The Kitzbuehel Hahnenkamm-Rennen is famous in the skiing world. I am not a skier. I was enough of a klutz as a kid that my swim coaches essentially forbade me from skiing, knowing that I would probably end my swimming career by slipping in the parking lot or by toppling over awkwardly on the bunny hill.
Two years ago, David got me a pair of Head skis for Christmas and starting teaching me to ski. I knew how to ski, but my skills ended with learning to “pizza” and “french fry” on the green runs at the age of ten. He also introduced me to ski culture and to the subtleties of ski technique and racing. We watched OLN coverage of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup circuit, and slowly but surely, I began to develop an appreciation for what it means to bend a ski.
We watched on television as thousands of ski fans climbed epic mountainsides in the Austrian Alps, blared airhorns for every Austrian skier who kicked out of the start gate and creating a red sea of waving Austrian flags. I learned the big names, the different disciplines, the classic races.
Kitzbuehel is a classic. This year is the 68th race at the Hahnenkamm, and in a country where skiing is as big as football is in the U.S., the Kitzbuehel Hahnenkamm is the equivalent of the Superbowl.
Brian, Jeannie, David and I hit the mountainside in Kitzbuehel on Friday night, just in time to watch the ceremonial bib draw for the Downhill race. Already, the crowds were huge and the airhorns abundant.
The Downhill course is famously named Der Streif, and is so steep and dangerous that many a skier has ended his career here. We watched the racers fly past at unbelievable speeds while we cheered. Bode Miller almost crashed into the fence near the top of the course, but managed instead to ski on the fence and make up so much time at the bottom that he moved into the lead! The crowds went wild. We yelled our lungs out and high-fived all around. Didier Cuche from Switzerland eventually bumped Bode out of first, but he finished second at perhaps the biggest most infamous Downhill race in the world and with a solid performance in the Slalom, won the Combined Category and passed Phil Mahre for the record of most race wins in history by a U.S. skier. And we were THERE!
We later wandered around town trying to find a bite to eat somewhere away from the crowds. We happened into a hotel lobby and ordered some coffee. This also happened to be where the Austrian Ski Team was staying, so when Hermann Maier walked into the lobby, I had to ask for a photo. This guy is on billboards all over Austria; he is a superstar, and a truly phenomenal athlete. I was completely starstruck, but he was very gracious about stopping for the photo. Kein problem. We also got to snap a great photo of the Auslander gang with one of our favorite U.S. skiers, Ted Ligety, following the bib draw for the Slalom. We asked when he planned to cut his hair. He said not for the whole season.
As epic as the race was the food. We stayed in Sankt Johann in Tirol and took the train into Kitzbuehel each day for the races. In Sankt Johann, we found a great Gasthaus serving traditional Tirolian and Salzburger cuisine. We quickly learned a lesson about portions on the first evening when we ordered four servings of dessert. Apparently a dessert serving here is equivalent to a full meal serving elsewhere, but we managed to persevere through a pile of Kaiserscharrn (scrambled pancakes with raisins, rum and applesauce) and a Salzburger Knockerln (a pile of whipped eggs, sugar and fruit compote), and David and Brian “settled their tummies” with some hausgemacht (housemade) Schnapps.
The weekend was one of full immersion in Austrian culture. Following one last bender of Austrian cuisine, Brian and Jeannie headed out on the train, bound for more skiing adventures in France. Thus formally ended our Auslander Invasion, but in the words of one famous Austrian expat, “[We’ll] be back.”