Puttin' on the Kitz - Ski Mag

Puttin' on the Kitz

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Out of the Ordinary (Lead)

It's 5:30 a.m., do you know where your ski heroes are? I do. There's Franz Klammer at the Stanglwirt Hotel wielding a half-empty bottle of champagne in one hand and a plate of wurst in the other. Marc Girardelli retired shortly after dinner, Klaus Heidegger disappeared hours ago and Daron Rahlves is sleeping soundly a couple miles away,perhaps dreaming about defending his title against the best skiers on the planet. But the Kaiser, as Klammer is known throughout the ski world, holds court, as well he should in Kitzbuhel on the eve (or rather, the morn) of the Super Bowl of skiing, the Hahnenkamm downhill race.

I'm in the Austrian town of Kitzbuhel to join the "Franz and Friends tour, one of several high-end adventures offered by Franz Weber, Olympian, former speed-skiing champion and direct conduit, it seems, to everyone with a pedigree in the ski world. The weeklong tour through Austria's legendary ski destinations starts in the Arlberg, the cradle of modern skiing, crosses the alps over the Stubai Glacier and culminates in Kitzbuhel, with a backstage pass to World Cup skiing's premier event. Fifty thousand gluhwein-fueled fans line the Streif (the trail on which the Hahnenkamm takes place) while Franz and Friends watch from our catered perch above the Mausefalle, an elevator shaft of a drop that launches into the course's churning belly.

As a two-time Olympian and World Cup veteran, I've had my share of epic skiing and après-ski experiences, but I was nonetheless smitten by the prospect of exploring Austria's top resorts with the dazzling group of local champions Weber enlists as hosts. Gold medalist Patrick Ortlieb, four-time World Pro Champion Andre Arnold and Hahnenkamm winners Klammer, Girardelli and Heidegger are our faithful guides.

That's why I came, really. The parties and the ensuing scene are incidental—albeit relentless and fun. Weber's tour accommodates up to 22 people who share, in addition to high-powered careers and the commensurate disposable income (the week runs roughly $18,000 per person), a devout appreciation of skiing. At its core, Franz and Friends celebrates the best of the sport, much of which emanates from Austria. Storybook alpine villages, powder-blanketed peaks, expert instruction, great cuisine and hospitality set the scene, but camaraderie creates the gemutlichkeit, a warm fuzzy spell that transforms acquaintances into lifelong friends. [NEXT] It's just a few days into the trip and our group oozes off the bus like a band that's spent months together on tour, trading stories over dinner in the timbered warmth of the Stangl Alm, a Tyrolean tavern that is one of several gourmet dining options at the rambling, luxurious Stanglwirt. Carlo and Luigi, two Italians traveling with their wives, recount one highlight of their trip so far: skiing with Alberto Tomba in Zurs. "For an Italian, this is a dream, Carlo says. "He is our brother! Carlo's wife, Theresa, broke her collarbone in Zurs, yet still glows about Dr. Murr, who set her fracture, then invited her to have a glass of wine with his dinner guests. In her eyes, the Austrians "have the discipline of the Germans and the love for life of the Italians.

Three-hour meals are the norm in Europe, and just as I'm contemplating a nap, or perhaps a trip to the hot tub before tonight's Weisswurst Party—a celebrity-studded, A-list pre-Hahnenkamm tradition—there's a knock at my door. I'm summoned by Wolfgang Eder, Weber's European liaison, to a sleek Maybach sedan where Weber and Heidegger await to take me for a Kitzbuhel appreciation lap. Both have the iconic Austrian skier looks—bright eyes, tan faces and mischievous smiles—the look and attitude that seduced our country to their national sport. Throw in charm, confidence and an opportunistic instinct, and it's no wonder these two have thrived in the free market. But this weekend, the business of all Austrian alpine legends is to honor and be honored by their homeland, a spaetzle-shaped untry smaller than Maine whose heritage permeates the sport. With my racing background they suspect, rightly, that I'll appreciate the scene.

Our tour takes us through stubes and five-star hotels, where we encounter the likes of Klammer, famed coach Charlie Carr, and various Tyrolean and Austrian politicians. We tread through barns converted to secret ski rooms, where schnapps-sipping men discuss tomorrow's race and technicians toil with irons, scrapers and brushes, preparing the rows of race skis that line the walls. At our final stop, 1960 Olympic gold medalist Ernst Hinterseer greets us inside Pension Hinterseer for schnapps and happy memories.

That evening back at the Stanglwirt, the Weisswurst party erupts and the singer Zucherro, a cross between Elton John and Joe Cocker, and local celebrity DJ Oetzi rock the packed house well into the morning. At 5:30 a.m., there are still people to deliver plates of sausages to Klammer, and to note optimistically that his champagne bottle is actually half-full because race time is still hours away.

