Olympics: Whistler locals analyze downhill courses
AP Sports Writer
Experience can mean everything when racers are hurtling themselves down the mountain at 90 mph, yet very few skiers heading to the Vancouver Olympics have had a full run down the Whistler course.
There were Olympic test events in Whistler two years ago, but no downhill was held for the men – only a super-G and a giant slalom.
Most racers say the “Dave Murray downhill” – named for the former Crazy Canuck who died of cancer in 1990 – compares well to the track in Kvitfjell, Norway, where Manuel Osborne-Paradis of Canada and Klaus Kroell of Austria won on back-to-back days last season.
Bode Miller won his last downhill in Kvitfjell in March 2008.
“I think it will be one of the tougher Olympic tracks,” Canadian downhiller and Whistler local Robbie Dixon said. “It stacks up well against the ones we race on regularly on the World Cup.”
Dixon has been down the course “thousands of times” and can offer a top-to-bottom description off the top of his head.
Compare that to Marco Buechel, the 38-year-old racer from Liechtenstein who is one of the oldest and most experienced racers on the circuit.
“If I close my eyes right now I cannot picture the course anymore,” said Buechel, who finished 10th in the super-G there two years ago, 0.69 seconds behind Austrian winner Christoph Gruber. “I don’t know the mountain too good; that’s a shame. It’s going to be very, very difficult.”
The Canadians have had unlimited and exclusive access to the Whistler course over the last several seasons, including national championships held there in recent years.
Dixon was kind enough to offer his insights.
“Out of the start gate there’s a good little pitch, and it’s pretty rolling,” he said.” There’s two big, open sweeping turns called waterfalls over a bit of terrain. Then it drops down, there will be a little jump and it carries across some flats up toward toilet bowl.”
Why toilet bowl?
“Because everything flushes down into a big bowl at the bottom that carries you to the left. Then there’s a big sweeping right-hander that drops you into what’s called the weasel, which is a 45-degree angle pitch that drops down two gates,” Dixon explained.
“It’s awesome. You carry across into what’s called fallaway and that can describe itself. The ground actually falls away on you. It’s this big sweeping left turn into the sewer, which is a straight chute that funnels down into coaches’ corner – because the coaches are always there. I think that’s going to be the make-or-break turn. It’s a big sweeping right turn, and I think that’s where you’re going to see where guys are going to win or lose it.”
Why is coaches’ corner so key?
“You’re coming off sewer, where the sun hits, and it naturally hardens and injects. So if the weather is good it will be quite icy and hard there, and you pick up a lot of speed. And it’s a 180-degree turn back to where the slalom hill starts,” Dixon said. “To do it properly and carry the speed isn’t easy.”
Getting the right angle could mean the difference between winning a medal and finishing outside the top 10.
“If you come in too hard you’re going to come out too low, and they’ve made a tricky gate there, too,” Dixon explained. “Then you come down to where the slalom starts. There’s some nice sweeping turns and a couple jumps, and you’re into the finish.”
Running times should be about two minutes, ranking with the course in Bormio, Italy, as the second-longest run racers face all season. Only the classic Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland, is longer at more than 2 1/2 minutes.
American downhiller Marco Sullivan said he hopes organizers don’t resort to injecting the course with water to create an overly icy surface.
“I think it’s better viewing to watch the racers ski – you’re not just in survival mode,” Sullivan said.
Lindsey Vonn has been leading a campaign against injection for the women’s Olympic course – “Franz’s Downhill,” named after Franz Wilhelmsen, one of the original founders of the Garibaldi Lift Company and Whistler Mountain.
In the women’s test downhill two years ago, Vonn finished second to Switzerland’s Nadia Styger by the smallest of margins – one hundredth of a second.
“That one stung a little bit. I hope it’s not by hundredths at this Olympics,” Vonn said. “But I know where to go, and I know the course. It’s just a matter of executing on that day.”
Another American, Julia Mancuso, finished third, and Whistler native Britt Janyk was fourth.
The Canadian advantage might not be as great among the women, since the course was cut so recently.
“I probably know the men’s course better than the women’s course,” Janyk said. “The men’s course has always been there. The women’s course was made just for the Olympics, so it’s a brand new course.”
Both the men’s and women’s downhills are on the same mountain and end in the same spot.
“If you’re looking up, the actual starts of the courses are quite a ways away, but as they start to come down they funnel together,” Janyk explained.
Janyk compared “Franz’s Downhill” to the most prestigious stop on the women’s World Cup circuit – in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
“It’s really fun. It’s technical, and it really follows the natural terrain of the hill very nicely,” Janyk said.
“I think it favors someone who is a good technical skier, somebody who is good over terrain, good in the air and has a really nice touch to the snow, because there’s always terrain. There’s only really two jumps, but there’s a lot of places where you kind of lose contact with the ground, kind of like Cortina.
“It has a more moderate steepness, but it has the similar always moving, always rolling, always dropping here and there.”
It’s also longer than the course in Cortina, where Vonn’s winning time this year was 1 minute, 37.70 seconds. Styger clocked 1:45.30 in Whistler two years ago.
Fitness will be a factor.
“When you come down the last 20 seconds, it’s a steep part and then it’s flat for about 10 seconds. You feel your legs there, and then you still have two really key turns and a big jump into the finish,” Janyk said.
The course is so new Janyk couldn’t even remember its name. She suggested naming it after herself if she wins.
“That’s what I’m going to do,” she said with a laugh. “It’s going to be the Britt Janyk downhill.”
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report from Wengen, Switzerland.