Americans Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves are among the favorite U.S. athletes for medals in Torino. At their typical breakneck race speeds, it’s hard to identify even slight differences in technique. But these slow-motion photo sequences, shot at the 2005 U.S. National Downhill in Mammoth, Calif., last spring, highlight each skier’s unique style and can teach us all how to master speed on snow.
Daron’s skiing is disciplined and understandable to most technicians. Detractors once described Bode’s style as unorthodox, even wrong. Now that he’s the overall World Cup champ, it’s called “innovative.
It’s impossible to know who was faster through this brief section of the course (which totaled all of about 2.5 seconds), but we can see similarities and differences in their tactics and techniques.
A: THE TUCK
A tuck is fast, but it’s difficult to turn from this squatty stance. To change direction effectively, the trick is to rise quickly but softly so your skis don’t disengage. Bode’s upper-body language suggests a direct entry into the turn. His head is more erect (maybe catching extra wind), and he seems to have a little more pressure on his uphill ski. Gliding on two skis is faster than riding just one.
Daron’s tuck might generate less drag in a wind-tunnel test. With pressure on both skis, his stance looks more traditional. He drives his rear end uphill, and delays slightly with his downhill hip and shoulder. This helps him control the tail of his downhill ski.
Both athletes extend and thrust their torsos—and centers of mass—into the turn. They move their hips across their skis to change edges, and lengthen their legs for support.
Bode’s edge-change is instantaneous and delicate. He keeps pressure on his inside ski and lets his hips trail a little behind his feet, delivering more weight to the tail of his ski, which is slightly bent. Better not try this at home: Riding the tail is fast, but it’s always a gamble.
Daron’s head is up, attentive to this turn and the one beyond it. His hips neither fall behind nor get too far ahead of his feet. He’s positioned his uphill leg for the hard work to come.
C: SKELETAL SUPPORT
At 80 mph, centrifugal force and gravity want to sling racers out of their turns. To withstand the forces, both athletes straighten their outside legs for support.
Bode is clearly very comfortable at this speed, showing no tension in his left leg. This allows his ski to arc cleanly, without harsh chatter or excessive braking. Relaxed skiers go faster. Bode tilts his head to the outside to gain a more level perspective.
Daron is solid. He is so confident and bent on finding speed that his whole body leans into the turn. Unlike Bode, he doesn’t tip his head or display any kind of angle in his neck. He knows where he’s going and how to get there fast.
This is where forces are the greatest. The goal is to complete the turn without letting so much pressure build along your edges that they carve too deep into the snow and slow down.
Here Bode is a little farther back on his skis, so he counterbalances by extending his outside arm and delaying his outside hip and shoulder.
Daron rotates through the turn faster than Bode. Notice how his outside hand is farther ahead than Bode’s. He doesn’t over-rotate but lets his body turn at the same speed as his skis. Neither style is faster nor more correct. The variations in rotation reflect their different body types.
Both athletes tuck as early as possible and nearly finish their turns before they reach the gate. Turning above the gate—not at or below it—is a critical tactic.
If we assume the camera speed is accurate, Bode appears to reach the gate a nanosecond behind Daron. Yet he seems to make a smoother turn. Daron might have lost time because he was harder on his edges in photo D. But he’s carrying so much speed, he makes it up quickly—if he ever lost it at all. Bode’s time for the race was 1:31.61. Daron’s was 1:31.64.
How one racer beats another by .03 seconds in a 2-mile downhill remains one of the great wonders of the sport.