Dubbed the Super Bowl of Alpine ski racing, the Hahnenkamm downhill race in Kitzbühel, Austria, is where skiing's crème de la crème come to test their will, strength, and courage on the world's most arduous 71-year-old racecourse.
On January 19, ski racing's elite men battled this streif German term for "run" in an attempt to claim what has become the most coveted trophy on the men's World Cup circuit. Infamous for its obstinate ice, ruts, huge air time, and technically demanding turns, the course eventually leads brave World Cup warriors into the finish corral among a stadium-sized crowd of fans clenching their nation's flags, swinging their oversized cowbells, and hollering at their skiers.
This year over 50 athletes from nine countries competed in this crusade, while an estimated 50,000 fans waited for their favorite challengers to come blistering down the course at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. If a warrior actually makes it to the finish of the Hahnenkamm, regardless of his time, it's a great day!
Starting in 13th position, American-favorite Daron Rahlves stepped out of the gate primed and vying for a place on the podium, while the lone American fans held their breath at the bottom. Not a minute later, his devotees were disappointed as their carnival king laid down his hip, sliding into a wall of padding on a fall-away turn about halfway down the course. Next time, fans lamented.
The Austrians took the stage that day, to no great surprise, as they secured six of the top 10 spots with their nation's new hero and the overall World Cup leader, Stephan Eberharter, coming home with the gold in 1:54.21. Countryman Hannes Trinkl won the bronze in 1:54.61.
Norway's standby, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, one of the few skiers who competes in all four events and who has won titles in each, took the silver with a 1:54.58. Americans Jakub Fiala and Scott Macartney finished 29th and 47th respectively.
Given the Austrian domination, the natives young and old secured their party hats at the finish line, consumed mugs of glühwein hot spiced wine, and sang songs all the way back into Kitzbühel. The streets were taken over by fans consuming schnitzel and beer nestled around heat lamps debating the performance of each athlete, turn by blessed turn.
Later that night the infamous "Londoner" pub was transformed into a Vegas-style strip show of beer showers and American '80s tunes as the athletes were ceremoniously given full reign behind the taps at the bar. Nobody escaped the Londoner unsoaked by beer or before dawn. To put it mildly, decorum had no place that night.
The Londoner left me with a stamp of what it means to be a ski racer in Austria, what it means to be a ski racer in Europe. From a young age, children revere their favorite racers like Americans kids look up to football players. These children strive to walk the same competitive path when they come of age, skiing after school with friends, skiing with their families on weekends, skiing in their dreams at night. This passion runs hot in the veins of kids regardless of social, political, or economic status, and you can feel the pulse standing in the throngs at the Hahnenkamm.
These kids grow up and either make it or don't. But somehow the fever never fades, the adoration of ski racing never wilts, and each year the aficionados come crawling back to the epicenter of ski racing to support the few who are fortunate enough to actually make it here. This is ski racing. This is the Hahnenkamm.