Highway to Hell: Mayer wins famed Kitzbuehel downhill

Luke PHILLIPS
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Mayer victorious in iconic Kitzbuehel downhill

Austrian Matthias Mayer delighted home fans and achieved "every skier's dream" by streaking to a classy victory in Saturday's fabled downhill in Kitzbuehel, the most prestigious and testing on the World Cup circuit.

Mayer, gold medallist in downhill at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and in the super-G in 2018, clocked 1min 56.59sec down the thigh-trembling 3.3km-long Streif course on the Hahnenkamm mountain, making the most of the absence through injury of three-time downhill champion Dominik Paris of Italy.

Mayer's teammate Vincent Kriechmayr and Switzerland's Beat Feuz, winner of the Wengen downhill last weekend and already three times second-placed in the Austrian resort, tied for second, at 0.22sec.

Norway's reigning world downhill champion Kjetil Jansrud, winner of Friday's super-G (in which Mayer was third) and a downhill champion here in 2015, was sixth behind the French duo of Johan Clarey and Maxence Muzaton.

"It's not even a dream of every Austrian but of every skier in the world to win the race here," said Mayer.

"It was amazing, especially here in front of the home crowd. There were so many people in the finish area, cheering for you."

Mayer, 29, insisted he had not been thinking about his time.

"I was just focused on my skiing: trying to ski well every turn and ski fast. I wasn't sure at the end because I wasn't thinking whether I could win or not.

"Then I saw the green light! I was so happy and very satisfied with the feeling."

It was perhaps telling that the deafening music played over the tannoy for Mayer's run was AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell', given the exigencies of a course with a gradient of 85% in parts and where racers hit an eye-watering 100km/h (60mph) within five seconds of leaving the startgate.

The Austrian laid down a near-perfect line to master a course that falls, snakes and rolls, sending competitors barrelling through a wide variety of terrain, in parts propelling them 60 metres in the air, only for them to quickly re-align for icy traverses that severely test technical ability and mastery of well-honed equipment.

- Good risk management -

In a race often dubbed alpine skiing's equivalent to the Monaco Grand Prix, Mayer demonstrated a perfectly weighted "risk management" reminiscent of a successful Formula One driver's: go full tilt into a chicane and you're asking for trouble.

Streaking through the line, having battled creeping exhaustion and a 3.5G centrifugal force to change direction into the final descent, Mayer looked upwards, hands raised, confident of victory to add to his super-G triumph on the same slope back in 2017.

Australian heavy rock was replaced by an Austrian marching song, the 50,000-strong crowd clapping in unison amid flares, flags and fiery alcohol, baying "Mayer" in response to the emcee's "Matthias?".

There have, needless to say, been several gruesome crashes in the white-knuckled downhill over the years.

- Sliding bodies -

Sliding bodies, flailing skis and helicopter evacuations have become a regular feature and quickly silence the crowd.

There were four crashes on Saturday, American Ryan Cochran-Siegle, Austrian Otmar Striedinger, Italian Peter Fill and German Manuel Schmid all bombing out, but seemingly without serious injury.

At each fall, the packed tribune quickly hushes, the music and big screen images cut for an odd silence to fall over the well-lubricated spectators.

Striedinger's slide into the safety netting left onlooking Mayer clutching his head and puffing out his cheeks in sympathy.

A raised pole in recognition from a felled skier untangling himself from the nets and gingerly refinding his feet is then greeted by applause followed by roars for the next competitor's breath-taking descent in what becomes a gladiatorial insight into the draw of the ultimate alpine skiing test: its inherent danger.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder/actor-cum-California governor was one of those cheering, as was American actor Patrick Dempsey, who has moved into competing in pro-am auto racing events such as the Le Mans and Daytona endurance races.

"I always wanted to be a ski racer," the former 'Grey's Anatomy' heart-throb said. "I'm really excited to be here."