Downhill still a thrill at Vail Ski Classic |

Downhill still a thrill at Vail Ski Classic

Ian Cropp
Vail, CO Colorado
SPT 1 american ski classsic downhill KA 03-27-08

VAIL, Colorado ” Skiers love the event, but even some of the most accomplished downhill racers can’t point their tips without reservations.

On Thursday at the American Ski Classic in Vail, legends of the sport flew down Golden Peak at speeds that would normally get their lift tickets clipped.

“You can’t go out and ski like that on a regular hill ” patrol will get after you,” said Steve Mahre, who took second in the downhill. “That’s one of the reasons you come here. You can go as hard as you want.”

But not without a bit of caution.

“It takes a few runs, then you get back into your tuck and go as fast as you dare,” said Holly Flanders, a great U.S. downhill skier in the 80s who was third in the women’s downhill Thursday.

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Austrian Peter Wirnsberger, who has the most downhill starts of any World Cup racer and back-to-back World Cup wins on what is the scariest course in the world ” the Hanenkamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria ” checked a bit of his pride at the starting gate Thursday.

“I retired in 1992, and time does not stop. If I look at my passport, I see my age. In my head I’m still 25. It makes a huge difference. On the course, I have to realize I have to be safe, but it’s tough,” he said. “At the starting gate, you meet the same guys you met years before when you were on the World Cup. So the spirit comes up again. When you are on the course, you realize you could cut more of the line, then it’s much more dangerous. I had to keep in mind my age. The downhill is always on the edge, having fun. It’s dangerous, too.”

Women’s winner Michaela Gerg threw her previous downhill caution into the wind.

“This was the first time I haven’t been scared,” she said. “Last year, I was a little scared. There were jumps, and you only ski once a year with these long skis.”

Almost all of the racers competing Thursday spend their time on the hill freeskiing, and even those who do still train and race don’t strap on the 210-centimeter downhill sticks.

“I felt pretty good. It’s fun to go 75, 80 miles per hour again,” said Otto Tschudi, who was back on the hill after hip surgery earlier this season.

While he still isn’t quite up to the level of the Phil Mahre of 25 years ago, Mahre is certainly dominating the field like he used to. Phil Mahre not only won the race based on his handicapped time, but he also had the fastest gross time.

“Because I’m getting back into racing, that helps a lot,” Mahre said. “I said 50 is the new 30. I don’t feel a day over 30. I love what I do and have a passion for the sport still.”

Without much training, Steve Mahre still looked sharp.

“I skied well, a couple mistakes here and there, but that’s what happens when you don’t do gate running,” he said. “I’ll have to (beat Phil) heads up somehow. I don’t even get a handicap ” he’s older by four minutes, so I’m at a disadvantage there.”

Gerg, after several second-place finishes in years past, was glad to stand atop the podium Thursday.

“I always got second behind Laurie (Graham) or Toril (Forland),” Gerg said.

Forland took silver for the second time in as many races, while Flanders was third, and Graham was fourth. Wirnsberger was third in the men’s race.

Recently retired U.S. Men’s Ski Team head coach Phil McNichol got a chance to take some runs with a full set of gear. “It’s nice to ski with poles,” he said. McNichol spent most of his coaching career on the hill shuttling around without poles. Swedish skier and Edwards resident Patrick Jaerbyn, who is recovering from a knee injury, was out on the slopes for a few runs.

Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or

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