One of the main reasons we decided to go to Europe was to watch my brother’s race in Kitzbuhel, Austria. Steven is a downhiller on the US Ski Team. Downhillers are the fastest guys on the team – they pretty much tuck straight down mountains as fast as they can (aka, they’re a little nuts). Steven spends every winter season in Europe racing on the World Cup Ski Racing tour, where he’s currently ranked 6th in the world. In Europe, ski racing is a huge sport and each event brings tens of thousands of spectators. Kitzbuhel is the premier stop on the tour, bringing over 100,000 people to watch these guys put on a show. Fans flood the city for a the weekend, creating a nonstop party atmosphere everywhere you look. It’s an annual event for Arnold Schwarzenegger, with other European and American celebrities attending. Events, bars, parties are on every corner. They even have security at the US Ski Team hotel to keep crazy fans from distracting the athletes. We showed in Kitzbuhel at 8am one morning with the streets already pretty crowded, and we couldn’t tell if everyone had partied through the night or were just going for it super early. Either way, the main point is Austrians are wild and love skiing!
The race itself is called the Hahnenkamm, with the marquee downhill event being held on The Streif course. The Hahnenkamm has always held this high prestige in ski racing. The annual race started in 1931, then became a fixture to the World Cup in 1967. Growing up ski racing, it was always one of the most exciting events of the season and now being there in person to watch my brother race felt pretty special.
The Streif course is intense and considered to be one of the most challenging downhill courses in the world. It’s the real deal. During a 2-minute, all-out blitz from the top of the mountain to the bottom, the racers hit speeds of over 80mph and some of the jumps send you close to the length of a football field. It’s ended careers and even taken 3 lives, but if you win, you’re an instant ski racing legend. Here’s a preview for a piece Red Bull did on it recently:
In the whole history of the race, only two Americans have won, Daron Rahlves (2003) and Buddy Werner (1959), so the Americans definitely want a win. Steven took 5th in 2015 and was the fastest in a training run earlier in the week, so he had high expectations for a top 3 finish, but ideally to win.
The night before the race, the top 10 ranked racers do what’s called a bib draw, where they choose what number they’re racing the next day. Steven ended up picking bib number 1, which is a pretty tough start position. They call it the bullet.
The morning of the race was beautiful. Cold, crisp, no wind, the calm before the storm. My mom was with us and we were all feeling the anxiety of race day for Steven. We made our way to town, navigating the early hordes of inebriated fans, to settle in at the bottom of the course. Red Bull is a huge sponsor of the race and put on a beautiful airshow with a couple gliders painting the sky with colorful smoke, then a rad restored B-25 bomber buzzing the crowd.
Soon after, they started ringing the gong to signal the countdown to the first racer, Steven. Here we go!
He had a pretty solid run, but said he made a minor mistake on the bottom half of the course, which cost him a little time. But after all 63 racers, he ended up 10th, which a top 10 finish in a World Cup is a very good result. The crazy part is the time difference between first and 10th is 0.83 of a second. Pretty much a sleepy blink of an eye!
The race was officially over. Nerves were gone and now it was time to relax and party with the team. Steven arranged dinner at his friend Pinky’s mountain Alm, which was a mystery to us. We all hopped in the car and made our way up an empty, snowy mountain road until we randomly pulled over next to a trail and hopped out. A few minutes later we hear the sound of engine making it’s way toward us, and Pinky himself comes around the corner on a snowmobile towing a toboggan. We all load up and get taken up this snowmobile trail for about 10 minutes until we come to this amazing little cabin the woods. Inside, Pinky has created an amazing and unique restaurant experience in his mountain alm. We spent the rest of the night making our way through a four course Austrian dining experience including, duck and kaiserschmarnn, and dancing and playing music with Pinky’s house musicians dressed in lederhosen! It was a pretty amazing way to end our time in Austria!
Next stop, Cambridge!