Headlights pierce the predawn darkness as a pair of Audis race through the twisty turney curves of the Ötztaler Gletscherstraße, oblivious to the thousand foot drop off just inches away. They pull into an empty parking lot of the Gletscherstadion, grabbing bags of gear and skis and heading for the Tiefenbachbahn gondola and the ride to top.
It’s race morning at Sölden.
Early morning on the mountain is a peaceful time, even on race day. At 10,500 feet atop the Tiefenbach Glacier, you can see the early twilight beginning to illuminate the cloud banks hanging low over the Ötztal valley. To the west is the Pitztaler glacier. Looking eastward, the sky is ablaze in a rainbow of pastels. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Italian Dolomites nearly 50 miles away. Below is the Rettenbach Glacier, a challenging giant slalom course with nearly one hundred percent visibility to the 10,000 fans who will gather in the stadium.
Opening weekend of the Audi FIS Ski World Cup has become one of alpine ski racing’s biggest spectacles. It’s a gathering spot of the who’s who in the ski racing industry. It has become the weekend ski racers point to through the long summer in the gym and on snow in the southern hemisphere. Fans by the thousands flock to the tiny valley west of Innsbruck every October for a weekend of parties, parades and ski racing. The combination of warm fall days in the village of Sölden with a rock hard race course on the Rettenbach Glacier has proven to be a perfect mix to start the season.
It’s also a venue that has been kind to the U.S. Ski Team with eight wins over two decades – second only to the Austrian’s 10.
Bode Miller kicked it off with back-to-back victories in 2003 and 2004 – both by over a second. Lindsey Vonn grabbed a stunning come-from-behind win over Viktoria Rebensburg in 2011 – her first World Cup GS victory. That same year Ted Ligety started a three-year win streak, picking up a fourth in 2015. In 2014, Mikaela Shiffrin opened the season with her first-ever World Cup GS win.
The history of the glacier opening dates back to the early 1990s. In the late 1980s, FIS experimented with early season races in the southern hemisphere. The 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons started with men’s downhills in Las Lenas, Argentina. Australia’s Thredbo and New Zealand’s Mount Hutt came onto the calendar in August of 1989 and 1990.
At the same time the U.S. Ski Team, along with Park City Ski Area’s P.T. Barnum-like promoter Craig Badami, pitched the FIS on early season racing Thanksgiving weekend in America. After two years of March races, Park City went onto the calendar with early season racing in November, 1986 – continuing with just a few breaks until 2003.
The Park City races ushered in a new chapter of how World Cup races were presented. Badami brought in big bands and a festive atmosphere, attracting over 10,000 fans to the then little-known resort. The ski industry took notice and wanted to do the same thing in Europe to open the season. It was all about using ski racing’s stars to market the sport in the fall buying season.
The plan was to rotate the opener between some of Europe’s most notable glacier racing sites. The early concept was to rotate between Tignes in France, the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee and Sölden.
The debut came at Sölden in October, 1993 with the first FIS Alpine Forum to generate media interest with ski racing’s stars. Saas-Fee was on the calendar for October, 1994 but weather forced a cancelation. In November, 1995 the opener went Tignes, high up on the Glacier de la Grande Motte then back to Sölden a year later. Tignes held its second opener in October, 1997 on a lower valley run before the series found its permanent home in Sölden beginning in October, 1998.
This week, the ski racing world has gathered again in Sölden. Three days of press events will tell the story of the sport. Athletes will be besieged with demands. Fan clubs will parade in the streets as schnapps flows freely at the Gletscherbar in the town plaza.
And high up on the Rettenbach Glacier, Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin will start defense of their crystal globes as the six-month White Circus gets underway.
FUN FACTS ON SOELDEN
Biggest Win Streak
Ted Ligety, three straight from 2011-13
Ted Ligety with four (Hermann Maier and Tina Maze each have three)
Most Unique Fan Club
Ted Ligety Fan Club, organized by a German town without a mountain that wanted to follow a ski racer. (Join them at s’ Pfandl early on Friday evening for a schnapps)
Most Unusual Finish
Remember Mikaela Shiffrin and Anna Fenninger tying in 2014? Well, in 2002 there was a three-way tie with Andrine Flemmen, Nicole Hosp and Tina Maze.
Best Fine Dining
Hotel Central. Love the seasonal Kurbiscreamsuppe with a nice Austrian Blaufränkisch
Best (or maybe worst) Places to Party
Outdoor Gletscherbar, Bierhimmel, Black & Orange
Most Cars Passed on the Gletscherstraße While Running Late for Start
Technician Mark Archer, passing around 50 cars circa 1996
Most Beers Consumed at Bierhimmel?