“If you don’t charge down this hill you’re going to get into trouble,” said McBride. “That’s the short and sweet of it. So, you’ve gotta get yourself in a place where you’re willing to not feel comfortable…and be looking to charge down the hill whether you’re looking for speed or not. If you’re a little defensive, you’re probably going to end up in the net. It’s just that rough and challenging.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the classic World Cup races is staying present. Staying in a hotel and staring at the Streif, blanketed in an eerie fog right before falling asleep is certainly not calming. But the athletes who are the strongest mentally can block it out. “It’s easy to get caught up in all of the noise and all of the energy,” noted McBride.
“The athletes that can take all of that noise and energy and refocus it on the task at hand, channel all of that hoopla of the event don’t allow it to distract them so they can perform at their highest level. And if you don’t, it will overwhelm you because it’s like going from a high school football game to the Super Bowl.” ‘Nuff said, right?!
THE GOD-LIKE ATHLETE
American Downhiller, Steven Nyman, who was the second fastest in the first downhill training run on Tuesday said it doesn’t feel good. The snow is dense. He said he was going through the course thinking, “Wow, if I feel like this I wonder what the fast guys think. I really was kind of a wuss in the Hausberg, but I guess I was still fast.” Excuse me, Steven Nyman – did you say you were a “wuss?” Hardly.
You stand in the start gate of the Hahnenkamm and you’re like, “Why am I doing this?! And then you kick out and do it. The important thing to remember is that we’re just guys in spandex, balancing on a thin, sharp edge.”
Sitting with Bryce Bennett and Jared Goldberg yesterday after dryland, and they gave me the scoop about what it’s like. A video game.
“Level one isn’t just pushing out of the start, it’s the whole top, I think” Jared said. “Because you’re not thinking about much until you hit the road and you’re like, WHOA, (he gets into his tuck and his jaw drops). They should have a microphone there because I bet everyone’s like, ‘woooooooo!’ I know I make a noise right there. Level two is the turns before the Hausberg. It’s Alte Schneise to Seidlalmsprung to just above the Hausberg. Level three is the whole bottom, but starts at the Hausberg. Coming off the Hausberg is like level three and there are rings in the air and you’re like ‘bling bling bling bling bling!’ And the higher you stay on the traverse you get more rings.”
What does it feel like when you go through the finish? Bryce Bennett, “Relief.” “Phew,” Goldberg sighed. Then he added, “It’s a real PHEW moment!”
But I think Daron Rahlves said it best: “No chance for fear to set in at all on the Streif. Once you do that, you’ve already lost. What separates the Streif from any other World Cup track is the top 30 seconds. You have no chance to build into this race. It’s like in your face from the moment you kick out of the start and it’s like GAME ON.” It’s insane. Really. Don’t believe me? Watch this:
THE HARDCORE FAN
In 2017, a group of American ladies – and a man – descended upon Kitzbuehel for a weekend of mayhem known as “Kitz-N-Titz (KNT): the ultimate guys’ trip for ladies.” In 2015, the O.G. Kitz-N-Titz crew was headlined by former U.S. Ski Team member, Kaylin Richardson, and big mountain badass, Rachael Burks.
Selina Shearer is also an O.G. KNT member. “Being an American at the Hahnenkamm is a special kind of celebrity,” reflected super fan Shearer. There aren’t many of us. We were decked out in a combination of red, white and blue, plus lady lederhosen and an array of fur and flags for warmth and flair. We were a scene.” And a scene they were indeed, having been singled out by CNN for an interview (check out :28 minute mark) featuring skiing’s biggest party.
Another of the crew, Kate Jordan, “remembered” a night out in Kitzbuehel. “In regard to the current state of my fur jacket and the lederhosen that hasn’t left a plastic bag in over a year…I vaguely recall downhiller Travis Ganong advising me that ‘the trick to partying at The Londoner is to immediately get in the shower fully-clothed upon returning home.” Or so she can remember, as a Goesser-slinging team USA fan.
“The Kitzbuehel experience. It’s hard to put into words,” Hennessy Wadell said. “That feeling of anticipation as you drive though the Tyrolian Alps on your way to the quaint mountain village in time to see the Hahnenkamm race. What makes this weekend an experience of a lifetime? Three things: the village, the gluehwein, and the Hahnenkamm.”
I myself came to Kitzbuehel as a fan in 2009, when I lived in Prague. I can attest to the fact that Kitzbuehel as a spectator is far more entertaining than Kitzbuehel as a press officer for the U.S. Ski Team. The Londoner is much more intriguing, to say the least (inside info: the bouncer’s name is “Shevy” and he’s the man).
