The former Swiss star skier Didier Cuche once said: “There was only one time in my entire career where I was really scared – that was when I was about the start the Hahnenkamm race for the first time.” Just before you hear the start signal and before the gate opens your pulse quickens.
There is no turning back. From zero to 100 kilometres per hour in under four seconds, plus jumps of up to 80 metres and a g-force of up to 3 g. The Streif slope is not just extremely steep and fast, it also is legendary….and one of the hardest descents in the world. But those who overcome the 3.312 kilometres downhill and make it across the finish line unscathed are celebrated as heroes. In 2020 the Hahnenkamm race will celebrate its 80th anniversary which is an excellent reason to explore its tracks in the glittering snow.
Michael Huber, head of the organisational committee, says: “There is no start area that’s as quiet as the one on Streif. The atmosphere up there is unique.” The heart beats fast. The racers plunge down the steep start slope from an altitude of 1,665 metres after which an up to 80-metre jump leads them directly into “Mausefalle” where the gradient of 85 percent means the athletes have to give everything they’ve got. The name of this section, which translates to mouse trap, is said to have been coined by Anton Sailer, father of skiing legend Toni Sailer, who had to think of mice falling into an old wire-trap as he watched the athletes plunge into it.
From a promo run to one of the world’s hardest descents
In 1931 the first international Hahnenkamm race was organised as a promotion race in March – as proof that the slope was still good in springtime, too. Back then the race was already very popular, and the first racers started travelling to Kitzbühel for it. In 1931 Innsbruck news reported: “In perfect corn snow and stunning weather the racers plunged down the slope, the times can only be called extraordinary.” In 1937 Kitzbühel’s own Thaddäus Schwabl was the first to win the “classic” Streif race – even if the route was rather different from what it is today and made do with a minimum number of gates. Only in 1950 did the count of races start; in that year it was the 12th Hahnenkamm race – it remains a mystery up until this day, however, just how that number was conceived.
Out of the mousetrap and right into the carousel! Here the racers are exposed to a g-force of 3.1 g before covering a steep slope that is one of the most technically challenging part of the entire Streif. After that the “Brückenschuss” and “Gschöss” sections are passed at high speed: fast skis and excellent stamina count here. This part is followed by a short lateral jump into the tilted “Alte Schneise”. Right at the middle of the race track the Seidlalm jump has been awaiting athletes since 1994. Here the racers fly off into nowhere, they have to turn right during the jump to make it into the Seidlalm curve.
In the 1950s and 1960 several skiing legends from Kitzbühel became famous, among them were Ernst Hinterseer, Hias Leitner, Anderl Molterer, Fritz Huber, Christian Pravda, and, of course, Toni Sailer. They were seen as the wondrous skiing team from the City of the Chamois and collected a total of 27 Olympic and World Cup medals. Skiing ace Toni Sailer did not just win the Streif race twice in the mid-1950s, he also won the slalom, combination race, and super-G. “Schwarzer Blitz aus Kitz” (=the black flash from Kitzbühel) became the first media celebrity to become famous because of his skiing career. He ended his skiing career at the young age of 22 and spent his time as an actor and musician until his death in 2009. The premium brand Toni Sailer still stands for high-quality skiing gear and invokes nostalgic thoughts of the skiing legend from Kitzbühel.
After covering the Seidlalm curve, which is an almost 90-degree turn, and right after the “Lärchenschuss” section the athletes reach a challenging “S”. No time to lose your nerve here! They jump over the edge of Hausberg and go into a compression from which they take an energetic left turn into the Hausberg traverse. From here on the descent becomes bumpy, so it’s important to stick to the ideal racing line – at speeds of 100 to 110 kilometres per hour.
“It feels as if you’re on board a starfighter.”
No other skiing event captivates fans and athletes like this. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Niki Lauda, and Bernie Ecclestone – they have all been to Kitzbühel to experience the risky race as spectators. And each year between 40,000 and 50,000 others wait behind the finish line and in the finish stadium with them, to see who will win the race. More than 45 TV stations and 30 radio stations are present, too, they bring the event live into the living rooms of 262 million viewers.
And then, finally: the Grande Finale! The compression just before the final jump presses the racers onto the slope. Here they reach the highest speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour. Now all they need to do is squat down and soar across the finish line. Thundering applause fills the finish area.
“It feels like in a starfighter, only without the starfighter”, said the American ski racer Bode Miller when asked about the race. And even if Streif, with its sharp edges, challenging steep slopes, and bumps, is a career highlight for many skiers, they’re still playing with fire. On average about ten to 15 percent of the starters don’t reach the finish line. Falls on icy slopes cannot just put an end to a season but also a career. Still: nothing ventured, nothing gained. And – is it not the danger that makes Streif so appealing and legendary?
Swiss racer Didier Cuche plunged down the steep slope in spite of his fear and won the downhill World Cup. Not just once. Five times. A record that remains unbroken to this day.
Maximum gradient: 85 percent
Longest jump: 80 metres
Highest speed: 145 kilometres per hour
Record winner: Didier Cuche (CH) with five downhill victories
Local transport: 300 trains in three days