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18 Януари 2012 - 15:31
Hahnenkamm-Races: The Sun Shines On The Streif
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ALPINE SKI. When the weather gods play the game, Kitzbühel is like no other. The pistes were busy early today as visitors flocked to the slopes in search of prime snow and sun. They were not disappointed. Nor were most of the 65 professional skiers who took their turn on the Streif, the second training run ahead of Saturday's Hahnenkamm Downhill.

Ted Ligety (USA) in Downhill Training 2, Photo by: Rolex / Kurt Arrigo

The Streif showed its teeth though, claiming three runners, including Ivica Kostelic. None were hurt, all three skiing to the finish. But, the course had made its point. Even in the sunshine this is no joyride to be taken lightly. In the words of Patrik Jaerbyn (SWE) the oldest skier competing, "no matter if you are fifth or thirty-fifth, if you cross the finish line here you beat the mountain."

Unsurprisingly, a familiar name topped the leaderboard once everyone was down. It was only training, but when Didier Cuche (SUI) flew off the Zielsprung and through the finish, stopping the clock on the Rolex Official Timing board at 1:58:10 it was clear that the sun had not gone to his head. A message to the young pretenders: the current king of Kitzbühel is not rolling over just yet. Klaus Kroell (AUT) raised Austrian hopes briefly holding a joint lead with Julian Clarey (FRA), until Cuche knocked three-tenths off their time. Saturday is another day, but this was a win for Switzerland in the psychological battle of the 72nd Hahnenkamm-Races.

Preparation makes perfect
Peter Obernauer has been the Kitzbüheler Ski Club Race Director for some 20 years. Over that time he has built up a team that sets the example in race management in the alpine ski world. A team capable of tackling any challenge set by the International Ski Federation (FIS) or even the weather. "Starting work on the course depends upon the temperature and amount of snow," he explains. "Typically, work starts up to two months beforehand, the real work beginning two and a half weeks before the race. This year, two weeks ago, after we had already prepared a good base as far as the Hausberg, we had one and a half to two metres of fresh snow! So much that it is about 20 or 30 years since I remember something similar. Natural snow requires much more work than artificial snow to get the racecourse as difficult and icy as the Streif should be."

Obernauer clearly understands what makes a good course, and this year despite the disruptive recent snowfall he believes he and his team have created one, ironically, with a little help from the weather. "It looks easy, but when you race down it you will find it is really challenging. There is a lot of snow, the jumps are going far. There is a lot of water in natural snow, so it is very icy and it's fast. I think it is one of the most difficult Streif I have ever seen."

Learning the slope
That bodes well for the spectators' entertainment, and for the skiers who love the toughest of challenges. For the newcomers, it could prove all too daunting. The youngest skier here this week is Bostjan Kline from Slovenia. Despite being only 20, he recognises this is one of the biggest stages he will ever step upon, "For a young athlete like me it's amazing to be here. I have dreamt about this moment for a long time." Do not underestimate the enormity of what he has taken on. A few years ago, Cuche admitted that when he fist entered the start box he was scared enough to think of walking back to the gondola. "It was pretty exciting to enter the start. I was full of adrenalin, and had to do my best to calm myself down," says Kline, continuing, "It gets better each time. You know what to expect, what your speed will be like, where to jump."

After two successful runs, Kline is looking forward to Saturday, "70,000 people in the finish area, cheering for each athlete like he is their own will be something else. It will be a special moment to be doing this race, representing my nation. I will try to show the world what Slovenians are capable of doing!" Asked if he could do just one thing on Saturday, Kline shows maturity beyond his years, "to enjoy the race as much as possible."

Nikola Chongarov of Bulgaria was last man down, and another first timer on the Streif this week. Relief and realisation of an achievement filled his face in the finish area, "It feels good to be down. When I crossed the line I thought, 'yeah, I'm down. It wasn't that bad!'" Just as Jaerbyn said, to achieve at Kitzbühel it does not matter where you finish, just that you finish.

