Thursday, February 16
Snow has finally returned to the western Alps. Actually it's pouring rain at the moment down here in Cesana, in the valley below Sestriere. But the snowline looks to be about 500 meters up the hill. I haven't had skis on for almost two weeks, and it's driving me crazy. All of the Olympic ski areas are closed for security purposes during the Games, and bulletproof conditions haven't made skiing anywhere else all that appealing anyway. But at least things are improving.
I wound up here in Cesana for the last two days after Ted Ligety took the gold in the Men's Combined on Tuesday night. Fully booked in Sestriere, we couldn't stomach another grueling drive back into Turin at midnight given the celebration that was about to go down, so yet another shuttle bus down the 20-switchback road to the valley put us in the sleepy little roadblock town of Cesana. A couple of inquiries about rooms in hotels turned up nothing available, but we got a lead: check with the guy at the gelateria about a room to let, or affitacamere. He had a room upstairs, beautifully renovated and cozy for 35 Euros a night per person.
So we woke up well rested for the Ladies' DH yesterday, but one ticket short. On the ride up the brand-new gondola constructed for the Olympics from Cesana to San Sicario (luge, bobsled, cross-country, and women's alpine site), I jumped in a cabin with Bryon Freidman, member of the U.S. Ski Team. Out with an injury for the Games, "Freedog" is covering the games for Yahoo and was feeling a little rough around the edges like me after Ligety's celebration the night before. One of his posse had an extra, and gave it to me just like that, free of charge. Things were looking up.
"I seriously doubt that there'll be any more World-Cup caliber events here in Sestriere," said Freidman. "This place is kind of a junkshow." He wasn't kidding. The entrance to the Downhill was another portrait of inefficiency, as only half of the gates were being used, and literally dozens of cops and Caribinieri and "volunteers" stood around listlessly, watching the crowd grow.
If I have learned anything about lines in Europe, you have to be aggressive, moving forward into any available space and using your elbows like a hockey defenseman in the corners. We didn't move for about 20 minutes, and the start time was rapidly approaching. I swear these "volunteers" are multiplying by the day, and none of them have a clue. If I could find one of those jackets, I could get into every event, organize the troops, and make the Olympics run like a well-oiled machine. But I have spent most of my time standing in line with that army of spectators.
We got in with about five minutes to go, but at least 1,500 people were still stuck outside the gates when the first racer went off. The San Sicario course was notably criticized before the Games by a consortium of World Cup racers, prompting officials to redesign the course. What it lacked in steeps it made up for in gnarly, rough turns and flat light conditions.
Lindsey Kildow was the notable news of the day, having decided to start after a terrible training crash only two days before that had her medevaced off the course to a Turin hospital. Veteran Kirsten Clark, Julia Mancuso, and 22-year-old Stacey Cook rounded out the USA racers.
Clark was the first to go with bib number 13. We sat with her brother Sean, who has the distinction of being one of the fastest guys in Jackson Hole, having beaten Tommy Moe in the prestigious Town Downhill. He reported that she was feeling good, but wasn't very confident in her skis this season. Clark appeared to be attacking the course and skied a good line, but her time wouldn't hold up. She wound up in 21st position.
Michaela Dorfmeister, the Austrian team's dominant downhiller, came out of the gate like a bulldog and pushed every split time. She crossed the finish with a time of 1:56:49 that would be next to impossible to beat.
Mancuso skied a good race, and had the Azzuro (Italian) fans behind her, having adopted her as a fellow Italiano, despite her being of Californian descent. She took seventh. Kildow, whose horrible crash has been replayed ad nausea, also skied well to a credible eighth, given her banged-up chassis.
To see the slow-mo replays of the big sweeping turns near the top, and to see how those board-stiff DH skis flop around like pieces of pappardelle, it's no surprise that a skier with a build like Dorfmeister is the only one that can hold a line on that kind of course. Swiss Martina Schild surprised with the silver, and Anja Paerson of Sweden goes home with the bronze.
After the race, we headed back to Cesana to explore the town as the impending storm came in. The wind was up, the tops of the peaks just obscured by clouds, and the temperature dropped by ten degrees. As we wandered the alleyways, we came upon an impromptu tent village of local food purveyors. They had set up outside a parking lot that was inexplicably behind the roadblock; another example of poor planning. We felt sorry for their lack of business and checked out their wares.
One booth, selling sausages and cheese, had a very persuasive lady who tracked us down to try their specialty. "This is a very particular type of sausage, to the Val Susa," she said, as she cut us each a slice. Not one to be rude, I put it in my mouth suspiciously. Hmmm, hard to put your finger on that taste. "What is it?" I asked. "Donkey!" I took a big swig off my beer, trying desperately to wash Eeyore out of my mouth. "You want to buy a whole sausage?" she asked. While it would make for a good joke gift for some of our friends back home, I didn't have the heart. "No, grazie," I said and we left her to a couple of new potential customers.