Highway to Hell: Mayer wins famed Kitzbuehel downhill

Kitzbühel (Austria) (AFP)


Austrian Matthias Mayer delighted home fans by streaking to a classy victory in Saturday's fabled downhill in Kitzbuehel, the most prestigious and testing on the World Cup circuit.

Mayer, gold medallist in downhill at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and in the super-G in 2018, clocked 1min 56.59sec down the thigh-trembling 3.3km-long Streif course on the Hahnenkamm mountain.

Mayer's teammate Vincent Kriechmayr and Switzerland's Beat Feuz, winner of the Wengen downhill last weekend and already three times second-placed in the Austrian resort, tied for second, at 0.22sec.

It was perhaps telling that the deafening music played over the tannoy for Mayer's run was AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell', given the exigencies of a course with a gradient of 85% in parts and where racers hit an eye-watering 100km/h (60mph) within five seconds of leaving the startgate.

The 29-year-old Austrian laid down a near-perfect line to master a course that falls, snakes and rolls, sending competitors barrelling 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.

In a race often dubbed alpine skiing's equivalent to the Monaco Grand Prix, Mayer demonstrated a perfectly weighted "risk management" reminiscent of a successful Formula One driver's: go full tilt into a chicane and you're asking for trouble.

Streaking through the line, having battled creeping exhaustion and a 3.5G centrifugal force to change direction into the final descent, Mayer looked upwards, hands raised, confident of victory to add to his super-G triumph on the same slope back in 2017.

Australian heavy rock was replaced by an Austrian marching song, the 50,000-strong crowd clapping in unison amid flares, flags and fiery alcohol, baying "Mayer" in response to the emcee's "Matthias?".

There have, needless to say, 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.

There were a few crashes on Saturday, American Ryan Cochran-Siegle, Austrian Otmar Striedinger, Italian Peter Fill and German Manuel Schmid all bombing out, but seemingly without serious injury.

At each fall, the packed tribune quickly falls silent, the music and big screen images cut for an odd silence to fall over the well-lubricated spectators.

Striedinger's slide into the safety netting left onlooking Mayer clutching his head and puffing out his cheeks in sympathy.

A raised pole in recognition from a felled skier untangling himself from the nets and gingerly refinding his feet is then 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.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder/actor-cum-California governor was one of those cheering, as was American actor Patrick Dempsey, who has moved into competing in pro-am auto racing events such as the Le Mans and Daytona endurance races.

"I always wanted to be a ski racer," the former 'Grey's Anatomy' heart-throb said. "I'm really excited to be here."