The Austrian resort of Kitzbühel is situated along the Kitzbühel Ache River, in the region of Tyrol. The area's first documented settlers arrived sometime between 1100 BC and 800 BC, when the Illyrians of northern Greece arrived in search of copper. In modern times the town has become one of Austria's best known winter resorts, situated in the valley between the Hahnenkamm (1712m at its peak) and the Kitzbühel Horn (1996m at its peak) mountains.
The actual ski race takes place on the Hahnenkamm Mountain, and includes one of the circuit's most important events, the downhill race on the famous Streif slope, which is considered to be one of the hardest slopes in the downhill world cup.
The Hahnenkammrennen are the annual races, which take place on the Hahnenkamm Mountains. Held for the first time in 1931, it has been a firm fixture in the men's World Cup since its inception in the 1966-67 season, and are traditionally held in the second half of January just after the Lauberhorn races in Wengen, Switzerland.
The Hahnenammrennen usual consist of three races; the Super-G on the Friday held on the Streifalm slope, the Downhill on Saturday on the Strief slope, and on the Sunday the Slalom on the Ganslernhang.
Trouble & Streif
As a result of the harsh January weather atop the mountain, the downhill, course is at times not run in its entirety. However, when in all its glory it does witness one of the most exciting jumps in alpine ski racing, the Mausefalle (mousetrap), which is situated close to the top of the course.
The jump is often reached at high speeds, considering competitors can accelerate greatly upon leaving the starting gate often resulting in jumps of up to 80 meters. Following the leap, skiers are grated by a severe compression and almost instantly a sharp left turn, which has resulted in the undoing of more than one competitor.
The Streif course is usually set out over 3.3km in length, with the starting gate is situated at an elevation of 1665m above sea level and descends roughly half the mountain to reach a final elevation of 805m. The slope's gradient reaches a maximum of 40.4 degrees (85%), however overall the incline is not as punishing, with an average gradient of 15.1 degree (27%).
The Streif slope consists of 12 individual sections: Startschuss, Mausefalle, Karusell, Steilhang, Brückenschuss & Gschöss, Alte Schneise, Seidlalmsprung, Lärchenschuss, Hausberg, Querfahrt, Zielschuss, and Rasmusleitn.
The Startschuss is the starting point of the Streif. As the skiers come up to the gate, they are confronted by an awe-inspiring wall of undulating and almost uninterrupted ice. Straight out the gate and the competitor must strive to pick up as much speed as he can, then a right turn, followed by a left turn, and then the well-known Mausefalle, to be challenged with grim determination.
At this point skiers are travelling at a speed of over 110 km/h; here is the harshest gradient on the course and is the point most likely to catch challengers unaware. It is not uncommon for skiers to travel up to 80 meters in the air at this point, but before you know it, a severe compression and nasty left turn rear their heads. No small number of skiers has risked and lost the race at this point.
The left turn leads straight into another right turn, known as the Karusell, an unforgiving S-turn which does not give the skier any rest bite. The decision of when to turn is made by instinct and it as at this point that those naturally talented usually stand-out. The turn will cost a skier about half his speed, he may well come in at around 100km/h, but will be more likely than not slowed down to 40 or 50 km/h. This is arguably the most technical and most difficult tract of any race in the entire World Cup circuit.
A perfect balance between speed and safety has to be achieved. If the skier tries to play it safe, and keeps high, then they will lose speed and come into the next tract too slow, if on the other hand the skier tries to force the pace they will most likely get caught up in the safety nets. There is a considerable gradient at this point, and it is imperative that skiers rebuild their speed at this point, because next up is the Brückenschuss & Gschöss, little more than a mountain road, lasting a good 15 seconds, which gives competitors a very badly needed chance to reorganize their thoughts.
However it is very important for the skier to have very quick skis, if they lose speed at this point then it could cost them the entire race. After the mountain trail the competitor reaches the Alte Schneise, a tract of the course with a reasonable gradient, often quite bumpy and also very icy, with a minor jump.
