Ski Racing 101: Your guide to Birds of Prey
You, too, can sound like an expert
BEAVER CREEK — Not everyone grew up here. Not everyone was here to watch Tamara McKinney win gold in the combined during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail in 1989.
And, as such, not everyone knows the about World Cup skiing and what the Xfinity Birds of Prey FIS World Cup ski races are. It’s OK to admit it. Most of us grew up in parts of the country where the World Cup is a strange quadrennial soccer tournament.
Thus, we give you Ski Racing 101, the answers to your questions.
What is the World Cup?
Consider it major league skiing in American sports parlance. The best skiers in the world compete at this level.
In format, it’s more like the PGA Tour. Each weekend during the winter, like golfers during the summer, the tour goes to venues around the world.
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After the traditional opening races in Soelden, Austria, in October and Levi, Finland, the men’s tour starts in earnest in Lake Louise, Alberta, during Thanksgiving weekend and comes here annually during the first weekend of December.
After Birds of Prey, both the men and the women, the latter are in Lake Louise this weekend, head to Europe for the rest of the season. The men’s World Cup’s next stop is in Val d’Isere, France.
What are the disciplines?
There are five different kinds of races, or disciplines — downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined.
Downhill and super-G are speed events. Giant slalom and slalom are technical, or tech events. As the name implies, combined is a mix of both.
The distance and speed involved decreases, while the need for turning increases as one goes from downhill to super-G to giant slalom, also known as GS, to slalom.
• Downhill is exactly what it sounds like — get down the hill as quickly as possible. There is one run in a downhill.
• Super-G is a shorter downhill with a few gates that racers are required to turn past. The kicker in super-G is that racers do not get to ski the course before race day. The morning of a super-G, the racers can inspect the course to get an idea of where the gates are, but this element usually leads to some surprises on race day. Like the downhill, there is just one run.
• GS — see, call it GS — is a two-run race. There are anywhere from 56 to 70 gates with gates relatively close together, as compared to slalom.
The entire field starts a GS or slalom, with only the top 30 racers advancing to the second run, where the fastest racer from the morning run goes last and the slowest qualifier goes first.
This is called, “making the flip.” The racer with the lowest combined time from the two runs wins.
• Slalom has the same number of gates as GS, but they are closer in vertical distance together, testing the racer’s agility to the maximum. Like GS, slalom is a two-run race with only 30 making the flip. (See, the lingo makes you sound smart.)
What is being raced this week?
Now that you know what the disciplines are, here we go.
• The men race super-G on Friday at 10:45 a.m.
• It’s downhill on Saturday at 11 a.m.
• Giant slalom is set for Sunday, with the first run starting at 9:45 a.m. and the second run at 12:45 p.m.
How are season titles determined?
The top 30 finishers in each race receive points based on their finish. For example, the winner gets 100 points, while the second-place finisher gets 80, etc.
By the way, in a two-run race, just making the flip doesn’t guarantee points. In the GS, slalom and combined, racers must finish both runs.
Racers rack up points in each of the disciplines, downhill, super-G, GS, slalom and combined, as the season goes through mid-March. The racer with the most points in a discipline wins that year’s World Cup discipline championship and gets a crystal globe for his or her efforts.
Whoever racks up the most points from all five disciplines from the entire season is the World Cup champion, and gets another globe for that.
The defending men’s World Cup champion is Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, and he won it eight years in a row. However, he retired this fall. The big question on the men’s side this season is who fills the void? Lots of racers are now in the hunt.
Mikaela Shiffrin is the three-time defending women’s champion, and she is already leading the points in her quest for a fourth.
What do Worlds and Olympics have to do with the World Cup?
Absolutely nothing statistically.
Shiffrin has won the slalom at the world championships, held biennially, in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019, and won the Olympics slalom in 2014 and giant slalom in 2018. Those seven wins — she won super-G also last winter — do not count toward Shiffrin’s 62 World Cup wins.
This doesn’t make much sense, as a skier’s record at world championships, which were held here in 1989, 1999 and 2015, is a very big deal and considered one of the measures of his or her legacy.
The 2019-20 season is the only year in a four-year cycle without worlds or Olympics, yet these events are not far from anyone’s mind. The 2021 worlds are in Cortina, Italy. The 2022 Olympics are in Beijing.
So who could do well this week?
Predicting ski racing is dangerous business. One is more likely to be wrong than right. That’s the nature of having the best in the world going at each other each week.
But, as we’ve mentioned, on the men’s side, Hirscher has retired, so the men’s race for the World Cup title is wide open. The top five returning ski racers from the 2018-19 season are France’s Alexis Pinturault, Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, Italy’s Dominik Paris, Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr and Switzerland’s Beat Feuz.
Is there home-snow advantage?
Yes, which brings us to the U.S. Ski Team. For the men, this is the only weekend racing in their home country. This weekend caps the two weeks the World Cup spends in North America before heading to Europe for months. These races are home games for the Americans.
Ted Ligety has six GS wins on this course, but the speedsters have also had success at Birds of Prey. Travis Ganong skied to worlds downhill silver here in February 2015. Steve Nyman has three podiums here in his career.
How do you watch Birds of Prey?
As of this writing, there is no skier access to the course. That could change as the week proceeds. We’ll post updates as warranted. Beaver Creek, as a World Cup host, has gotten its shuttle-bus service down to an art form. Park in the lots, and hop the bus to Beaver Creek Village. The bus to the finish stadium at Red Tail will be right there.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, firstname.lastname@example.org and @cfreud.