Winter is just around the corner and it is time to start thinking about your ski vacation. When is the best time to start into the new ski season?
Well, there is no easy answer here in Tirol, where you are spoilt for choice. I let you in on a little secret… Sometimes it’s good to wait and see what happens as often these problems resolve easily. First, I get a message from a good friend from Switzerland’s Ticino: “Hi Luca. I will be in Soelden at the end of October for the World Cup races and some skiing. Will you join me?” Later, I find out that Renate and Alfried, two friends from Germany’s Hamburg, will be in Sölden for the kick-off of the new season, too
Off for Skiing Holidays, Off for the World Cup
Some things never change. Sölden’s Rettenbach Glacier regularly hosts the first events of the Alpine Skiing World Cup, the Giant Slalom. The Sölden World Cup signifies the start of ski racing season, this year for the 19th time in 23 years. The FIS Alpine World Cup circuit is the highest level in the sport worldwide, attracting global interest at each tour stop. The 2016-2017 tour kicks off in Sölden from October 21 to 23, 2016 with a women’s & men’s giant slalom.
Renate and Alfried from Hamburg, Germany, are here for the 16th time. Since the year 2000, they have been attending the races for 16 years in a row. “It’s tempting to sneak in some early season turns on the same snow, on the same steep pitches and with the same visibility as the world’s best skiers”, Alfried explains their annual ski trip to Ötztal Valley. Although the formidable racecourse that is challenging an international roster of top athletes for this weekend of racing is closed for public skiing, there are wide-open slopes featuring great early-season conditions. It’s a great time to get your ski legs under you, to watch thrilling races and to rub shoulders with the world’s top skiers—sometimes you are even going to ride the chair lift with one of them.
The vibe of the World Cup circuit is nothing short of infectious, with an incredible contingent of fans travelling from race to race from week to week, cheering on racers. And it is just awesome to be part of it and watch from the stands. The races elevate the skiing experience and spectating is great fun. You meet both like-minded and new friends. Actually, Renate and Alfried plan their ski trips in accordance with the World Cup schedule. They have watched races in Schladming, St. Moritz, Val d’Isère, Tignes, Sochi, Vail, Wengen, Kitzbühel and at the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France, and Torino, Italy.
Their annual must-stop, however, is Sölden. This is when the season is back in action. It’s an opportunity to see how the professional skiers have developed in their summer training camps. This is where their journey starts and “this is the place where our winter begins, too,” says Alfried.
The World Cup of Fan Clubs
But World Cup ski racing-style excitement isn’t the only reason skiers and racers show up. Sölden is skiing’s party-central in October, filling up with fans from all over Europe with painted faces, flags, and fan club placards. Each year 30 to 40 official racers’ fan clubs gather in Sölden and compete in the traditional Fan Club Show. During the races, there are designated spectator viewing areas where the fan clubs cheer on their skiers. “They help to create a truly special atmosphere around here during the World Cup opener,” says Ernst Lorenzi, head of the local organizing committee.
One of the highlights of the World Cup opener in Sölden each year, the Fan Club Show is scheduled for Saturday afternoon. It is always a favourite with fan clubs from across Europe trying to out-do each other with imaginative performances while marching down Sölden’s main street in the Fan Club Parade. The official award-giving ceremony for the Fan Club Show winners is celebrated after the men’s race on Sunday. “During the last few years, the fans coming from French Le Gran Bornand Region were constantly among the most active,” says Lorenzi. They are a huge bunch of people who descend on Ötztal Valley each year to cheer on their home turf favourites.
I remember this hard-core group of French fans, too. When I first came to Sölden for the men’s giant slalom in 2010, the experience was overshadowed by fog in the true sense of the word. Competition was extra tight in the first run with two racers tied for third, just 0.03 seconds back off the lead and 0.01 seconds back off the second fastest time. A thick fog settled onto the Rettenbach Glacier following the first run of the race Sunday and officials determined that visibility was too poor to go through with the second run. Thus, the race was cancelled. And the weather didn’t look at all appealing to hit the slopes. I was disappointed. Yet, what happened next? The French fan club appeared and threw an incredible party in the finish stadium area. Even the racers joined the celebration. It was a great one-off experience.
The Austrian fan clubs laid down some memorable performances during the last years, too. Trying to out-do each other, the fan clubs of Hannes Reichelt and Marcel Hirscher marched down the main street with a snowcat and a tram.
The Italian fan clubs are very popular, too. Dressed in Luis Trenker style vintage clothing, they give away speck, Parmesan cheese and schnapps.
All day long, marching Swiss “Guggenmusik” bands are playing their stirring music to the entertainment of all. Celebrating the arrival of winter, the Fan Club Show is second-to-none on the World Cup tour and elevates the experience surrounding the World Cup race weekend in Sölden each year.
All the greatest ski racing action is happening at the World Cup opener in Sölden. As the first major ski race of the season, the world’s greatest Alpine skiers show up, primed like racehorses and champing at their bits. Athletes are going for speed and the first points for the Crystal Globe as the White Circus has its season opening. It is telltale about the way the skiers have approached their preparation over the summer.
Past winners of Sölden races have included the greatest of the greats; among them Anita Wachter, Katja Seizinger, Martina Ertl, Michaela Dorfmeister, Lindsey Vonn, Anja Paerson, Stephan Eberharter, Bode Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal, and Didier Cuche. Tine Maze won Sölden three times and Ted Ligety set a new record in 2015 with his fourth Sölden win, moving ahead of the incomparable Hermann Maier with whom he was tied at three. For nine times, the racer who scored victory in Sölden has won the World Cup overall title that same season, for eleven times the overall giant slalom title.
Winning Sölden does not happen by chance or as luck would have it. On the Rettenbach Glacier, at elevations 3,040 meters to 2,670 meters top-to-bottom, the world’s top competitors line up alongside the course that has a good pitch to it – the longest, steepest, sustaining pitch on the World Cup, and long flats where the World Cup racers really have to go fast.
Strange things have happened here several times, though: In 2014, American Mikaela Shiffrin clinched her first GS win, sharing victory with Austria’s Anna Fenninger in a tense season-opening race. This was not the first time the season-opening race on the Rettenbach Glacier ended in a tie. There was even a triple victory in 2002 when Tirol’s Nicole Hosp, Slovenia’s Tina Maze, and Norway’s Andrine Flemmen shared the win. Local hero Benni Raich, however, who won 14 medals at Winter Olympics and World Championships, 36 World Cup race victories, one first place and five second places in the World Cup overall ranking, three victories of the slalom World Cup, three victories of the combined World Cup, and two victories of the giant slalom World Cup, never made it to the podium in Sölden. In 2014, the last season before he retired from skiing, he finished fourth, just 0.01 seconds back off the third place.
On October 22 and 23, 2016, the greatest female and male Alpine ski racers in the world will be back on Rettenbach Glacier for a weekend of thrill and some serious racing action. Competition will be fierce as this is where the fight for glory, and for the all-telling Crystal Globe, begins. The tallies refresh anew every year in Sölden…
The Bottom Line
The World Cup season opener weekend celebrates the arrival of winter and the glacier ski resort provides great early-season conditions. So, again, when is the best time to start into the new ski season? Well, maybe it’s easier than you think. Join the crowds celebrating in Sölden, and be at the place where the new World Cup season begins!
(Header Photo Credit: Ötztal Tourismus)