Italy's Olympic Mountains - Ski Mag

Italy's Olympic Mountains

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If a galaxy is a pretty big place, then "Milky Way is as appropriate a name as any for the sprawling chain of ski areas—connected by lifts and skiable with a single pass—that is the heart and soul of the Olympic Games. The Via Lattea, or Milky Way, includes Sestriere, Sauze d'Oulx, San Sicario, Cesana and Claviere, as well as Montgenevre on the other side of the French border. It encompasses an impressive 247 miles of trails and 88 lifts. (For perspective, Vail has 34 lifts.) To boot, many athletes will stay in the mountains as well as compete there: Sestriere and nearby Bardonecchia each have Olympic Villages, to complement a third one in Torino.

This is Italy's first Winter Olympics since the 1956 Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, and the Italians will surely put their own stamp on them. For one thing, athletes and visitors are sure to eat well—Torino is the capital of the Piemonte province, known for its food as well as some of the country's best wines. Here's a rundown of the Olympic mountains, the events taking place at each and how you can steal some ski time of your own—during the Olympics or in seasons to come.

Sestriere: Alpine, All the Way
Sestriere, just over an hour's drive from Torino, will host all of the alpine skiing events except the women's downhill and super G. Sestriere's long, storied history as a venue for international ski competitions stretches back to the 1960s. It's one of the handful of resorts that hosted World Cup races in 1967, the tour's inaugural season. The irrepressible Italian Alberto Tomba won his first World Cup race at Sestriere on his way to three Olympic golds. Other legendary names from the past, such as Killy, Stenmark and Zurbriggen, also captured major international races here. In fact, the resort's hosting of the 1997 World Championships was a key factor in Torino getting these games. Sestriere's dependable snow also helped. With its village poised at a lofty (for the Alps) 6,676 feet and its highest lift rising almost to the top of 9,000-foot Mount Motta, it can be counted on to have the deepest snowpack in the region. It also doesn't hurt that its natural snow is augmented by one of the world's most extensive snowmaking systems, ensuring coverage for the races.

Sestriere was founded in 1934 as the Alps' first purpose-built resort, started by Fiat auto company founder Gianni Agnelli on a high, windy, barren mountain pass. He originally envisioned it as a place to test cars from his Torino-based plant under winter conditions, but by 1934, he and his son, Edoardo, had created a ski resort there instead. They started by erecting a pair of tall cylindrical hotel towers, modern versions of which still loom as the town's most recognizable landmarks. But Sestriere, made up largely of boxy apartments and hotels, has never been known for its architectural charm. It has maintained a chic atmosphere over the years with smart shops like those along Via Louset and Via Pinerolo; good restaurants like the new Barbasel, opened by former Italian World Cup racer Barbara Merlin; world-class hotels, such as the luxurious and newly renovated Grand Hotel Principi di Piemonte; and most important, its international reputation as a ski-racing hot spot. The town's Olympic Village will be in a former Club Med resort that also housed athletes during the '97 World Championships.

The men's downhill and super G will be run down the tricky Kandahar Banchetta in the Borgata section of the ski area. Originally created by racecourse design master Bernhard Russi for the '97 Worlds, it has been reconfigured for 2006. The course now begins near the summit with a moderately pitched stretch of technical curves, then plummets through a steep wooded section, alternating twisting turns and straightaways until it reaches the finish line, dropping a total of 3,000 vertical feet (see the course map on page 80). The slalom and giant slalom races will be held on another pair of trails in the Sises section. New gonlas have been installed at Sestriere for the Games— one that runs from the Olympic Village to the starting area for the women's races at San Sicario, and another linking the village with Pragelato, where the ski jumping, cross-country and nordic combined will take place.

The good news is that Sestriere easily has the region's best and most varied terrain for recreational skiing, including the precipitous black-diamonds that drop from the tops of Borgata and Sises, and exciting off-piste skiing. The bad news? Sestriere is the only Olympic resort to tightly restrict recreational skiing, so skiers attending the Games are pretty much out of luck. With races taking place there throughout the Games, skiing will be limited—if not completely banned—for most of January and the whole month of February. Those who have their hearts set on checking out the terrain might have to stay on for a few days after the Olympics or come back next season.[NEXT]Sauze d'Oulx: Freestyle Hijinks
Athletes will be twisting and flipping through the freestyle events at Sauze d'Oulx (pronounced sow-zee-DOO), the second largest and second-most popular of the Milky Way resorts. The town's history goes back to pre-Roman times, and unlike its more famous neighbor, Sestriere, it's built around a quaint village core of narrow winding streets, 16th-century stone fountains and a charming cobbled square. The Milky Way resorts have long been favorites of the British, and Sauze has become especially popular with young Brits looking for an inexpensive holiday getaway. Consequently, Sauze d'Oulx is famous for its nightlife—maybe too famous, as far as resort officials are concerned. The town is dotted with 27 bars and pubs with names like the Derby Bar and Paddy McGinty's (said to have been dismantled in Ireland and reassembled in Sauze). Although the town has had some success in toning down its image and becoming more family friendly, its nightlife remains the Milky Way's most dynamic. During the Olympics it should be the place in the mountains to party the night away.

With most of its terrain devoted to cruisers that angle down a wide, rounded bowl, Sauze d'Oulx is a perfect resort for intermediates, who can sail down the broad runs through the trees beneath the Sportinia section at midmountain or the moderate slopes at the summit. Experts won't find that much to get excited about, although some of the off-piste skiing is interesting. One famous run, Rio Nero, drops 5,000 feet down a river ravine to end on a road miles away from the resort, where skiers have to either catch a bus or prearrange a taxi pickup. Beginners should note that the novice terrain is limited and some of it is located mid-mountain or higher.

