Kitzbuhel: Why Arnie can't miss skiing's bucket-list party

CNN/ Newswire | 1/29/2019, 8:05 a.m.
Their giant cow bells clanging in time, they march through Kitzbuhel's narrow streets. This merry band of Swiss ski racing ...
Beat Feuz of Switzerland flies towards the finish of the Kitzbuhel downhill. **Credit: Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images**

By Rob Hodgetts, CNN in Kitzbuhel

(CNN) -- Their giant cow bells clanging in time, they march through Kitzbuhel's narrow streets.

This merry band of Swiss ski racing fans draws crowds like the pied piper and sets a new benchmark in an already unique alpine scene.

It's a veritable ski cocktail of Euro flag-waving, horn-blowing, bell-ringing revelry -- Italians in matching ski jackets with painted faces, Slovenians draped in national flags, plenty of French, Swiss and Germans, some Americans, some Brits and so on. Plus, of course, Austrians in their thousands, including a raucous group of lads in retro 80s ski gear.

All have come to savor the thrills and spills -- both during racing and later among the bars, cafes and pop-up stalls -- of Kitzbuhel's infamous Hahnenkamm downhill. It's earned the reputation as skiing's toughest test, and, long into the night, its biggest party.

"I wanted to see the race live," says Norwegian Sture Norevik, clutching a plastic cup of beer. "It's one of those things I wanted to feel live -- not sitting back home on my sofa." Sture and his three friends arrived from Bergen Wednesday for "one day skiing, the rest fun."

Smell of gluhwein

Like the scene outside a soccer stadium, stalls sell Austrian scarves and hats and plastic music horns. Men stand outside the ticketed area with signs saying "Suche karten / tickets wanted," like alpine scalpers. The smell of gluhwein in the morning hangs over the steadily building throng lining the finish area of the legendary Streif track, which snakes down a crest of the Hahnenkamm -- literally, "rooster's comb."

The inclement weather forecast in this part of the Tirol, east of Innsbruck, forced organizers to move the race from its traditional Saturday slot to Friday, meaning attendance is down slightly from the usual 30-40,000 revellers.

"In Kitzbuhel, it's always about the sport," said a spokesman for the Kitzbuheler Ski Club, hosts since the first official race down the mountain in 1931.

But still they stream in from the railway station next to the Hahnenkammbahn gondola, or from the car parks and packed guesthouses and hotels in town, like an expectant crowd before a big match. In all, nearly 80,000 will arrive over the course of the weekend for the re-arranged Saturday slalom and Sunday super-G. But the downhill is the highlight because of the extreme course, the history, and the seat-of-your-pants racing. No one wants to see a huge crash, but all know it's part of the deal.

'The people, the atmosphere'

From Chamonix in France comes Liam Giezendanner and his father Eric, carrying a 10 feet tall banner emblazoned with a picture of Blaise Giezendanner -- brother and son, respectively. Blaise was fourth in super-G at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, and they've also followed him to Beaver Creek and Wengen, but for them Kitzbuhel is "beautiful, the best place" to watch him compete.

Among the masses awaiting the start is Claudia Janka, from Obersaxen in Switzerland. She's there with friends from the fan club of hometown racer Carlo Janka. Her husband's cousin is Carlo's dad. "It's complicated," she laughs. She follows the circuit to venues such as Garmisch, Bormio, Alta Badia, but Kitzbuhel is her favourite for "the people, the atmosphere."