Kitzbuehel ready for glitz and glamour, thrills and spills

The hallowed downhill race in Kitzbuehel sees winners proclaimed gods after mastering the most challenging run on the World Cup, but has also been witness to some horrific crashes that have illuminated the sport's dangers.

Switzerland's Daniel Albrecht was one of the notable unfortunates on the Streif course down the Hahnenkamm mountain overlooking Kitzbuehel, in its ever-ready festival of skiing that features a heady mix of thrills and spills allied with fur-lined glitz and glamour.

Albrecht, a promising Swiss racer who was crowned world combined champion in 2007, lost control on a training run in 2009 as he came through to the finish line of a training run.

He took off at the final jump at almost 140km/h, sailing in the air for 70 metres before a crushing landing on his back that left him with a traumatic brain injury and three weeks in an induced coma.

It was something he described as "an absolute turning point".

"When I was told about the accident, the first thing I wanted to do was see what happened and then get back on my skis as quickly as possible," said Albrecht, who has since made a full recovery.

"My training had been well balanced, my equipment was perfectly tailored to suit me. In terms of fitness I had never performed better and the mood among the athletes was great, especially in my own team. And, on top of all that, it was Kitzbuehel.

"I don't need to tell anyone the significance of that race for every ski racer. To win there just once means automatically achieving the status of a legend."

Therein lies the dilemma for the rare handful of ski racers who have the physical ability, technique and downright bravado to pitch themselves down a 3.3km-long course with seemingly scant regard to their own safety.

The now-retired Norwegian legend Aksel Lund Svindal, a three-time super-G winner in Kitzbuehel, said in the film "Streif – One Hell of a Ride" that "the piste is uncompromising, it's your body that's the weak point".

Michael Huber, president of the Kitzbuehel Ski Club, says he likes "to compare it to the Formula One race in Monaco".

"The downhill race on the Streif is certainly the most famous ski race in the world," added Roswitha Stadlober, a former slalom racer on the women's World Cup circuit who now heads up the Austrian Ski Federation.

- Bottle of risk -

Norway's Aleksander Aamodt Kilde will be among the contenders for victoy in two downhills scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

"Downhill is dangerous, but also it's not dangerous when you sort of know what you're doing. I'm not that often scared, it's about how much I want to risk," Kilde said.

"You have a bottle filled with risk, when do you want to empty that bottle?"

Racers are vying for prize money of 100,000 euros ($108,000), part of a 1m-euro pot on offer for three days of racing in the upmarket Austrian resort.

It is a guaranteed thigh-trembling descent, which made its debut in 1931 and now sees the skiers reach motorway-coasting speeds while negotiating sections that have an 85-percent gradient and battling crippling centrifugal forces.

The icy course, which has a stomach-churning vertiginous start that propels racers to 100km/h in five seconds, features falls, snakes and rolls through a wide variety of terrain.

And so comes into play the so-called "risk management": how much a racer is able to push himself, much like a Formula One driver, in the knowledge that one slight error might mean hurtling into some of the 15km of nets and fencing down the course.

- Gladitorial -

After a couple of seasons of Covid-19 restrictions, it is now open doors for an estimated 90,000-strong crowd for the Kitzbuehel weekend, a heady mix between champagne-drinking glitterati and young locals revelling in an alcohol-fuelled rite of passage.

Their presence will ensure an unashamedly voyeuristic spectacle.

A raised pole in recognition from a felled skier untangling himself from the nets and gingerly refinding his feet is greeted by applause followed by roars for the next competitor's breath-taking descent in what becomes a gladiatorial insight into the draw of the ultimate alpine skiing test: its inherent danger.

"You stand on start and everything’s just zero," Kilde said of downhill racing.

"As soon as you push out the gate you have a sort of feeling and you bring that feeling all the way through to the finish and it’s a great moment."

American Daron Rahlves, winner in 2003, added: "There is nothing bigger in the ski world than racing on the Streif."