Sochi 2014: What's it like to race an Olympic downhill?

By Rob HodgettsBBC Sport in Sochi
Hermann 'The Herminator' Maier's spectacular downhill crash in 1998

Race day. This is it. Your shot at Olympic glory. The men's downhill, that steep icy tightrope between glory and disaster awaits. If not now, when? Are you ready?

Five-time Olympian Graham Bell and France's Luc Alphand, a 10-time World Cup downhill winner, provide the inside track on Olympic skiing's blue riband event.

Warm-up, inspection, lycra, movie time

It's a glorious day, you bounce out of bed, scoff a hearty breakfast and head up to the start. Not in your lycra, though. If you stretch it too much it will slow you down. You won't be on your race skis either. The ski tech will bring those. A couple of warm-up runs get the heart pumping and the feet working. You've trained on the course up to three times already so the track knowledge is locked in, but you have one final inspection.

Bell: "Bode Miller does very fast course inspections, just taking a cursory glance, while Hermann Maier used to take the maximum possible time, rehearsing every single bump and roller on the course. It's a very individual thing."

Half an hour before the off you reach the start area. You wriggle into your lycra, and fight your way back into your ski boots.

Time for a final mental run-down of the course. Eyes closed, leaning on your poles, you trace the track with your hand, like a mime artist describing a snake.

Alphand: "The downhill is like a movie. You know exactly where you have to start the turn, which direction you will jump on the big jumps, everything is like a film in your head and the only thing to do is think about going fast and to attack the piste."

Not long to go now. You look around for your serviceman.

Bell: "He may have several pairs ready for different conditions and around a couple of minutes before your start he selects the race skis and lays them out on the snow. They will have had a last-minute wax so you don't want to slide them around too much before you go."

The serviceman clicks you into the bindings, making sure there is no snow on the boots. Less than a minute to go. Time to enter the start hut.

Bell: "The nerves have been building but this is the worst time, when you're clicking into your skis. When the racer in front goes, the nerves dissipate. About 30 seconds before you go is the calmest you feel."

Into the start hut - ready for the off...

You plant your poles in front of the gate and poke your skis over the edge. The timing official pulls the starting wand across. Here in Sochi you are high on the Aigba Ridge above Rosa Khutor. The view is stunning, but you're not looking. All you can see is the bullet-hard icy track plunging down into the forest. Orange netting flanks the course, twin blue lines on the snow mark the racing line. The race face is on.

Aksel Lund Svindal pushes out of the start gate during a training run in Sochi

Bell: "You are trying to get into that mental state that works for you. Everyone is different. Bode Miller likes deep breaths to calm himself right down, Hermann Maier and Didier Cuche were real fighters, shouting and being really aggressive, and then someone like Alberto Tomba or Christian Ghedina would tell jokes to the starter, throw their sticks over the wand and go. I was very much a fighter."

Alphand: "The worst moment of my career was at the Olympic Games in Calgary in 1988. I was at the gate and when they said '10 seconds', I didn't know who I was or where I was. It was a complete nightmare. I was completely killed by the pressure and couldn't think."

Beep, beep, beep….GO!

The clock bleeps down from five and you can go at any time. You choose three, push hard with your poles and skate explosively out of the gate. Pointing them downhill you get into a neat tuck, hands in a streamlined position in front. The start is steep and you are already flying. This Sochi course is a tough, technical track with lots of high-speed turns in and out of shadows, big jumps such as the Russian Trampoline and Lake Jump, and flat sections where you need to maintain speed. It's all on.

Bell: "Straight out of the gate it is performance goals rather than outcome goals you are focusing on. You can't be thinking about winning a medal. You focus on the technical side of things, such as more weight on the outside ski, more hip angulation, taking a good line on turns and over jumps."

Graham Bell skis 'dangerous' Sochi downhill course

Alphand: "You are thinking one or two turns or a jump ahead. You have to be accurate in your lines, but sometimes you change during the race and think maybe I can take off 20 cm more in the next turn. There is no place to relax."

