Val Gardena’s Saslong Downhill
by Doug Lewis
I can remember inspecting Val Gardena’s Saslong course for the first time at age 19. About halfway down, I stood (barely) on the section called “The Mauer” - a frozen, bumpy, nasty, treacherous, near vertical schuss that takes you from 55 mph to 70 mph in about 5 seconds and I asked Phil Mahre, “Are we seriously going straight down this?” He nonchalantly responded, “yup” and skied off. I was freaked out.
And this was before I saw the Camel Bumps, Ciaslat, and Zielschuss.
As a Rookie, inspecting the World Cup downhills for the first time is always an eye-opener. You hear about these legendary courses from the veterans. You see them on TV. You try to anticipate what the terrain might be like and try to talk yourself into thinking it isn’t so different from what you’ve skied before. But nothing can prepare you for Kitzbuhel’s Maussefalle, Wengen’s Hundschoff, or Val Gardena’s insane terrain. That first inspection of the Saslong course was both terrifying and exhilarating.
Val Gardena is, I think, the most fun Downhill on the circuit. Nothing is stupidly dangerous, a la Kitsbuhel’s Steilhang, although a mistake on the Camel’s has taken more than a few racers out for a season, or longer. Gardena DH Champion Steven Nyman described it this way, “it’s a subtle relationship you have with her (this course). She can treat you right or throw you in the woods. She’s done both to me.”
There is a ton of air throughout the course from the Looping Jump at the top, the Camels in the middle, and the finish bump where you sometimes fly so far you actually land on the finish line. In fact, according Nyman, “We counted 27 times our skis left the ground one year.” The speed is high the entire way, but especially in the Zielschuss where it feels like you hyper-space to over 100 mph.
Finally, on this course you find THE most terrain-laden section in all of Downhill – the Ciaslat.
This week the course will be even more challenging and exciting due to the fact that there has been little natural snow to cover up and even out all the small terrain. Nowhere is this more evident than in this Ciaslat section that we called “The Meadows” back in the 80s. This is literally a cow pasture that undulates more than a moto-cross course and seems to have more bumps than a World Cup mogul course. And unlike other tracks where the terrain is in the same place every year, the bumps and humps here seem to magically migrate, move and relocate year to year.
This may be the most important section to nail if you want any chance to podium. Many a racer has had the green light entering The Meadows, but found themselves almost a second back when exiting.
You come hauling in at a good clip and with a small smile due to the fact that you made it through the Camels intact. That smile, however, disappears quickly as you try to remember the intense terrain configuration that awaits you. You recall inspection and the plan you made, but it always looks slightly foreign at 60+ mph. So, for the next 25 seconds you are extending, compressing, double-jumping, absorbing, slapping, slamming and flying uncontrollably, and probably swearing a little bit too.
When done right, it seems to fit together like a puzzle and you exit with speed. Nyman said of his winning run in 2006, “I was in the zone – doubling jumps that no one else was. I could see every little piece of snow and my skis just landed and took off perfectly.”
When done wrong, it feels like you got sucker-punched in the gut, whacked in the back, clubbed on the bottoms of your feet, and there is a good chance you will have sh*t your pants.
Although the Camel Jumps are more popular and get more press, for me, the most interesting section to watch this Saturday will be The Meadows. The race will be won or lost here. Someone will inevitably crash and have to climb out of the netting. Most will make a mistake, or two, or three, or four… and lose time. But one or two will find the rhythm and seemingly float through the terrain giving them the chance to win the race.
Tune into Universal Sports TV or www.universalsports.com to watch the Val Gardena Downhill LIVE on Friday Dec 18th!
Universal Sports Analyst
Two-time Olympian and eight-year member of the US Ski Team
LEW finished top ten at Val Gardena and was the first American ever to double jump the famous Camel Bumps.