Saving Face on the Face
by Peter Shelton
Feb 11, 2009 | 899 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Shocking news out of the World Alpine Skiing Championships in Val d’Isère, France, this week.

(Not so shocking news: tall, blond, super-strong Lindsey Vonn – the European press call her “the American starlet” – took two gold medals, in super G and downhill, while dingbat genius Bode Miller – Mr. One-Man Team America, Mr. Eats-Burritos-And-Whatever-Else-He-Damn-Well-Pleases-In-His-Own-RV – had a great chance to win the combined but missed a gate in the slalom portion.)

No, the shocking news is that these racers, the men especially, these oak-thighed alpine studs have been complaining that the race courses are too hard.

Too hard? Too hard is for us mortals. Too hard is the poor sap who tipped over at the top of Revelation Bowl in Telluride last week and turtled/hurtled, like an out-of-control curling stone, the entire 800 vertical feet before stopping, finally, without any of his gear and with his ears burning no doubt from the helpful suggestions shouted to him from the chairlifts on his endless slide to the bottom.

Too hard for us spoiled Colorado skiers is a week or two of sunny weather, when wind and grooming machines and countless ski edges conspire to pummel certain runs to polished marble. Or so they seem to a soft-snow devotee. (One hopes by the time you read this the situation will have changed and softness is restored.) Veteran eastern skiers scoff at our “hard snow.” They rightly claim we don’t know from “icy.” Icy, they say, is looking at individual blades of grass through three inches of eastern “hahd pack.”

Even that snow surface wouldn’t be considered too hard by hard-core racers. On the World Cup circuit officials carry hardness meters with scales that go up to – I am not making this up – “bathroom tile.” They like bathroom-tile hard. Courses don’t rut up through the course of the day; the surface remains fair for everyone.

So why are these guys whining about the Face de Bellevarde? Apparently, the snow surface itself is very hard, even by World Cup standards. Course workers have been injecting it with water for weeks to get it good and hard. But this is standard practice everywhere they race. Hard snow is not the real problem.

The real problem is the pitch. The Bellevarde course was created prior to the 1992 Winter Olympics by Swiss great Bernard Russi and Albertville organizing maestro, and Val d’Isère native son, Jean-Claude Killy. They were responding to complaints from the world’s best skiers that the downhills at the two preceding Games, in Calgary in 88 and Sarajevo in 84, were too easy. Too flat. Unfairly favored the gliders. Didn’t present an Olympian challenge.

So, Russi and Killy drew a line through the rocks and benches and open bowls of the Bellevarde, a gorgeous lump of treeless vanilla ice directly above the slate-roofed chalets of 1,000-year-old Val d’Isère. It’s a fabulous ski descent. I did it during training prior to the actual Olympic race, at 20 mph, press pass flapping, on my 190 cm Head Outbacks. It would be rated a double blue probably in Colorado.

At downhill speeds though, the course is a twisting snake, with no flats, no place to rest, nothing but hard-cranking, monster carousel, hang-on-for-dear-life, edge-of-sanity turns. Red safety netting lines almost the entire route.

They had to make it that turny in order to keep speeds below Time Warp 4. The racers who did the best then and now figured out how to flow with those sweeping turns, how to let go without letting go completely.

Bode and the other pre-race favorite this week, Michael Walchofer, both ran into bad luck in the form of a fog bank mid-way down the piste. Walchofer was awarded a second run, but didn’t improve much, moving up from 12th to ninth. Bode, who finished eighth, was not awarded another try, and apparently wouldn’t have taken it had one been proffered.

“Team America doesn’t file protests,” he said afterwards, slipping in a jab at the Austrians. But then he amazed me by saying, “I wouldn’t want to run this thing again. It’s just too demanding.”

Whoa! This from the New Hampshire iron man who starts every race in every discipline. Who has two season-long overall crystal globes, and has won on most of the world’s scariest courses. Was this just Bode being Bode? Or Bode being suddenly, endearingly human?

Order was restored, thank goodness, two days later, in the downhill portion of the combined, when Bode finished second, a whisker (four hundredths of a second) behind the eventual winner. That he blew out in the slalom was almost expected; he just hasn’t been able to put two good runs together this season. But he did figure out the Face de Bellevarde. It wasn’t too hard after all. Just hard enough to stretch the best skiers in the world out beyond their comfort zones.
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