Bode Miller’s Hahnenkamm Quest
Will America's best skier ever win his sport's most prestigious race?
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Bode Miller eyed the Eiger from the window of a mid-mountain lodge before the classic Lauberhorn downhill last Saturday in Wengen, Switzerland. Swiss Air Force jets shot across the iconic peak’s north face before disappearing into the Lauterbrunner Valley below. Miller bantered with teammates and fellow racers. When the subject of Tim Tebow, the Denver Bronco and devout Christian, came up, a foreign competitor asked if it was normal for Americans “to not do sex.” Miller assured him it was not.
The Lauberhorn is one of the oldest and most prestigious races on the World Cup circuit, and Miller has landed on the podium there ten times. The day before, he snagged a third-place finish in the super combined. In fact, Miller has won nearly every one of the World Cup’s most storied races—Beaver Creek, Bormio, Sölden, Adelboden. With more than 400 World Cup starts to his name, he’s stood on the podium 74 times, picked up five Olympic medals, and nabbed four world championships. He’s one of the most decorated American skiers in history, but ski racing’s top prize, the illustrious Hahnenkamm downhill title in Kitzbühel, Austria, has remained frustratingly out of his reach.
Each year, more than 80,000 fans come to Kitzbühel to watch the Streif, as the Hahnenkamm downhill course is known. It's a two-mile snake loaded with some of ski racing’s steepest pitches, hairiest jumps, and most technical turns. It has made grown men soil their pants. “It’s the most challenging race of all, the most daring race of all,” says four-time Hahnenkamm winner Franz Klammer. “It’s like jumping into really cold water—you either sink or swim. Once you’ve mastered this downhill, then you know you’re a champion.”
Only two Americans have ever won it: Buddy Werner in 1959 and Daron Rahlves in 2003. “It’s the Super Bowl of our sport,” says Rahlves.
On Thursday, a refurbished 1970s Greyhound bus sat next to the US Ski Team’s mobile food truck in a Kitzbühel parking lot, a stone’s throw from the gondola that takes racers to the top of the Streif. Miller often relaxes in the bus's back bedroom—past all the rock and roll: the maroon leather seats, the shellacked wood paneling, the granite counter tops—playing video games. He stays in the bus to avoid the noise and crowds of the World Cup circuit.
Though Miller claims he’s achieved everything he wanted to in skiing, this one title has proved elusive. He’s been runner-up twice. In 2008, he slayed an electrifying run, rode up on the course’s safety netting, and still managed to pull off a second-place finish. He’s landed on the podium in Kitzbühel four times in the combined and slalom disciplines, but has never been handed the coveted golden rooster trophy awarded for the downhill victory. “For any racer, Kitzbühel is pretty much the pinnacle. It’s the top of downhill,” he said Wednesday in an interview on the Austrian TV channel ORF. “I’ve never won the downhill here, and it is one of those things that I do feel is missing from my career and my downhill record book.”
According to those closest to him, Miller really wants to win the Hahnenkamm downhill this year. Even in last week’s downhill race in Wengen, where he finished fifth, he was experimenting with equipment set-ups for Kitzbühel. “The desire is deep,” says U.S. Ski Team coach Mike Kenney, Miller's uncle. “I know how much a good performance here would mean to him.”
Miller’s biggest challenger is Didier Cuche, who has won the past two years and beat Miller by nearly a second last year. Cuche announced plans to retire after this year; he wants it bad, too. Still, Miller has skied at the top of his game this season. He notched a win in December at the Birds of Prey downhill in Beaver Creek, Colorado and is currently second in the World Cup downhill standings.
The greatest obstacle to Miller’s success in Kitzbühel this year might be his own desire. In addition to training and analyzing video footage, Miller's inner circle prepares him by keeping things loose and relaxed. They watch sports and play video games. They avoid talk of winning. Kenney thinks Miller will approach the race differently than he has in years past, sizing up competitors better and taking more risks. Miller has always said he doesn’t care about results, as long as he skis to his highest abilities. “You have to approach this race in a nonchalant way,” Kenney says. “You have to be in the flow and almost without care to win here.”