By Michael Mastarciyan
The name itself is fairly friendly sounding - almost cute - German for “rooster’s comb.”
In reality though, The Hahnenkamm which runs every January in Kitzbuehel, Austria, and it’s infamous downhill track - The Streif (which means “streak” in German) is the most difficult and terrifying track on the World Cup tour - the ultimate test of alpine skiing skill and courage.
The “terrifying” aspect of the course is probably a more accurate descriptor for the nearly one hundred thousand spectators who come to see the event (which also includes a Super-G and Combination race) in person, and for the millions and millions of television viewers around the world who are awestruck by the incredible speeds, sharp turns and huge jumps the racers navigate and endure racing down this track.
While most racers won’t admit to being terrified, most do admit there is some fear involved when racing on a track riddled with some of the most unbelievable steep sections and spectacular jumps (such as the Mausefalle and Steilhung) on the World Cup race circuit.
“Of course there is fear involved, Kitzbuehel is different from any other race when you are in the start. In Kitzbuehel you are a little scared or sometimes very scared. There’s not a lot of downhills that still do that to you. It’s just brutal, you start and the first 30 seconds is a mix of trying to be fast and trying to survive, so Kitzbuehel has a ‘different’ atmosphere,” says Norway’s alpine star Aksel Lund Svindal.
For Peter Fill, who grew up a stone’s throw away from the course in the Sud-Tirol region of Italy, fear is part and parcel of racing on The Streif.
“For sure every time I’m in the start I’ve felt fear, it’s a crazy course! The start is really steep and then you have the Mausefall - a really big jump, it’s very tough this downhill.”
Swiss alpine racing legend Bernhard Russi also believes there is a substantial fear factor that comes along with this race.
“A fear factor - definitely! The first time (at The Hahnenkamm) I was in the inspection and I was standing on the Mausefalle, and I have to say that at this time I was already number one in the world in Downhill from the previous year, and I couldn’t imagine how it was possible to ski it. Fortunately Karl Schranz came by, and I asked him, ‘Listen Karl, did you always ski like this? Was this (The Streif) always the same way?’ And he said, ‘Cool, what is the problem?’ So in the training run I had number one again and I never saw anyone go down (before me). And then in the race I had number one again so when I crossed the finish line I raised my hands without knowing my time or my result, I was just happy to be done.”
For Crazy Canuck Ken Read, who kicked off a four year Canadian domination of The Streif after winning the Hahnenkamm in 1980, the awe of being a competitor at the world’s most famous downhill made fear a non-factor his first time out.
“The first time I was in Kitzbuehel I was young, I was 19. I’d read about it in a book given to me by an early coach. So I had all the history and knew all the sections. To get there and actually see them was a dream come true. For me this was the highlight of the season, so being in the start gate, my coach actually had to tell me to slow down and ski within my means rather than try to go for it too much. No fear, full excitement, we were at the Super Bowl of ski racing and it was time to let it all hang out at the world’s toughest downhill.”
The “take” on this course from Canada’s current generation of ski racers is also quite interesting, with a definite slant on suppressing the course’s reputation of fear as a tactic for success.
“The winner of The Hahnenkamm doesn’t think The Hahnenkamm is scary, so I’m trying to get it into my head that Kitzbuehel isn’t scary because I want to dominate it. So when people ask me if Kitzbuehel is scary, I’m not going to answer them anymore unless they want to know why it’s not scary, and then I’ll tell them ‘It’s not scary because I’m one of the seven top downhill racers in the world and I think I can rely on my skiing skills to get me through a lot of stuff.’ If you want to be one of the best skiers in the world you have to race Kitzbuehel, and if you want to be known as one of the greatest skiers ever, you also have to race here and compete with the best in the world,” says Canadian Cowboy Manuel Osborne-Paradis.
The feeling is mutual for Osborne-Paradis’ teammate John Kucera, the reigning World Downhill champion who won’t be racing here this weekend due to a leg injury sustained in Lake Louise in 2009.
“It’s definitely a difficult track and an extremely intimidating venue, but the perception of the race is probably worse than the actual event itself. You just need to trust in your training and your ability and know that you have the skill set to conquer the track. Fear is part of every track out there what makes a champion is an athlete who deals with that the best.”
Norway’s Lund Svindal agrees, training and the confidence that comes from good preparation are best way to conquer any lingering fear a racer may have looking over the precipitous edge of the start hut and by all means, the best defense is a good offense.
“The key to conquering fear at The Hahnenkamm is preparation. You have to have a plan on how you’re going be fast. It shouldn’t be ‘how you’re going to deal with it,’ but ‘how you’re going to attack it.’ If you have a plan, and you believe in it, you focus on that plan and that’s how it is. And if you can’t really figure out the plan, that’s when real fear comes into the picture,” says Lund Svindal.
In the end, the simplest approach on conquering fear at the Hahnenkamm comes from Italy’s Peter Fill. According to the friendly Sud-Tiroler, the secret to conquering fear here is pretty straightforward - stop over-analyzing and just answer the bell when it tolls for you.
“There is a secret to conquer your fear (at The Hahnenkamm)...it’s ‘beep, beep, beep, beep, beep’... then there’s no more fear and I go down the course as fast as I can!”