Cowbells, cheers and real birds of prey | VailDaily.com

Cowbells, cheers and real birds of prey

Veronica Whitney

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Crowds at the finish stadium had their hearts divided Saturday at the Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey World Cup downhill. Americans Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves received as loud a cheer as Austrian Hermann Maier.

A big sign with a pig on skis said, “Good luck Hermann Maier – Flachau.”

When the 31-year-old Austrian, also known as Herminator, came down the finish line in first place, cowbells went off in a thunder and the crowd roared.

“We’re so excited because he’s coming back from his leg injury,” said Pepi Neubauer, an Austrian national who now lives in New York and never misses a World Cup race in Beaver Creek. “He is the underdog.”

Maier almost lost a leg two years ago in a motorcycle accident and injured his knee last season.

Among the 2,000-strong crowd was Vail pioneer and former Austrian ski member skier Pepi Gramshammer.

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“I’m proud the Americans won yesterday because I’m also American,” Gramshammer said with a big smile, “But I’m also Austrian and I’m very excited about today.”

American Daron Rahlves won Friday’s transplanted downhill and three Austrians took the podium Saturday.

At the finish area, racers changed into their sneakers, put their boots over their shoulders, swapped ski helmets for cool caps and watched the next racer storm down the course, one of the steepest on the World Cup tour.

“Hi, Pepi,” said Hans Knauss, the Austrian who placed second Saturday, as he moved through the crowd to talk to Gramshammer, with whom he is on a first-name basis. Then, Knauss posed for a photo with Gramshammer and friends.

“We’re going to run out of air soon,” said Pepi Neubauer when another Austrian, the seventh, placed among the top 10.

Meanwhile, wearing a cowboy hat with ski sunglasses, Dee Androus of Beaver Creek was cheering for the racers while enjoying a glass of white wine.

“I come every year,” she said. “To me this is an occasion to meet friends and start the ski season.

“Also, you get to see the top skiers of the world and it’s incredible to see how fit they are,” she added. “You meet people who are making the news.”

In spite of the local presence of cowbells, Heidi Boesch, a Swiss ski racer and coach watching the race, said the crowds watching World Cup events in Europe are much larger and a bit different.

“More than 30,000 people go to some races in Austria,” she said. “And there’s so much going on. Parties before the race and apres ski parties. There are many fan clubs for racers that make a lot of noise.”

But Tommy Parks, the national race director for equipment-maker Fischer, stuck up for the stateside crowds. He said Saturday’s crowd in Beaver Creek was pretty large and enthusiastic, similar to what happens in Italy and France.

“It’s true that in Austria it’s three times bigger, but this is one of the best venues,” said Parks, who lives in New London, N.H. “Everybody in the Vail Valley is so accommodating. I hope they get the 2009 World Championships. Europeans love coming to Vail. It has all the amenities you need. It has great mountain life.”

While 9-year-old Denver twins Emily and Alexandra said they came to the race because they wanted to learn something, Marco Buechel, the skier from Liechtenstein who is ranked No. 2 in super-G, patiently waited to see if he would make it to the podium. He finished seventh.

“If I finish in the top 10 it will be great,” said Buechel, a favorite in today’s super-G. “It’s still fun to wait and see how the other guys do,” said the 32-year-old Liechtensteiner, who, as he usually does after a race, had already called his wife, Doris, on the cell phone.

The Birds of Prey got a bonus race this year, hosting on Friday a downhill race scheduled next week for France, but cancelled for lack of snow.

“I’m so happy we had good snow and we had that race added,” Gramshammer said. “There is no snow in Austria and people there are watching the races. That’s good for us.”

In addition to the pretty parade of the world’s top skiers, Saturday’s crowd also had a chance to admire four equally beautiful birds of prey – a Harris hawk, a peregrine falcon, a golden eagle and a bald eagle.

The birds proudly stood close to the finish line without knowing that the race course where racers flew down at about 70 mph is named after them.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.