As for the freestyle competitions, they won't actually be held on the ski resort slopes, but rather on courses specially built for the Games on the other side of the village.

San Sicario: Fast Women
The women's downhill and super G races will take place at little San Sicario, tucked between Sestriere and Sauze d'Oulx on 8,861-foot Mount Fraiteve. Ever since it was built in 1973 near a quaint old village of the same name, San Sicario has outshined its big brother Sestriere in looks and charm. Today, the resort has become a fashionable destination for affluent skiers from Torino and Milan. The ski area might be small, only 39 trails served by 11 lifts, but it has a 3,280-foot vertical drop and a wider variety of terrain than some of the region's larger resorts.

The women will be racing down the black-diamond Fraiteve trail on a course that's viewed as more technical than tough, starting down a moderately steep wall, leveling off halfway through a wooded section, then dropping down a steeper stretch and another wall before hitting the finish line. The word around Sestriere last season was that the Olympic Committee didn't want the courses to be too fast. But controversy erupted when Hilde Gerg and others from the Austrian women's team tested the super G course and complained, loudly, that it was too easy. They started an athlete's petition and lobbied the Olympic Committee to move the race to a more difficult piste at Sestriere. The race remains at San Sicario, but the committee made some landscape changes to amp up the challenge.

Most of the recreational ski trails range from easy to moderate, but advanced skiers will have a couple of black trails to play on, including the very long Olympic piste. A new double chair runs up to Fraiteve, and a new cable car now connects San Sicario with the tiny resort of Cesana, a few miles down the road, site of the bobsled, luge and skeleton races.

Torino: Up and Coming
If you are going to the Olympics mainly to watch the skiing, you'll likely find yourself in Torino (or Turin, to us Americans) more than you'll have imagined. That's not entirely a bad thing: Torino is a vibrant, entertaining city on the move. Much of it has an industrial past and look, lorded over for decades as it was by Fiat and the family Agnelli. But its historic center is charming and beautiful, dominated by the Baroque architecture for which the city is famous. Over the centuries, Torino has been a hub of political intrigue (it was once the capital of Italy), and an intellectual outpost of poets, painters, musicians and architects. Of its many porticoed streets, Via Po is the most captivating, lined with shops, cafes and pasticcerias selling delicious treats such as a cannoli Siciliano, made with oranges and chocolate. Vendors hawk books and other goods from tables set up in outdoor arcades that stretch along both sides of the street. The cafe is central to life in Torino, a place to stop for an aperitif (vermouth was invented in the city a few hundred years ago), an espresso or a pastry. Some are legendary, such as the Fiorio, where Italian statesmen plotted the country's reunification, and the elegant Baratti and Milano, set on the historic Piazza Castello, or the Bicerin, which gave its name to a regional drink that combines coffee, unsweetened chocolate and cream. Garibaldi Street, in the center of the old city, is a car-free lane of shops and boutiques jammed in the evenings with promenading residents and visitors. Yes, the gold may be in the hills, but as we'll surely see during the games, Torino is home to world-class shopping, fine art and medal-worthy dining. And like many other Olympic towns, it'll only get better from here.

FEBRUARY 2006eam tested the super G course and complained, loudly, that it was too easy. They started an athlete's petition and lobbied the Olympic Committee to move the race to a more difficult piste at Sestriere. The race remains at San Sicario, but the committee made some landscape changes to amp up the challenge.

Most of the recreational ski trails range from easy to moderate, but advanced skiers will have a couple of black trails to play on, including the very long Olympic piste. A new double chair runs up to Fraiteve, and a new cable car now connects San Sicario with the tiny resort of Cesana, a few miles down the road, site of the bobsled, luge and skeleton races.

Torino: Up and Coming
If you are going to the Olympics mainly to watch the skiing, you'll likely find yourself in Torino (or Turin, to us Americans) more than you'll have imagined. That's not entirely a bad thing: Torino is a vibrant, entertaining city on the move. Much of it has an industrial past and look, lorded over for decades as it was by Fiat and the family Agnelli. But its historic center is charming and beautiful, dominated by the Baroque architecture for which the city is famous. Over the centuries, Torino has been a hub of political intrigue (it was once the capital of Italy), and an intellectual outpost of poets, painters, musicians and architects. Of its many porticoed streets, Via Po is the most captivating, lined with shops, cafes and pasticcerias selling delicious treats such as a cannoli Siciliano, made with oranges and chocolate. Vendors hawk books and other goods from tables set up in outdoor arcades that stretch along both sides of the street. The cafe is central to life in Torino, a place to stop for an aperitif (vermouth was invented in the city a few hundred years ago), an espresso or a pastry. Some are legendary, such as the Fiorio, where Italian statesmen plotted the country's reunification, and the elegant Baratti and Milano, set on the historic Piazza Castello, or the Bicerin, which gave its name to a regional drink that combines coffee, unsweetened chocolate and cream. Garibaldi Street, in the center of the old city, is a car-free lane of shops and boutiques jammed in the evenings with promenading residents and visitors. Yes, the gold may be in the hills, but as we'll surely see during the games, Torino is home to world-class shopping, fine art and medal-worthy dining. And like many other Olympic towns, it'll only get better from here.

FEBRUARY 2006

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