Race day dawns murky, windy and wet. By the time our bus reaches Hopfgarten's Fleckalmbahn lift at 9 a.m., the downhill has already been cancelled for the first time in 12 years. (It was never rescheduled, though the slalom and super G went on as planned.) Disappointed, but not devastated like the sponsors nor aimless like the fans pouring into village by the thousands, we turn our attention to what is now the main event—our own descent of the Streif. Amidst the raging blizzard, we fortify ourselves with goulash and wild mushroom risotto prepared beneath a canvas tent on our would-be viewing platform, then climb to the start house. After posing for pictures, the real games begin. Atop the Mausefalle, in driving snow and visibility akin to the inside of a milk bottle, is as good a place as any to get a crash course, so to speak, on downhill racing. Those of the group who are game cluster stiffly at the edge, staring down the barrel of their tormentor, then drop tentatively down the marble-slick surface. Downhill lesson No. 1: Never back off. First one, then another, then a third lose their grip, start to slide, then pick up speed. Lesson No. 2: When you do fall, stay loose. (Carlo's belly laugh as he plummets down the slope turns a potentially panicky situation into fine comedy.) Skiers collect in a heap in the compression with nothing worse than bruised egos, then scramble upright, adrenaline-juiced, to give each other victory salutes. Lesson No. 3: Get back on the horse. With the first turn out of the way, it was time to ski the rest of the Streif.[NEXT]For that, I employ another key skill I've learned from Weber. When in Austria, tuck yourself into the slipstream of a famous skier and let him do the talking. I hitch myself to Heidegger for the rest of the ride. Heads shake, radios crackle, heads nod, barriers drop and we are waved past, overthe Steilhang, across the narrow flats not captured on TV, down past the Seidlalm Hut, over the tabletop Hausberg jump into view of the village below, where 10,000 people watch the celebrity race, a charity event that includes past Hahnenkamm champions. Moments later, we're past the bumpy sidehill—the demise of so many Canadians—approaching the Zielschuss where racers max out at speeds of 140 kmh (87 mph). Heidegger keeps talking, and I keep ducking, and soon we're inside the ropes of the celebrity race, chatting calmly with Rahlves and Luc Alphand.

Sunday dawns clear, with two feet of powder. From the top of the Fleckalmbahn the Tyrolean Alps surround us like a sea of delicious meringues, and we prepare to dig in. The groups divide by ability. Local Hopfgarten ski school director, two-time World Pro Champion and chronically effervescent Georg Ager delivers the goods, directing us into unlikely stashes of deep, dry powder, through fence posts and past barn roofs. At midday, with mixed emotions, we abandon epic powder skiing to catch the end of the slalom race. I draft Girardelli down the Streif, veering left toward the jangle of cowbells and the telltale aroma of gluhwein. We crush into the VIP viewing area just in time to see the final racers and a victory by Austrian Michael Pranger.

After the slalom, our bus awaits, and we unwind on the ride along the Inn River Valley toward Innsbruck. Soon we'll be pulling 3 Gs down the Olympic bobsled track at 62 mph and feasting on zweibelrostbraten at the Aigidihof restaurant. But for the moment, I reflect on the words of one tour participant, George, who's on his third Weber trip. "For a week you make no decisions. Franz takes care of everything…and it's all first class of course.

Maybe the trip's appeal is as simple as that, but when I later hear about Klammer, smiling after breaking his nose in a bid to win the final "fun race, I still think it has to do with hero worship.

Details

The Franz and Friends 2006 Tour is Jan. 20—27. Rates are $18,000 per person, $29,000 per couple, with all meals, skiing, guiding and local transportation included. For information on this trip or on Franz Weber's other adventures, including biking California's wine country, sailing the Greek Islands and powder skiing in British Columbia, contact his office at 775-786-0226 or info@franzweber.com.

Getting There Kitzbuhel is easily reached by train and car from Innsbruck (62 miles), Salzburg (50 miles) and Munich (75 miles). For train information check raileurope.com. For shuttle service contact Arlberg Express, info@arlbergexpress.com. This year, the 66th International Hahnenkamm is scheduled for Jan. 20—22.

JANUARY 2006d of the slalom race. I draft Girardelli down the Streif, veering left toward the jangle of cowbells and the telltale aroma of gluhwein. We crush into the VIP viewing area just in time to see the final racers and a victory by Austrian Michael Pranger.

After the slalom, our bus awaits, and we unwind on the ride along the Inn River Valley toward Innsbruck. Soon we'll be pulling 3 Gs down the Olympic bobsled track at 62 mph and feasting on zweibelrostbraten at the Aigidihof restaurant. But for the moment, I reflect on the words of one tour participant, George, who's on his third Weber trip. "For a week you make no decisions. Franz takes care of everything…and it's all first class of course.

Maybe the trip's appeal is as simple as that, but when I later hear about Klammer, smiling after breaking his nose in a bid to win the final "fun race, I still think it has to do with hero worship.

Details

The Franz and Friends 2006 Tour is Jan. 20—27. Rates are $18,000 per person, $29,000 per couple, with all meals, skiing, guiding and local transportation included. For information on this trip or on Franz Weber's other adventures, including biking California's wine country, sailing the Greek Islands and powder skiing in British Columbia, contact his office at 775-786-0226 or info@franzweber.com.

Getting There Kitzbuhel is easily reached by train and car from Innsbruck (62 miles), Salzburg (50 miles) and Munich (75 miles). For train information check raileurope.com. For shuttle service contact Arlberg Express, info@arlbergexpress.com. This year, the 66th International Hahnenkamm is scheduled for Jan. 20—22.

JANUARY 2006

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