by Tommy Kirchhoff
Ah, Austria. Edelweiss, cute chalets, lederhosen. and the most kick-ass alpine
skiing system on the planet. Austria is to skiing what football is to the
U.S., what the martial arts are to China, and what surfing is to Hawaii. Everybody
skis in Austria, and the Austrians rule the sport of alpine ski racing. Suffice
it to say that if you are a ski enthusiast and are lucky enough to visit Austria,
you've made your trip to Mecca. It is the holy land of mountain descent, and
deserves to be considered as such.
Anyone willing to stand in the cold to watch a World Cup ski race should
know by now that the ski industry is full of egos. Oh ya-shop techs, lift-op
's, ski instructors, snow groomers, you name it. You can even hear ski tech
guys saying, "the racers all have about the same ability-it's how well their
skis are tuned that determines whether or not they win." Right.
This collective ego comes from tenure with the industry. After someone has
been around it for a few years and thinks he can talk the talk, he starts
to get proud. That's fine and dandy as long as he understands who really deserves
to have an ego. Alberto Tomba. Franz Klammer. Bode Miller. These guys have
egos so big that with a little snow and a rope tow, they'd have their own
Here's the deal: imagine that the ski industry is like a royal kingdom, rich
with history and etiquette. Then, think of guys like Herman Maier and Stefan
Eberharter as royalty (they'll like that). When you're in the royal kingdom,
you will be expected to behave as one of their subjects. The general rules
of behavior should have been learned as a neophyte to the sport-politeness
in lift lines, allowing the downhill skier the chivalrous right of way, etc.
The Royal Racecourse then becomes the highest court, and is reserved for
only the most noble men and ladies. Here the rules change slightly. If you
are on the run where the course it set, but not actually racing, you must
constantly check uphill. The course is like the castle's red carpet, and the
on-course racer always has absolute right of way.
If a racer is on course, and someone below is in the way, you must yell,
"Course!" to politely inform him that the king is coming. If YOU are in or
near the course, and you hear, "Course!," you need to remove yourself briskly.
One must never duck ropes; ropes are there for good reasons. If you are a
race spectator, keep in mind that movement is distracting. Wait until any
racer passes before moving somewhere else. While a racer is on course, yelling
his or her name or "Up, up" are the most respectable forms of honoring this
It is gainful to stay very clear of the finish area. When the timing lights
are accidentally tripped, it's like farting in the palace-deathly faux pas.
On the other hand, if you are near the course starting gate, keep any comments
or questions to yourself. The Dukes and Ladies of Race are concentrating.
They always race in the same pair of underwear, take deathly serious 57 other
strange superstitions, and religiously practice one almighty pre-race sequence
to put them in the zone before they enter the start gate. If you disrupt this,
you'll probably get beheaded.
While they may not have quite the same reign as World Cup, resort pay courses
are quite luxurious, and great opportunities for status gain. Racecourse training
is highly recommended. NASTAR, town races and masters series can really improve
your ability and your savvy around a big race; race lessons from a real coach
are the best way to go.
If for any reason you are allowed to ski a pay course free of charge, keep
in mind that paying customers must always go first. With an event like the
World Cup, other smaller, training courses will be everywhere around the mountain.
They too follow the above rules. And one must never run an unknown course
without full permission from its King, and the obvious ability to do so competently.
The best rule of thumb is to watch the racers. Behave around a racecourse
the way they do. And if you do get the chance to talk to Lasse Kjus, he may
act like the biggest, stuck-up snob on the planet. Remember, he's earned that.
Just walk away all goofy-eyed and say, "Wow! I talked to Lasse Kjus-ruler
of the ski kingdom!"