Handling the Hahnenkamm hangover
The snow was pounding for days, turning the famed Hahnenkamm downhill course into the consistency of marshmallow sauce and giving the small hamlet of Kitzbuehel, Austria, a wintry, fairy-tail glow.For the 100,000 or so people who descend on the town of 5,000 each year for skiing’s most coveted contest, it meant great powder skiing and endless face shots. In the meantime, course workers struggled against the elements to create the rock-hard surface necessary for a fair running of the legendary event.On the day before the race, many of the World Cup’s top competitors holed up in their rooms or huddled with stone-faced European coaches. But American downhiller Daron Rahlves did what any good ski-town boy would do on a powder day: he strapped on the freeskiing boards and hit the slopes with his sister and an old buddy from Lake Tahoe.Of course, he could hardly know that he was 24 hours away from making history with the first American victory on the course since Buddy Werner 44 years ago. Nor could his new Austrian friends, who recognized him inside an on-mountain beer-stube, know that the blonde-haired, ex-Jetski champion was on the verge of defeating their compatriots in the one sport they have historically dominated.Rahlves was mobbed by a throng of excited, German-speaking fans, whose collective English vocabulary basically boiled down to five words, “Would you like a beer?”So while the snow buried the Hahnenkamm, Rahlves caved to the overtures to share in one of Austria’s national pastimes.”People kept sending over drinks, sending over shots, and we were playing this European drinking game,” Rahlves remembers. “Finally, after about two shots and two beers I said, ‘Hey guys, I’ve got a race tomorrow.'”On his way down the mountain, Rahlves paused to gaze up at the Kitzbuehel gondola, where the names of all the great Hahnenkamm winners have been painted.”I was looking at all the names going by: Franz Klammer, Primin Zurbriggen, Ingemar Stenmark, and all the past winners, and I saw four blank ones go by and I said, ‘Oh man, that’s what I need. I want that thing.'”And then he got it the next day.Rahlves is the kind of skier wild and fearless who does well on a hair-raising course like the Hahnenkamm. He had walked the course in the summertime, placed third in 2001, and was in the lead when he wiped out in 2002.But Rahlves’ victory has been slighted because it came on a shortened course, made so because of the snow conditions. The argument is that winning the Hahnenkamm in 70 seconds is like winning the Indy 500 in 300 laps.But Rahlves still beat a full field of competitors, including overall World Cup downhill champion Stefan Eberharter.And a Hahnenkamm victory, as opposed to an Olympic victory, which can be held on less-challenging courses on less challenging hills, is the definitive test of a downhiller’s mettle more coveted by the racers than any other prize in the sport.Now that Rahlves has tasted victory, he says he can’t wait to get back to Kitzbuehel and prove he isn’t a fluke. Last year, Rahlves’ historic run began in Beaver Creek with a podium (after a milquetoast start in Lake Louise, Alberta).Rahlves marked 18th and 10th this year in two races at Lake Louise, behind first-place Austrians Herman Maier and Michael Walchhofer.With two downhills and a super giant slaloms scheduled for Beaver Creek Dec. 5-7 on the steep and intense Birds of Prey course, Rahlves could come away from this weekend in good position to pursue the overall World Cup speed title.
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