Twenty-seven years ago this winter I, along with the entire World Cup, arrived in Bormio to see the newly constructed two mile downhill track for the very first time. At stake that winter were World Championship medals and a piece of history. The small town embraced the racers from day one. With generous hospitality and huge crowds, the town was bursting with energy.
That year the race was won by the famed Swiss racer Pirmin Zurbriggen, who edged out his teammate Peter Mueller by a mere three hundredths. Leaving the gate with bib #19, I surprised myself, and the ski world, by finishing third, just fourteen hundredths out. It was a wild ride down a wild track and one that would change my life forever.
Like Kitzbuhel and Wengen, Bormio's Stelvio DH Course prompts a great deal of interest and will dominate discussions in the racing world this week. It has become one of the classic stops on the men's speed tour. And as Bormio has aged, it's grown into the circuit's toughest and most grueling course. If the Hannenkahm is the most dangerous, and the Lauberhorn the longest, then Bormio is the most brutal.
At just over two miles, it is one of the longest downhills on tour. It drops over 3300 vertical feet, and the average speed hovers at 60 miles per hour. The course itself has all the elements of a classic downhill, including steeps, jumps, fallaways, flats and high speeds (up to 85 mph). Standing in the start gate you can actually see the finish line below. The veterans know it will be a long two minutes before they cross it.
Interestingly, this downhill has bucked the trend of courses in which finish times have been shrinking over time. For example, Kitzbuhel in 1985 ran 2:08.65, but in 2011 ran 1:57.72. Bormio ran 1:55.56 in 1993 and 1:59.46 in 2011. Four additional seconds of burning legs for the athletes.
Aside from it's length, Bormio has the perfect storm of toughness built into it. It's run in December when the days are short, temps are cold, and snow depths are minimal. This adds up to snow conditions that are hard and icy, a track that is bumpy and punishing, and visibility that is questionable at best.
Mentally it's exhausting. The course is difficult to memorize since it's long and there are no clear sections - each part of the course runs into the other in long, bumpy, open spaces. The light is never good, so you leave the gate knowing that you'll be squinting and searching for visual feedback the entire way. Every year someone is helicoptered to the nearby hospital ending their season of speed. Although the racers won't admit it, that weighs heavily on their minds the entire week.
Physically it's a nightmare. There are very few courses where racers collapse trying to stop in the finish. At Bormio, it's commonplace. Besides the bumps and ice, another fatiguing factor is the fact that there is nowhere on the course that you can relax. Every second of the course it feels like you have a elephant on your back and you're forced do non-stop knee-touch-squats at super speed. This constant tension on the muscles is excruciating. As two-time Bormio winner Daron Rahlves put it, "It is relentless and guaranteed to bring the pain."
So, what will it take to win on this course? The racers will need three things to pull it off... stable and relaxed skiing, to navigate two key turns with precision, and finally, to summon up their last bits of strength and stamina to make it through to the finish line while still holding their tuck.
To carry speed from top to bottom on this terrain-filled course, you must be relaxed enough to absorb everything it throws at you, yet at the same time stand strong and stable over the downhill ski. Racers like Bode, Feuz and Kroell will be good at keeping their skis glued and tracking on the snow while letting them wander freely. On the other hand, racers like Cuche and Aksel may be too precise and grind speed trying to stay too much on line.
Up top there is a right footer out of Turbo Road which leads onto the flats. This turn is critical. Rahlves says, "Some guys will blow it and miss the next gate, while others will set up too much and kill their speed." Further down the course, above San Pietro jump, there is a left-footer that sends you across a fall-away that is 90 degrees, choppy and tough to see. This is exactly where your legs start to hurt and mistakes here are costly. Veterans have the advantage as they have the knowledge of how to run these areas.
The last 20 seconds of this course is steep, in the shadows, and comes at you fast. This twenty seconds is what the racers trained for all summer. Here you will see just how hard they worked. The ones that stayed late and did the extra squats and sprints will be able to really dig down and ski it clean. The ones that "mailed it in" all summer will be hating it as they feel the lactic acid spread through their legs and have to fight to stay upright. Christof Innerhofer who won here two years ago summed it up by saying, "You must be well-trained to dominate the track until the end. You arrive at the finish area and are destroyed."
Throughout the years, Bormio has crowned as it victor the very best of the best. Names like Alphand, Maier, Rahlves, Miller, and Walchhofer all have won multiple times. It recognizes excellence. At the same time though, this course has rewarded up-and-comers like myself, Jerman and Innerhofer for their hard work and guts. Your resume will get you into the starting gate, but only pushing the limits mentally and physically will get you on the podium.