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Kitzbuehel downhill's giddying start to a white circus

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Kitzbühel (Austria) (AFP)

The giddying view from the start hut says it all about the fabled men's downhill at Kitzbuehel, widely regarded as the most prestigious and demanding on the World Cup circuit.

Overlooking the wide, snow-covered valley below, racers set off on the thigh-trembling 3.3km-long Streif course from a vertiginous start that sees them reach 100km/h in the first five seconds.

On foot, reaching the start hut doesn't even feel safe, as if one missed step will send you flying down the mountain, such is the steepness of the slope.

"When you start the first time, it looks impossible," Austrian double Olympic gold medallist Benni Raich tells a party of avid ski enthusiasts, wide-eyed in admiration for something far beyond the realms of the average weekend skier.

"But if you are prepared, if you are technically good, you have to try it, to test yourself against the myth."

Austrian racer Daniel Danklmaier admitted to wondering what sane person would do it.

"When you're at the start hut you think: Why would I do this to myself? But that's what makes it all the more rewarding once you reach the bottom."

Canadian Ken Read, now 64, was the first non-European to win the Hahnenkamm downhill, back in 1980, and is in town to watch one of his sons race.

"The respect that racers, host and locals have for the Hahnenkamm is one-of-a-kind," Read said.

"You need to be at peak fitness, in your best condition. If that isn't the case, you're better off giving it a miss. The Streif is demanding. She can eat you up and spit you out."

Retired Swiss racer Didier Cuche holds the record of five downhill wins on the mountain named after a rooster's comb and was quick to play up its dangers.

"You cannot take it for granted that you will get down this racecourse safe and sound," Cuche said. "What makes it so special is that it is an incredibly dangerous racecourse. And the atmosphere is unparalleled."

Saturday's 80th running of the downhill, which made its debut in 1931, will see racers reaching motorway-coasting speeds of 140km/h while negotiating sections that have an 85% gradient.

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

- Alpine Monaco GP -

While the ski racers provide the alpine version of the Monaco Grand Prix, the heady mix of thrills and spills is allied with fur-lined glitz and glamour.

Viktoria Veider-Walser, general manager of Kitzbuehel tourism office, told AFP the weekend was a boon for the Tyrolean town.

"There are around 90,000 visitors coming to Kitzbuehel for the three days of racing," she said, adding that the weekend also cut through social strata.

"It's a sports festival so the range of visitors is nicely mixed and we think that also gives it a particular charm. Ski enthusiasts stand right besides ministers, all admiring the course and the athletes going down the Streif."

There is no doubt that the Hahnenkamm weekend represents an often alcohol-fuelled rite of passage for the thousands of young locals 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.

- Gruesome crashes -

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 gladiatorial insight into the draw of the ultimate alpine skiing test: its inherent danger.

Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, who retired from ski racing last season after a glittering career, dubs the weekend a "circus".

"It's part of what makes Kitzbuehel so fascinating and so unique. You've got the Streif, one of the most difficult - if not the most difficult - pistes in the world. That alone is already very special, and then you have all the sideshows. You won't find anything comparable in professional skiing," he said.

Seeing the Streif, Svindal said, elicits a "mixture of nervousness, excitement, even a bit of joyful anticipation. From that point on, you know: it's about to get real."

"To be honest, I'm happy I can be more relaxed in Kitzbuehel this year and don't have to go down again."

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