Skiing’s Most Intense 30 Seconds

A World Cup downhill champion shares how he won the Hahnenkamm

PHOTO: David Reddick

In Kitzbühel, Austria, there is a downhill venue like no other, hallowed ground to the men and women of speed, past and present. The Hahnenkamm races start with a super-G on Friday, January 20, followed by the downhill Saturday and a slalom on Sunday.

All dream of winning here, nearly all come away humbled. But despite its punishing reputation for pushing the limits of every racer's physical and psychological capabilities, the Hahnenkamm remains a beckoning siren.

They come here as if on a pilgrimage to discover some inner strength that may surface as they face their own mortality. Those who have raced the Streif describe this classic downhill with a seemingly scripted line: It's the most intense 30 seconds in ski racing.

Like gladiators, racers emerge from a hushed start house to a coliseum full of boisterous spectators. But before tripping the start wand, clarity of purpose flushes all thought and distraction dissolves as each racer readies to push onto the first of four adrenalin-pumping sections.

The Startschuss is the steepest, fastest start on tour where in less than 10 heartbeats the racer launches off the Mausefalle jump—flying 80 meters through the air at 75-plus mph onto the compression landing of the Karusell S turns. Immediately, they race across the infamous Steilhang—the high-speed fall-away turn where, in 2008, Bode Miller (USA) literally rode his left ski up the Quattro-bannered fencing and, with shear athletic ability and steely nerve, managed to get back on the race surface to finish second.

The Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria, is known to be the most daunting of all downhills on the World Cup circuit. PHOTO: David Reddick

Kitzbühel has been a major tour stop since the establishment of the World Cup circuit in 1967. Jean Claude Killy (FRA) was the first Hahnenkamm downhill winner. But the podium has been dominated by two nations: Austria with 22 wins and Switzerland with 15.

It took 13 years for the first non-European to raise a different red and white flag. A fearless Canadian racer, Ken Read, climbed the top step in 1980, leading what became an all-out assault on European downhill courses by a small band of speed-specialists who World Cup founder Serge Lang named "The Crazy Canucks." (In the pre-World Cup era, Buddy Werner (USA) was the first non-European to win the Hahnenkamm in 1959. The next American to win the race was Daron Rahlves, in 2003.)

Teammates Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, and Steve Podborski—the first non-European to win the World Cup downhill title—joined Read in a Canadian dominance of downhill that spanned from 1980 until 1983, collecting a combined 39 World Cup podiums—14 for wins. POWDER spoke with history-making point man, Ken Read, 61, about his Hahnenkamm experience and its stature in ski racing.

We've arrived at the downhill. The 1980 season had been one of frustration for me. I had been skiing and training well but kept having small mishaps. The combination of the Steilhang entrance continued to give me some difficulty. I was fast, but not fast enough, not carrying enough speed out onto the cat track.

I remember every nuance of my run. But the [section] that stands out is diving into the Steilhang, seeing the outside fence for the first time, because I was looking for it, and going! I remember initiating the fall-away right hand turn and feeling it all come together as I carved across the Steilhang exit and onto the Brückenschuss.

On the Streif, you push to the limit, but never past it. You use your experience to explore just how far you can go and tactically think through where you can take risks to find precious hundredths and where you must be prudent and respect the mountain.

When I crossed the finish line [wearing bib] No. 11, I knew I had nailed the most important sections, the Steilhang and Hausberg. All the work invested in the fall had paid off. I felt a sense of relief that the first [major] race of the winter had all come together.

Festive crowds gather at the finish line to witness the carnage and glory. The Hahnenkamm finish line in 2013. PHOTO: David Reddick

I loved this downhill. From that race in 1980, I posted three more podiums. I never felt or tried to push myself beyond what was possible, this is not how you race the Streif. You respect it, you embrace it, you celebrate it and in turn, it will show you subtle tricks to become one with the mountain.

When you win the Hahnenkamm, you've conquered the toughest downhill in the world. I was the first Canadian male and the first non-European in the World Cup era to win, and that itself was the reward. To join the list of ski racing greats was humbling.

Being a 'Crazy Canuck' has been a badge of honor. We built a culture where everyone pulled their weight, was expected to aim high, and did not slack, ever. Our success was based on a highly competitive training environment where each of us built on our strengths and measured our progress against the strength of our teammates. We pushed each other hard, but were supportive and collaborative.

This was the moment we felt Canada had arrived as a downhill racing nation. Our extra effort paved the way to the "era of Canadian Domination," as the Hahnenkamm organizers called the four years of Canadian wins (1980-1983).

I have deep respect for the tradition and history of our sport. I was able to have a dream as a youngster to one day race on these tracks, to challenge the famous and infamous sections, and to come away a winner. Those six days were without a doubt the pinnacle of my career.

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US Athletes scheduled to race Hahnenkamm Downhill
Travis Ganong: Squaw Valley, California
Steven Nyman: Sundance and Park City, Utah
Andrew Weibrecht: Lake Placid and the New York Ski Education Foundation
Tommy Biesemeyer: New York Ski Education Foundation
Bryce Bennett: Squaw Valley, California
Jared Goldberg: Snowbird Sports Education Foundation

Top Picks for the 2017 Hahnenkamm Downhill
Peter Fill (ITA): won in 2016 by a strong margin, has this course dialed
Beat Feuz (SUI): was second in 2016, has 25 top-10 DH finishes
Carlo Janka (SUI): third in 2016, has strong track record on tough DH courses
Aksel Lund Svindal (NOR): injured here in 2106, seeks redemption, has 24 WC DH podiums
Steven Nyman (USA): his physical and mental strength give him a good podium shot

Broadcast times for all events: Check listings for schedule changes
Super G: 1/20/17
Streaming NBCSports.com 5:30 am ET
TV Universal HD 2:30 pm ET

Downhill: 1/21/17
Streaming NBCSports.com 5:30 am ET
TV NBCSN 4:30 pm ET

Slalom: 1/22/17
Run 1—Streaming NBCSports.com 4:30 am ET
Run 2—Streaming NBCSports.com 7:30 am ET
TV NBCSN 4:00 pm ET