Try to imagine the Denver Broncos playing the Super Bowl in Aspen, Colo., and you'll have an inkling of what the Hahnenkamm ski race will be like this year in Kitzbühel, Austria. Kitzbühel and Aspen are about the same size (8,000 population), and every year in late January¿right around Super Bowl time¿Kitzbühel hosts the world's best skiers for the biggest, loudest, wildest race on the planet. Last year I joined the melee as 60,000 crazed fans attended the three-day extravaganza, flooding chic Kitz in a sea of costumed revelers, clanging cowbells and rich local beer. I still can remember Bob Beattie doing a television spot in crowds so thick and manic that they could have been rushing the lifeboats on the Titanic.
Consider this: There are fewer than 10,000 guest beds in Kitzbühel. So where do the other 50,000 spectators sleep? In cars, buses and neighboring villages, mostly, but thousands never close their eyes, simply parading through downtown all night between the races. Why? Because ski racing in Europe, and especially Austria, is bigger than the NFL in America. And the Hahnenkamm is Austria's Super Bowl. The Hahnenkamm trophy goes to the combined winner of the downhill and slalom events, and in 2000 will be awarded for the 60th time since 1930 (stopped only by a world war and thin snow).
The faithful will flock in from all over the globe, filling up ancient and beautiful Kitzbühel to pay homage to their sport's best, soak up the sun and, not incidentally, party like marauding Visigoths. You can feel the electricity, smell the open-air bratwurst grills, hear the throb of rock bands¿all at midnight. Add the Jumbo-tron TV screens, souvenir tents and squads of trained medics, and it's a true Mardi Gras on snow, an effect so overwhelming that many locals flee town altogether.
With pack frisks and bomb-sniffing dogs, security will match a Papal visit. Hordes of revelers will line the course and swarm through town¿women clad only in body-painted Austrian flags, and falling-down drunk ski club members draped in matching yak hides. Some will never see the races.
But most will. The big show is on Saturday. The grand-daddy of all downhill races is held on the ferocious Streif run, which towers above town. This is the single most terror-inducing event in skiing, a super-fast, essentially insane 2-minute careen down an icy plunge that the world's best skiers say borders on suicide. It's so slick and steep on the notorious Steilhang section that Canadian ace Steve Podborski, who has won the race twice, said he literally couldn't stand up on it the first time he made a course inspection.
A sign at the start naming the course record holders reads like an anthology of history's great downhillers. Last winter Hans Knauss led an Austrian sweep, driving the fans to a frenzy. This year Knauss, Lasse Kjus, Hermann Maier, Werner Franz and even Americans Chad Fleischer, nastar.com's pacesetter, and Daron Rahlves must be considered contenders.
Much like our Super Bowl, the Hahnenkamm defines careers and is history in waiting. More than 40 years ago, Buddy Werner earned the first serious international respect for American skiing by becoming the only Yank to ever win the race. And Austrian superman Maier will never be considered a great downhiller by his countrymen until he wins it, too. When all is said and done this January, several Austrians will have stood on the podium, and Kitzbühel will be left to clean up and ponder once again what craziness the Hahnenkamm hath wrought.