Next up is the Seidlalmsprung, the newest part of the course, introduced in the mid-90s, which leads back to the traditional course with a jump; it is important skiers limit their jump at this point. By now the skier is about half way through the course, and if they hope to challenge for the leadership, they will have reached here in no more than a minute.
Next is a high speed tract, known as Lärchenschuss. The gradient is reasonable; the entrance is a high speed rightward turn where skiers will again be looking to pick up speed. The main problem at this point is the lack of light, which makes it tricky to determine the terrain.
The skier is now coming to the end of the race, another two sections and finally a well deserved rest.
The first is an easy enough tract of the course which allows the competitor some breathing space, a couple of quick right-left turns and straight into the Hausberg. A jump and a quick compression on the turn (known as the Zielschuss), forcing the athlete to land almost on the edges of their skies. The finish gate is now in sight at the end of a large wall. Initially the wall is crossed diagonally, with an incredible gradient, which pulls the skier down to the right. This part is really nasty; especially considering the skier is emotionally and physically drained.
Now the skiers come to the end of the race, but before they can finally relax there is one more challenge to overcome. Coming into the last traverse, the competitors must be careful, if they come into it too strongly then the gradient will force them down the wall, on very bumpy terrain, which takes a lot out of already tired legs.
On the other hand, if the skier managed to start the last tract quite high, then they come on to the fastest section of the race, a tract of the course allowing speeds of up to 155km/h, followed by the last jump.
Quite a dangerous jump, which can send the skier flying through the air for up to 60 meters, so at this point, in order for the skier to complete the race, they must be perfectly composed. Upon landing it would be most natural to relax, but that is the final challenge of the Streif, because now the arrival is in sight, but the terrain is still very tricky.
A few more seconds of concentration and finally the race is completed. The first thought to leap unbidden into the mind of any skier is, "I did it, I'm still in one piece". Only after that will the competitor check his time, and if lucky, has reason to celebrate.
The record time for the 3.3km downhill race was set in 1997 by Fritz Stobl of Austria at 1:51.58, with an average speed of 106.9km/h. Europeans tend to be more successful on the Kitzbühel downhill slope.
The first non-European athlete to take top spot was Canadian Ken Read in 1980 with a time of 2:04.93, and was followed up by another three consecutive wins by Canadian skiers. The first of which was Steve Podborski in 1981, who improved on Read's result with a time of 2:03.76. In 1982 Steve Podborski repeated, with an even better time of 1:57.24.
The final Canadian skier to win the Kitzbühel stage of the World Cup was Todd Brooker with a time of 2:01.96. Since then the only non-European competitor to triumph in Kitzbühel has been the America Daron Rahlves in 2003. Rahlves won on a modified version of the Streif course, which had been shortened to 2km because of fog. On this shorter course Rahlves managed a time of 1:09.63.
The Streif Downhill winner has been Austrian-born an impressive 21 times in the 41 years that Kitzbühel has been a part of the World Cup circuit. The second most successful nation at Kitzbühel is Switzerland; Swiss skiers have won the downhill race 12 times, including the 2008 race when Didier Cuche emerged victorious with a time of 1:52.75.
After that the most successful nations have been Canada and France (both with four victories), Norway (three times), Germany (two victors) followed by Italy and Luxemburg (both with a single winner). The race was not been held on six occasions, the last time was in 2007, when a shortage of snow forced the organizers to cancel this stage of the World Cup.
The most successful competitors have been Luc Alphard (France), Franz Klammer and Karl Schranz (both Austrian) and Franz Heinzer (Swiss). Alphard won it twice in 1995 and then again in 1997. Klammer managed to achieve three successive wins from 1975 through until1977 (a single race was held on all three years).
Schranz won the third World Cup edition of the race in 1969 and then won it twice in 1972: technically also winning it three times in a row because the race was not held in either 1970 or 1971. Heinzer, like Schranz, managed to win three races in two years, in 1991 and then twice the following year.
This year a third athlete could join these four on three victories if Didier Cuche manages to come first. Cuche not only won last year's event, but also managed to win the Streif race back in 1998.