The French Connection - Adrien Théaux
Perhaps the biggest surprise at last year's Hahnenkamm Downhill was the performance by Adrien Théaux of France.

Starting 28th, the relatively unheralded racer uncorked the run of his life finishing in the third fastest time. It was his first career podium in a World Cup downhill. Accomplishing the feat on the most treacherous of pistes was extra special. "It was a great moment. Third place in Kitzbühel was like a victory for me," says Théaux. "Kitz is just crazy with 50,000 people around the finish area. Once it was just a dream to race on this slope and now I have a top three place."

His third place was the best result by a Frenchman at the Hahnenkamm Downhill since Luc Alphand also took third in 1998. Naturally, newfound success brings higher expectations. "This year it will be only be perfect to finish first," laughs the 27-year-old, who embraces the challenge that the famed course presents. "This slope is really difficult at the top and also at the end," he says. "For me, I like the first part because it is a really steep and technical. I have problems in the middle part because it is flat and not the best for a little person. I think I was first last year on the top part, but then I lost some time."

At just 1.82-metres tall and, more significantly, only 82 kilograms Théaux is small by comparison to most downhillers. He has trouble on the flatter sections carrying the same speed as other heavier racers. To compensate, Théaux has to maximise the effectiveness of his tuck or gain time on the steep by finding the perfect line and executing flawlessly.

For the talented racer, improving his gliding skills and proficiency on the flat might just be the key to becoming the next great French champion, and following in the footsteps of Alphand, and, of course, Rolex Testimonee Jean-Claude Killy the French ski racing icon who won the Hahnenkamm Downhill in 1967, and the Combined and Slalom title three-times apiece.

"Killy had such nice skills. He really made it look so easy winning races. He was a great skier winning so many medals and is still a legend in France. If you ask anyone in France to name a great French skier they will tell you Killy . every time."

Ending the Italian Drought - Christof Innerhofer
Italian speed king Christof Innerhofer - who surprised the ski-racing world when he sped to three medals at the 2011 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen - believes he may be the man to end Italy's Hahnenkamm Downhill slump.

The last Italian downhiller to win on the Streif was Kristian Ghedina in 1998. Ghedina clocked 0.14 seconds faster than Switzerland's Didier Cuche to secure Italy's only victory at the historic race. "A lot of years have past since Ghedina won and now it's time for a new Italian champion," says the 27-year-old Innerhofer.

The talented Innerhofer has fared reasonably well on what is arguably the world's toughest piste finishing sixth in 2011 in both the Downhill and the Combined. He was also sixth in the 2009 Downhill.

"I really like it a lot," he says about the Streif. "The more difficult a course is, the more I enjoy it. There are high speeds, big jumps and this downhill is really special." Last January, Innerhofer proved he could be a serious threat when he finished runner-up to Cuche in the only training run contested. On race day, he was an impressive second on the highly demanding upper section of the course before making a costly blunder.

"Sixth position was okay, but I was not happy, I was angry," says Innerhofer. "I should have made the podium. On the steep part I was nearly the fastest, but I had a really bad turn entering the flat and almost went into the nets. After the Hausberg I made another mistake and almost fell. I know I can do much better."

Experience will be paramount as the extrovert Innerhofer makes his fifth appearance, more than confident that he can improve upon previous results. "In Kitzbühel, I've done really well two out of the past three years, and although the beginning of this season was not really good for me, I feel strong now," he says. "I hope I've learned a lot from my mistakes last season and I am saying that I will be on the podium in Kitzbühel."

Innerhofer has proved that he is capable of delivering when it matters most - on the grandest of stages at the most pressure packed races. "I am ready for Kitzbühel and hope I will be in the top three," he says. "This year Kitzbühel is the biggest race of the season."

For detailed information about the 72nd Hahnenkamm-Races including entrants and results please visit the event website:

January 18, 2012


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