VAGABLONDE’S PICKS – WHO TO WATCH:
I’m not just picking these guys because they’re some of my favorite on the circuit.
My criteria: 1) history on the Streif, 2) degree of badassedness, 3) mental fortitude.
The Italian Stallions: Dominik Paris, Christof Innerhofer, Peter Fill
The Attacking Vikings: Aksel Lund Svindal, Kjetil Jansrud, oh – and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, who said the “jumps weren’t too big – just one” yesterday in the training run. What a Viking, eh?!
The Attacking Croissants (aka the Frenchies): Johan Clarey, Adrien Theaux
The Austrian Power Team: Hannes Reichelt, Matthias Mayer, Vincent Kriechmayr
The American Downhillers: Steven Nyman, Jared Goldberg, Bryce Bennett
The Deutschers (I don’t know what to call them): Thomas Dressen, Andreas Sander
The Swiss Cheese (?): Beat Feuz
Last Year’s Top Five in the Hahnenkamm Downhill:
Dominik Paris (ITA)
Valentin Giraud Moine (FRA)
Johan Clarey (FRA)
Peter Fill (ITA)
Carlo Janka (SUI)
*Steven Nyman was the top American in 10th
Hansi Hinterseer Hunting:
There are lots of famous folks at the Hahnenkamm. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Hahnenkamm mainstay. But perhaps the most famous and revered of them all is former slalom Kitzbuehel gold medalist and local Hansi Hinterseer. And it’s just not because he smells like a dream and looks like an angel. It’s #datskitwistdoe. Keep an eye out for him during inspection. You might see him dressed entirely in white, ski twisting with yours truly – dressed entirely in a black onesie, courtesy of Spyder. YAHTZEEEEE! These moments are what dreams are made of.
JUST THE TIPS
The top five insider tips about Kitzbuehel from the professionals (KNT crew).
Experience the Hahnenkamm from a skier’s point of view.
Shearer’s tip: “You can get a great view by skiing down the course and watching the race. We, like the super fans we were, were ushered into the base area – with our flags hanging right over the fence. But on a training day, we watched as the boys dropped out of the starting gate and flew down some 200 feet on the Mausefalle, which in no way would be legal if anyone with a mind for modern safety was involved.”
Stay nearby so you can stumble home.
At Kitzbuehel, life is a party. From Red Bull parties to The Londoner, you’re surrounded by options. From Hennessy Wadell: “While I was lucky enough to stay with a lovely local family within walking distance of the race, I spent my fair share of time at the Hotel Goldener Greif, home base for the American Downhillers. I was astounded by how hospitable and kind the staff were; they fed us, watered us and basked in our barely contained excitement.”
Do as the legends do. Go to The Londoner. Frequently Daron Rahlves does, after all. And, once upon a time, Bode did.
The reason is best articulated by Shearer. “I will never go to the Super Bowl. Frankly I don’t give a – [insert expetive] – about American football. However, I will keep going to ‘Austria’s Super Bowl’ every year, and cheer on the U-S of A. Plus, the boys at The Londoner let me drink endless beer out of an old Hahnenkamm trophy from someone’s dad (Resi Stiegler, I’ll get that back to you one of these days).” But really, Daron Rahlves goes. Sling some beers with the top three!
Drink plenty of gluehwein to stay warm. And wear costumes. Patriotic ones.
KNT crew member Lindsay Love (yes, that’s really her name) says, “Drink your bodyweight in gluehwein for warmth (especially if your chosen costume is leotard). Plan your patriotic costume in advance and don’t be shy. Lederhosen and leotards are a solid start.
Befriend the security guards.
Love strongly advises, “Bribe each and every Austrian security guard. Again, don’t be shy. We found that kisses, flags, posed pictures, and high fives are all key commodities in the Kitz marketplace.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS JUST THE TIPS FROM KNT:
Go to the huts. The hut culture in Austria is unmatched. Check out the SeidlAlm, which is on the Hahnenkamm downhill track. Maybe grab an espresso…but copious amounts of gluehwein. You may even see Hansi Hinterseer.
Spa session at the Hotel Schloss Lebenberg.
Grab some goulash at the Tiefenbrunner Hotel.
The shopping in Kitz is epic. Do as the locals do and get your ski bunny on at Frauenschuh.
Detox with some organic goods at Shevy’s new café, Simple Food & Drinks.
Parting words by Wadell: “The Hahnenkamm. 1% ability, 99% mental toughness. Standing at the bottom of the pitch you truly understand this. You can watch the race on TV, but you will only comprehend the enormity of the endeavor in person.” If that doesn’t inspire you I don’t know what will. Go to Kitzbuehel. STAT.