Steep thrills |

Steep thrills

Matt Zalaznick

So what do cowbells have to do with downhilling?

“The Austrians and the Germans like cowbells a lot. They paint them, they use them for decorations,” said Vail’s Chesa Crouch. “Though Americans like noisemakers, too.”

But how did cows, one of the Mother Nature’s fattest, least inspiring creatures, get associated with one of the fastest, most dangerous, most graceful sports on earth?

“They both live in the mountains – skier and cows,” Crouch said.


“Mountain cows,” she added.

OK, then. Add mountain cows to the list of hazards one might stumble across in the backcountry.

The mountain-cow free stands at Beaver Creek’s Red Tail Camp were packed with downhill-crazed, cowbell clanging fans even before the racing began at 11 a.m., Saturday. Some fans arrived at the race on skis and snowboards, while others snowshoed up the catwalk from Beaver Creek Village.

The World Cup race forced many in the crowd to ponder the difference between their recreational adventures on the slopes and the young men hurtling down the nauseatingly steep, icy course at speeds topping 70 and 80 mph.

“If the Broncos traded Brian Griese, I’d start rooting for them,” said Denver skier John Carter.

What are you talking about? Go back to the Front Range.

“I grew up with a lot of guys who raced, but none of them made it to this level,” said Christian Rebhun, a Vail native and Denver resident. “They got burned out. The World Cup racers have passion that’s amazing.”

That’s better. So how come the Europeans have traditionally had the edge on the American racers. We’ve got unbeatable snow and some fantastic ski hills here in the Rockies.

Something in the powder over there?

“When the Europeans are little kids, they want to be ski racers,” Rebhun said. “They don’t want to be football players or baseball players or tennis players.”

Does it have anything to do with cowbells? Do you have to start clanging them young?

“Don’t ask us difficult questions,” said Crouch, our mountain-cow spotting friend from the beginning of the story.

Well, ringing cowbells may rank just above watching soccer in popularity in the United States. But Rebhun said the Europeans do have slope-envy.

“It makes other countries jealous that we have a mountain like Beaver Creek,” Rebhun said.

So is downhill racing the absolute most dangerous thing to do on the planet? Ask golf superstar Tiger Woods, said Gus Pernetz, a longtime Vail Valley and U.S. Ski Team ski coach who now an Avon police officer.

“Tiger Woods was fishing with some friends of mine one year and he was asking about downhill racing,” Pernetz said. “He couldn’t believe that these guys go and risk their lives on a daily basis just to be pro-skiers.”

Surely, it’s not as dangerous as bullfighting.

“Imagine ski diving without a parachute,” Pernetz said. “These guys are doing 75-80 mph and all they have to protect them is a helmet and a back protector. If one of these guys makes a huge mistake, it could be their career, or their life.”

But Jay Livran, an Edwards resident who grew up in the valley, thought of something more dangerous than downhill racing.

“Dowd Junction,” Livran says. “Dowd Junction doesn’t have nets.”

So Jay, in your travels through Dowd Junction, are you the tailgated or one of the tailgaters that hang on other drivers’ bumpers at 70 mph during a raging blizzard.

“I probably get tailgated,” he said. “I think it’s all the city drivers doing the tailgating.”

Yes, ski racing may be dangerous, but it’s a good way to pick up girls – the kind of girls,at least, that can stand to be out-skied, said Vail’s Megan Coleman.

“It’s sexy, but it be hard to date a ski racer because they’d be showing you up all the time,” said Coleman, a former ski racer.

After slamming the Broncos troubled young quarterback, John Carter – our confusing friend from earlier in the article – spoke of his attempts to become a World Cup caliber racer.

“I tried a black diamond run –that really separates the men from the boys real quick,” Carter said. “I thought I was getting good, but I ended up going down about 100 feet on my butt.”

So what have we learned from this? It’s not just guts and confidence, Carter said.

“I told myself I was going to go for it today, but it’s more than confidence, it’s skill,” he said. “I’m 32 and if I can’t do the moguls and double-diamonds now, I never will.”

Carter’s friend, James Lundin, spoke of his attempts to make it up Interstate 70 to Summit County or Vail without going crazy.

“They should put in a monorail,” he said. “Get rid of the traffic.”

But Kris Knackendoffel, an aspiring young racer from western Colorado, offered a pretty good description of what it takes to excel at the downhill.

“It’s the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It takes strength agility and overcoming fear. It’s the desire for speed and the guts to want to do it. The guts to go fast.”

And the danger?

“It’s as dangerous as you want it to be,” Knackendoffel said.

“Look at Bode Miller,” he added, referring to the successful American racer. “He looks so out of control sometimes. I think he’s dangerous as hell.”

All this talk of ski-racing –and the Denver Broncos, mountain cows and Dowd Junction –brings us to our final, obvious topic: what there’s to do in Grand Junction on a Saturday afternoon.

“I wanted to get out of town,” said Knackendoffel’s friend Claire Findlay of why she left Grand Junction Saturday to come to the races at Beaver Creek.

But Findlay said she has no plans to leave western Colorado for San Francisco or Key West.

“Grand Junction’s kind of conservative,” she said. “Growing up in Grand Junction, you have to be kind of conservative.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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