The atmosphere in Sestriere on Men's Downhill day was alive with the festival-like scene that can only be witnessed in a European ski village during a race. Fan clubs from all over the Alps sported their favorite skiers' names on their outfits, and ranged from Rahlves' Squaw Valley army of American flag-waving ski bums to the Swiss supporters of Didier Defago and Bruno Kernen, already half-mashed on eau de vie with matching hats and cowbells, singing "Svizzera, Svizzera, Svizzeraaaa..."
Consistent with organizational efforts witnessed in the past few days, the entrances were barely manned and multiple gates were unused, so it took over an hour in line just to get in. Inside the gates, you had to walk a half-mile down a steep, icy, muddy trail to the spectator area at Borgata, which definitely weeded out the punters. We made it down the hill unscathed and found our seats in the "category A" zone. It's frustrating to find tickets for sale in the cheap seats, but "temporarily unavailable" once you get to the point of sale. The standing-room seats are where the rowdy fans gather, and only cost 30 Euros, as opposed to 110 Euros for the stands.
It was a perfect bluebird day, and not too cold when the forerunners started about ten minutes before showtime. Bode Miller drew the 18th starting spot and Ralves got 20th, not too late but definitely a ways behind the Austrian favorites like Fritz Strobl (fourth) and Michael Walchhofer (tenth). The course looked icy and firm at a distance from the weeks' worth of impregnation from the water jets. One of the last forerunners had a helmetcam and it was incredibly chattery from his POV.
You couldn't see much of the course from the spectator area, only after about the one-minute-thirty mark. But a jumbo-tron at the scoreboard picked up all the rest of the action and the crowd reached a frenzy by the time Australia's Craig Branch lined up to start. He skied a respectable run, but his lead wouldn't last long.
Strobl held the early lead by skiing a clean and smooth run, typical of a former Olympic champion. His teammate Michael Walchhofer took a different approach, skiing loose and gambling, but kept it together to take the lead convincingly. This year's DH points leader looked like he would be wearing gold unless Bode or Daron could knock him off the podium.
Bode skied a loose run, relaxed but not necessarily taking the chances that he has made his trademark. It left him .41 seconds behind Walchhofer and in fourth place. Rahlves was visibly amped in the starthouse but his split times showed that he was losing speed the whole way down the course. He finished a disappointing tenth. "I think D may have just been too psyched up," said Ski Racing's Gary Black after the race.
But it was a Frenchman who stunned the crowd, many of whom began to leave after Rahlves' run. The clouds came in briefly around 1 p.m., putting a chill in the air that cooled the course briefly. Antoine Deneriaz, starting from the hinterlands in 30th position, had an astonishing first split time and the French fans surrounding me began to scream and yell. "Mon dieu," I said, when he reached the midpoint and his time was a half-second ahead of the Austrian. He crossed the finish .72 ahead, a lifetime by DH standards, and the crowd went wild.
I relocated to where the fan clubs were massed in the "pits" to get a look at the Deneriaz camp celebrations. They had his dad on their shoulders, the Tricolore was flying high, and one excited Frenchman had climbed a lift tower to wave the flag for his countryman. The Caribinieri were having none of that, and despite a volley of snowballs from the crowd, they eventually coerced him down and took him away.
After the race I ran into Picabo Street, who said she had talked to all of the U.S. boys after the race. "They told me they left it all on the hill today," she said. "It coulda been wax or weather, but every time you roll the dice, anything can happen. Antoine skied a technically perfect run and it was an abrasive, chattery course up there. Really hard to hold a line and you gotta give him credit for that."
Later, I bumped into Baby Huey, the U.S. Ski Team's "starthouse motivator" and Daron's strength coach, who told me about some debacle with Atomic skis the night before the race. Apparently they dropped off new cap-technology skis for Bode and Daron to use (the Austrians had the same offer but declined). After Bode's run, Daron switched back to a trusted pair with less than two minutes to go before his run. I'll see if I can find out more on this later.
All in all, an amazing day up at Sestriere. The same stroke of luck that finds many Olympians found Antoine Deneriaz today, and he was a graceful champion. It has been his dream since exploding his knee on the Chamonix course last season to win the Olympic gold, and he did it in a big way. As Tommy Moe told me, "You don't have to be the fastest guy in the world, you just have to be the fastest that one day..."