Focus Vail Valley

Chad Fleischer

Chad Fleischer
Talks up The World Cup

The Birds of Prey venue in Beaver Creek is the only annual stop in the United States for the Men’s Alpine World Cup Skiing. And for the third time in 26 years, the world’s best skiers will test their mettle on the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek at the World Alpine Ski Championships in 2015. What’s so prestigious about the Ski Championships?

Well, think of World Cup races as the equivalent to Formula One racing: A new country every week to showcase the most talented male and female skiers on the planet. Men and women compete separately and at different venues, and the Ski Championships are the culmination of two years of World Cup racing—the best skiers in the world race against each for the Championship title. One thing makes the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships especially unique is the fact that the new women’s speed venue with a World Cup debut this year, has been built just for the 2015 Worlds in Beaver Creek and will see Lindsay Vonn race at home.

The races are being hosted at one of the finest ski resorts in North America…Vail and Beaver Creek: The Vail Valley Foundation is known throughout the world as hosting the best on-snow events, and the volunteers, race crews and mountain operators who work tirelessly to ensure the most pristine conditions are unmatched even when compared to the Winter Olympics. I know because I went to two Olympics, and would take the Beaver Creek prep crews any day! It’s no wonder so many who work this venue end up consulting or directly working at the world’s biggest ski racing events.

Whether it’s strolling through the villages of Vail and Beaver Creek for shopping, dining or the international sponsors parties, the electricity that fills the air during the World Championships is unmatched. There is a buzz of good vibes, excitement from an abundance of international fans from around the globe. It’s a party, it’s skiing on some of the best mountains in the world, it’s watching the best racers compete on snow.

I feel truly honored to have participated in the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships. Fifteen years ago, the weather on the day of the Super G was perfect. I was starting in the number-three position, and we set the single day attendance record for a ski race in North America—20,000 fans came to the Birds of Prey (BOP) race course to cheer for the racers—to cheer for us. I could see and hear the crowd from the start: sirens, horns, bands, flags, smoke bombs and more. Looking out over the Valley and seeing all this was one of the best moments of my life and to this day I remember it so vividly. It still baffles me how I could take all of this in and then go into the zone just prior to race time.

I raced the Birds of Prey in its inaugural year, 1997, and raced for six years on the hill. Since day one Beaver Creek and the BOP course have been considered by ski racers to be one of the top three venues in the world; only behind the famed Kitzbühel downhill track in Austria and the Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland. When you consider that these courses have held races for over 80 years, having the Birds of Prey ranked third says it all.

My entire run felt like slow motion and when I crossed the line and came out of the zone it was a crescendo of craziness. The fans were going crazy: I was in the lead by over two seconds. Marc Giradelli was grabbing me by the shoulders and screaming to me that it was going to take an amazing run by anyone else to win the gold medal. As the racers came down I remained atop the leader board until Hermann Maier got his chance.

Hermann, to this day, has won more races than anyone else in history on the BOP venue and he wasn’t about to let a local American spoil his day and the event he is famous for dominating. He beat me this day by .16 of a second and tied for 1st with Lasse Kjus of Norway. Hans Knaus was third: .03 behind. Not only was it the first tie for the gold medal in World Championsip history it was also the closest margin by the top three in the history of the sport. It’s never a good day to lose but it was a great day, a memorable day and a historic one as well.

Since few of us will ever rip down the Birds of Prey course at 80 miles per hour, here’s how it feels to be ‘on course’ as one of the top athletes in the country.

The BOP downhill start is the highest in the world at more than 11,000 feet. Once you push out of the start, the track has a rhythm like no other. Aerodynamics and gliding skills are most important on the top for 20 seconds and then it’s off the Brink. The Brink is not only one of the steepest sections in all of World Cup racing, it also sets up the line on the pitch all the way down to Pump House section. The turns on the pitch are some of the fastest and steepest linked turns on the planet.

At Pump House hitting the entry over a blind roll is key because at faster than 80 miles per hour racers travel over 11 feet in just a tenth of a second. For racing neophytes, a blind roll is just what it sounds like: a rise in the terrain where racers cannot see what’s on the other side. You have to trust your instincts and know that when you fly over the other side in the air you will be on line and able to complete your turn at the right place and time.

That’s 22 feet by the time you blink! The ones who can nail this line then have to negotiate Russi’s Ride through Screech Owl where staying aerodynamic and letting a smooth ski carve across the ice. Yes, ice. The entire BOP is injected with water to ensure the course is as solid and as fair as possible for everyone. You will hear many athletes and coaches refer to the courses as a vertical ice rink.

After exiting Screech Owl the fun really begins as you prepare for speeds continuing to go faster and faster and big jump after big jump comes at you. The first big jump is Golden Eagle, where racers fly over 50 yards in length and top out at over 15 feet in height. Next is Harrier, which is much smaller but requires a left ski turn in the middle of the air and then skiers race into the finish jump, which has claimed knees and careers by those who lose focus or are too fatigued before the finish line.

It is truly a spectacular downhill but it’s not just the downhill that is amazing. The Super G race is known as the most difficult on the planet. Steep, fast, jumps and important short flats where athletes have to carry speed make for an event where you have to trust your instincts, be aggressive and risk it all to win. There are no rewards for those not willing to risk it all and throw themselves down the mountain with reckless abandon. As I have often said, speed skiers at the World Cup level are 100 percent in control of being 100 percent out of control. This couldn’t be more true when it comes to the BOP Super G event.

Come February 2015, I’ll be cheering for Team USA and I hope you will be there too, watching skiing history be made. The Birds of Prey and the 2015 World Championships are certain to ensure incredible moments are made in Vail and Beaver Creek. There isn’t a better place to take it all in: trust me, as I have raced in five World Championships and two Olympics and the best show on snow is in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado!