The iconic Hahnenkammrennen is the downhill ski race that every pro skier wants to win, but it takes no prisoners. With the event in Kitzbühel, Austria, starting tomorrow, we look at 10 people from down the years who have added their names to the history of the famous race.
Not many iconic sporting locations are named after farmers, but the challenging Hahnenkamm course known as the ‘Streif’ might just be one of them. Long before it became the every professional downhill skier’s biggest thrill of the year, the upper part of the course was part of farmland known as the Streifalm pastures, supposedly named after a farmer named Streif or, more likely, Straiff. He must have been a fit man to be farming animals on that slope, that’s all we can say.
“Come here – it was so beautiful, I have to slap you in the face!” Thus commented an exhilirated, snow-covered Franz Reisch after he became the first human being ever recorded to have skied down the Kitzbüheler Horn in 1893. The recipient of the comment was his terrified friend Josef Herold, who probably thought Reisch was completely mad, as did many of the locals in the summer resort of Kitzbühel. If any of them had envisaged the carnival of thousands of cowbell-ringing skiing fanatics that would be arriving in the town in 2011, now world-famous for winter pursuits, they might both have needed a light slap. Nowadays the only slaps handed out tend to be from the Hahnenkamm itself when the Streif catches the skiers unawares.
We’ll never know whether the winner of the first Hahnenkammrennen downhill, Ferdl Friedensbacher, might have guessed in 1931 that, 80 years aftewards, the race would still be taking place. He was probably too busy not colliding with the scenery. His winning time was just over four and a half minutes, seemingly quite a leisurely pace compared to the 1m 53.74s it took Swiss Didier Cuche last year – but it probably didn’t feel that way…
Gordon ‘Mouse’ Cleaver
The story of Gordon Cleaver (who got his nickname supposedly because of his mouselike features) is extraordinary. Having won the first overall Hahnenkamm Race (by coming sixth in the downhill won by Friedensbacher and second in the slalom), the Austrians all believed that, because he wasn’t in the British skiing team, the Brits must all be tremendous skiers… Later, Cleaver became a heroic pilot for the Royal Air Force. After an explosion and escape by parachute that had won him a Distinguished Flying Cross left him with traces of perspex in his eyes which seemed to cause them no further harm, his case led to the leading opthalmologist Sir Harold Ridley developing a technique of replacing human lenses with perspex, thus saving the sight of millions with organic lens problems like cateracts. Since the 75th anniversary of his skiing triumph in 2006, the Cleaver Cup has been awarded to the Briton who finishes highest in the Hahnenkammrennen. So far, Cleaver remains the only outright winner from the British Isles…
Ironically, for a man with a German-sounding surname, Wallace ‘Buddy’ Werner was in fact an American, and the first to break the stranglehold that the Europeans – especially the Austrians – had on the Hahnenkammrennen for almost three decades. From the distinctly American-sounding Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Werner was widely acknowledged as one of the USA’s best skiers never to have won a World Championship or Olympic title, and he won this race aged just 22 in 1959. Tragically, only five years later, Werner was killed by an avalanche in St Moritz, Switzerland. The principal mountain back home in Steamboat Springs was renamed Mount Werner and its ski course named ‘Buddy’s Run’ in his honour.
The 1969 movie Downhill Racer stars Robert Redford as arrogant young US skier David Chappellet, who springs from nowhere to triumph in the Olympic Winter Games in defiance of his more experienced team-mates and coach (played by Gene Hackman). More interesting than the plot, Redford’s love interest in the film (played by Swedish beauty Camilla Sparv) and the tacky-sounding slogan of the film – ‘How fast must a man go to get from where he's at?’ – is the fact that it was partly filmed on the Hahnenkamm. Redford didn’t do any of the dangerous stuff on the mountain for the BAFTA Best Actor in a Leading Role award he won for the movie (millions of women would probably have gone into mourning if he’d come to grief) – that job fell to a number of talented Kitzbüheler locals that did Redford’s stunts… so they’re the unsung heroes of this bit.
Also a contender in 1969, but to less fanfare, was Alexander Prokofiev. The Russian is regarded as the slowest skier in the modern era to complete the Streif in the Hahnenkammrennen without falling over, at 2m 48.84s. But the key words there are ‘complete’ and ‘without falling over’. Anyone who can survive a course where it’s so steep at the start that you barely need to push off and are effectively in freefall is OK with us.
Freeskier Sven Küenle might not have completed the whole of the Streif, but anyone who can cock a snook at the Mausefalle (‘mousetrap’) with a backflip is still a brave chap. Watch the video from 2008 below.
Nowadays, Daron Rahlves is known the world over as a freestyle skier, and was in the US team for the 2010 Winter Olympics no less, and he’s due to appear at the Winter X Games imminently. But until 2006, Daron was a world champion alpine skier, and in 2003, the Californian won the Hahnenkammrennen, becoming the first American since Buddy Werner to achieve the feat, only the second ever American, and only the fifth non-European ever (there are three Canadians on the honour roll from a brief period of dominance in the early 1980s). Versatile guy, Mr Rahlves…
The 2007 world champion in Super-Combined reminded everyone just how unpredictable and dangerous the Hahnenkamm can be in 2009 when he crashed horribly at 138kph (86mph), landing after a 70m flight through the air onto his back and suffering brain, lung, knee and stomach injuries that were so bad that medics had to put Albrecht into an induced coma. Though he was back in training only nine months later, the Swiss missed the whole 2010 season, but the great news is that he’s back and competing, having taken part in the Wengen Super-Combined just last weekend. Though he missed a gate at the end, the signs are good for Albrecht making a full comeback to competitive speed skiing.