The turns are coming at you fast. You try to keep the skis on the edges, carving, accelerating. There's a big right-hander, hard on the left foot and hug the gate as you come out, straight into a tight left turn, ooof, skidded there, messed that up a bit….then whooaaa, crikey, that was a lot of air, phew, nailed the landing, back into the tuck, OK, we're going well…

Bell: "It's difficult to tell if you are going fast, but sometimes if you take a lot of air on a jump it is a good indicator. If you make a mistake you know about it, but it is amazing how quickly you forget. It's like the brain pretends it didn't happen.

"If you do make a mistake early on you might think 'I've got nothing to lose', so you might take a riskier line on the bottom half. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't."

In Europe there might be hordes of fans lining the piste, ringing cowbells and cheering as the racers fly by, but in Sochi there will be no spectators on the course. It's just you, heavy breathing, skis chattering and heart thumping.

Alphand: "It's rare to hear the crowd. One of the only times I ever heard them was at the Olympics in Albertville as I came into the finish. With the helmets and the wind, you can't really hear them."

The course begins to flatten out and the TV commentators will be saying things like, "he's got to carry that speed through the gliding sections". But what makes a good 'glider'?

Bell: "Body position, a good aerodynamic tuck and how light you are on your skis. If you ride the edges all the time you will be slower because they are made of metal and you want to be on the plastic base, keeping them as flat as possible. You can see a good glider's skis sometimes wobble or 'wash' around on the snow. That's a good thing, but it feels scary when you're doing it.

"One of the best gliders was Rob Boyd, the Canadian, who said he used to try to project a 'zen-like bubble of aerodynamicness' in front of his body. So there's always that. I'm not sure if it works 100%, though.

"There might be sections where you can take couple of bigger breaths or have a final pysch up, knowing there is a tough finish coming up. You can't drift off, but you can give yourself a mental once over. You wouldn't be thinking about whether to have steak or chicken for dinner."

Are we there yet?

You've been charging for nearly two minutes, and don't you know about it. The Sochi course is the longest Olympic downhill ever at 2.1 miles - with a drop of 3526ft (1085m). Your legs are on fire.

But that's why you've been squatting a minimum of twice your body weight (one and a half for a woman) to build up those muscles.

"A host of toxins flood muscles and cause fatigue and lactic acid is the major one," said John Noonan, the British Ski team's strength and conditioning coach.

Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway takes a turn during training for the Olympic men's downhill
World champion Aksel Lund Svindal takes the strain in a downhill training run in Sochi

Noonan enhances his athletes' tolerance to "the burn" by having them sprint flat out on an exercise bike for 30 seconds before doing jumping exercises or foot-speed work to replicate tired legs on the lower part of the course.

"It's very aggressive training," said Noonan, who discourages holiday skiers from the classic "sitting against a wall watching TV" position.

Bell: "You've always got a little bit more in your legs than you think. You have got to get the body in the right positions and keep going fast and just ignore the screaming pain."

At last, the line is in sight…

Or rather, it isn't, until you fly over the last blind roller, the Deer Jump, and almost free fall into the finish arena in front of the huge Sochi 2014 stands. The crowd are cheering and waving flags and the stadium announcer is having palpitations. Will it be a green or red light - faster or slower than the rest? Your jelly legs slam the skis sideway to stop, you look up through the cloud of snow you've just thrown up, and try to focus on the big screen to see where you have come. And it's …

Didier Defago celebrates winning Olympic downhill gold in Vancouver four years ago
Didier Defago celebrates winning Olympic downhill gold in Vancouver four years ago

Whatever happens, don't forget to lift up your skis for the camera or your sponsors won't be happy.

Bell: "That's ingrained. Or you could try the Didier Cuche ski flick. If you don't flash them to the camera, the chances are you won't get a fast pair of skis for next time.

"The worst thing you can do is take them off, look at the camera and throw them on the ground."

But hopefully you won't need to because you've just won Olympic gold and life is rosy. Unless, of course, they are still untangling you from the orange netting.

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