Kitzbuehel, skiing's version of Monaco GP

Kitzbühel (Austria) (AFP) –


Ski racers will take to the icy Kitzbuehel pistes this weekend in the alpine version of the Monaco Grand Prix: a heady mix of thrills and spills allied with fur-lined glitz and glamour.

As 50,000 baying fans swell the arrival area, racers wearing only skin-tight catsuits and helmets negotiate the 3.3km-long Streif course down the Hahnenkamm mountain.

At times the gradient is 85% and racers hit 100km/h (60mph) within eight seconds of leaving the startgate.

The course falls, snakes and rolls, sending competitors barreling through a wide variety of terrain, in parts propelling them 60 metres in the air, only for them to quickly re-align for icy traverses that severely test technical ability and mastery of well-honed equipment.

Sebastien Vettel, Germany's four-time world Formula One champion, said: "What Monaco is to Formula One, Kitzbuehel is indeed to skiing.

"Everyone is interested in Monaco, everyone is interested in the Streif. There are people into the racing, but of course also the trappings."

There is no doubt that the Hahnenkamm weekend represents an often alcohol-fuelled rite of passage for the thousands of young Tyroleans who travel into the resort, knocking back beers and Jagermeister, the 61 degree proof herbal liqueur of choice, on packed early morning trains.

Champagne flows for the better-heeled audience, including the glitterati of Austrian high society, as the race produces an unashamedly voyeuristic spectacle.

There have been several gruesome crashes in the white-knuckled downhill over the years.

Sliding bodies, flailing skis and helicopter evacuations have become a regular feature and quickly silence the crowd.

A raised pole in recognition from a felled skier is greeted by raucous applause followed by deafening roars for the next competitor's breath-taking descent in what becomes a gladitorial insight into the draw of the ultimate alpine skiing test: its inherent danger.

- Not crazy -

Formula One star Vettel denied, however, that skiers were "crazy".

"When you grow into the sport from an early age, you deal with the risks differently from someone who doesn't have so much to do with it. It would be crazy if everyone tested themselves on the Streif."

Both ski racing and Formula One, he added, "are still dangerous, even if standards have improved in recent years. Of course, skiers are more exposed. I have great respect for these athletes".

Bernhard Russi, the designer of Olympic downhill courses for the International Ski Federation since 1980, having previously won a gold and silver in the Olympic downhills for Switzerland in 1972 and 1976, added that a ski racer's "risk management" was the same as a Formula One driver's.

"If the latter goes full tilt into a chicane and he crashes, he cannot complain, it's his fault," he told AFP.

Weeks of preparing the course to make it as quick as possible remove it from the realms of even the keenest of amateur skiers.

Marcel Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, said he wouldn't even contemplate tackling the slalom course on a weekend warrior's skis.

"I wouldn't even get to the first gate," the Austrian said. "The binding would rip out at the start. And if not, I'd be out at the first swing because the edges wouldn't withstand the pressure on a prepared piste on the most basic level.

"Just like you wouldn't be able to drive a rally car on a snowy track with just summer tyres and no spikes.

"With unprofessional material, I couldn't even check out the slope. I'd just be sliding, and braking or standing would be impossible. Believe me, there's not a chance."

Ex-racer Daniel Albrecht is one skier who crashed badly on the Streif.

He suffered a traumatic brain injury after losing control as he battled creeping exhaustion and a 3.5G centrifugal force to change direction into the final descent of a training run in 2009.

Albrecht said he was fortunate to "have no memories of the accident".

"Nonetheless, if I were to go back in time, I would still do everything the same," he said. "The feelings, the experiences a skier goes through in such extreme situations are difficult to find elsewhere in life."

Harti Weirather, who won the downhill in 1982, said: "Every time I stand up at the start line, I think to myself: 'It's a good thing I don't have to go down there anymore'.

"It is the greatest ambition for every skier to stand on top of the Hahnenkamm podium. It really is the highlight of every skier's racing career, in addition to winning Olympic gold."