Ten years ago, when Vail/Beaver Creek hosted the World Alpine Ski Championships, there was one unanimous weak point-the men's downhill. The course simply did not challenge the world's best skiers, and with downhill being the most watched alpine event, that was no small problem. So when Vail bid for the 1999 Worlds, building the best downhill course in North America was a top priority.
The result is Birds Of Prey, designed by former Swiss champion Bernhard Russi, whose creations include the past three Olympic courses and a work in progress, the 2002 Olympic downhill in Snowbasin, Utah. Birds Of Prey was run for the first time last December and was immediately hailed as a new classic, a fitting showcase for the world's fastest skiers and a centerpiece for the Championships.
Russi's goal is to make his courses as satisfying to ski as they are spectacular to watch. The key to that lies not in raw speed or danger, Russi believes, but in keeping the racer in dynamic balance-a precarious state well beyond the comfort zone but slightly short of suicidal. The recipe relies on the right mix of difficult turns, big air and controlled speed.
Daron Rahlves, the U.S. Ski Team's top super G skier, raced the Birds Of Prey downhill and super G in the inaugural running last season. "It's definitely the most demanding course in the U.S. As with the best European courses, the hill and the terrain dictate the course. It demands everything from a skier-on the top flats you have to be a good glider, and the rest of the way you have to be a technician. The terrain is changing all the time, so you have to be really aggressive from the start."
From top to bottom, Rahlves takes you down Birds Of Prey: "Kick out of the start and give four hard skates. Then you drop into your 'bull' bullet tuck. This 25-second flat is the only chance you have to saddle up and get ready for the ride. Off the flat you dive into the Talon turn, a tough fallaway right..."
Every great course needs at least one signature section, a moment of truth that defines the danger and technical difficulty of the sport. Val Gardena has the Camel Bumps, Wengen the Hundschopf, Kitzbühel the Steilhang. And Birds of Prey has the Talon turn. Here the course drops precipitously off the top flat, launching skiers into a near-freefall and a blind, glass-slick convex corner. From there the course becomes an acceleration chute of sharp, fast turns where gravity and centrifugal force conspire to push the racers toward the netting, while terrain undulations keep the skis from settling into the security of an uninterrupted arc.
Rahlves continues: "You pick up speed immediately and are hauling down the 60-degree slope. Because there are so many blind turns and rolls, you have to be on it all the time, making quick edge changes and anticipating the terrain. If you lag for a split second you could be right out of the course."
Indeed this section plays host to the most spectacular action on the course, including athletic recoveries and high-speed wrecks. The quick turns on the steep are followed by a long, right-sweeping corridor with a bump in the middle.
"You have to keep a tight line and hang on because it shoots you out to the right below the pumphouse and then into a long left-hander. That turn is critical because you need to nail it to carry speed onto the flats." The flats are not a time to relax. Four high-speed turns lead racers around two islands of trees and into a series of high-flying jumps.
"The first jump is a straight launch with good air and a steep landing for 500 feet. You need to make sure you're on both skis, because you come in at 70 mph and if you're in any way off-balance, you'll get tweaked in the air." And in downhillese, that means you're history. Here the course goes into shadows and flattens into a left-hand turn with a deep compression.
"Again, this is where quick edge changes are important.
After making the hard left on your right ski,, you go over a roll, make a quick switch to the left ski, then go off the next jump. In the super G these turns are even tighter."
The jumps get successively bigger, with less time to recover. After the second jump, the course veers sharply right, and the racer is momentarily in view from the finish, until dipping into another compression and a long left-hand turn that swings into the final bump-the biggest air on the course-and then the finish.
"This last turn is especially tricky. You have to be aggressive but smart. The safest way to go over a bump is to keep both skis flat. Drawing out the turn as long as possible will carry the most speed. But if you don't finish the turn early enough, and go off the bump with pressure on the edges, you run the risk of getting twisted in the air."
That is exactly what led to last year's worst crash. Canada's Cary Mullen miscalculated his line and was still edging off the final jump. He spun in the air and landed sideways at 70 mph to end his race in a twisted heap, mere feet from the finish line.
In a morbid reality, the carnage proved that Beaver Creek's Birds Of Prey had earned its stripes. But moreimportant, at the conclusion of Birds of Prey's inaugural running, the racers unanimously praised the course. At this Championships there will be thrills and spills, but there will be no apologies.