I spend a lot of each summer and fall working on improving my technique and testing new equipment. By the end of November I usually have my equipment and skill set all prepared and at least slightly improved from the previous season. In middle of December I was approaching the top of the second turn in a giant slalom in Kuhtai, Austria. As I was pressuring my ski and compressing my suspension into the extremely hard, icy and rutty snow I immediately realized that the tweaks I made to my monoski over the summer were so far off what I needed to successfully complete the next 40 turns. Over the years I have trained my body to recognize different pressure loads, different suspension set ups and various ways to tune a ski. I can immediately tell when something is not working correctly by how my body responds to the demands of making a powerful turn. Occasionally I make mistakes, and a particular suspension set up that felt really good in training was not at all adequate for actual race conditions. I managed to survive the race while nearly crashing in spectacular fashion multiple times as I bounced and skipped my way to the finish line.
This story begins in Pitztal, Austria with a series of Europa Cup races. These races are technically a level below World Cup but usually have the exact same competition as higher level races, with the addition of a handful of developing athletes trying to improve their world ranking. Pitztal is also known as ‘Das Dach Tirols’ or ‘The Roof of Tirol’ as it is the highest glacier in the region. To get to the base of the glacier you must ride a train from the valley floor, diagonally up for 3.6 kilometers through the inside of a mountain. Once at the top you are surrounded by jagged, glacier strewn peaks in every direction. The entire race snakes down one section of the massive Pitztal glacier. The vertical drop is not very steep and there is little terrain, so it is a great place to get used to going fast. Unfortunately this characteristic makes it difficult for a technical skier to gain an advantage, as the course cannot be set in a very complicated way. If you make any mistake at all you will instantly be seconds behind the competition. I competed in a super-g and giant slalom, managing second place in the giant slalom. My suspension troubles did not show up here because the terrain and snow was not very demanding. That would soon change.
After Pitztal we drove a few valleys over to the town of Kuhtai, situated at the top of a mountain pass. This time there was almost no snow except for what was made artificially on a few select trails. The race hill itself is on a north-facing slope that never gets sunlight this time of year except for a patch at the bottom which gets sun for about one hour in the morning and afternoon. The race hill also drops very steeply in big steps, with lots of off-camber and flat sections in between. This makes for a very technically demanding race, one in which I should have a natural advantage due to my small stature and good maneuverability. As illustrated earlier, this was not to be the case. Every run was a struggle as my ski had very little contact with the snow, making normal movements almost impossible. Large ruts would develop that I would inevitably hit, bottoming out my suspension and launching me up and forward into the air, landing on the tip of my ski. I managed to barely finish every race with a spectacular series of near crashes. We had one slalom and two giant slaloms, with every spare second spent adjusting my suspension, hoping each time that I would get back the control I had lost. After a lot of extra runs outside the course and brainstorming with the coaches, I found a set up that allowed me to win individual runs of a few of the races, but did not result in any podiums.
The final stop in this race series was St. Moritz, Switzerland, the place every posh ski town tries to emulate. Situated on the side of a mountain overlooking lake St. Moritz, the town is a jumbled cluster of small castles disguised as hotels, shopping for the fabulously wealthy, and chocolate shops with a myriad of creations that are as decadent as they are expensive. Later in the winter when the lake is completely frozen, the town is host to the Snow Polo World Cup. (This event brings horses and riders from around the world to compete on a groomed field in the middle of the lake. The action is intense and is best viewed wearing as much exotic fur as you can afford.) The ski area is far above the town with wide, perfectly groomed, undulating trails. The race hill itself has one short, steep section but is mostly flat this time of year because of low snow levels. The flatness wasn’t an issue in terms of the technical nature of the hill, as the soft, rutty snow made each run more than difficult enough to finish. The men’s monoski field, consisting of around 30 people, had an average finish rate of 50-40%. At this point, though, I had my suspension far more dialed in and I was ready for a fight. It was still difficult to finish each run but I managed two second-place finishes, usually by having a terrible first run and winning the second run.
These first races are very important because they give you a chance to see where you stand in your field of competition at the beginning of the season. I try to be as prepared as possible but each year is unique, with surprising challenges each time. Tough race conditions provide an excellent learning environment, as you can figure out what doesn’t work very quickly. Next month will bring another set of World Cup races in Austria and Slovenia, as well as World Championships in Tarvisio, Italy. World Championships is the most important race series of the year and occurs the year before and after an Olympics.