If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to witness World Cup downhill racing up close, U.S. racer Travis Ganong has some insight that may pique your interest enough to check out the men racing this weekend at Beaver Creek.
“If you’ve never seen it before, TV does not do it justice at all,” said Ganong, who won a silver medal when the world championships were held at Beaver Creek in 2015. ”On television, you can’t tell how steep things are, how fast things are. It’s absolutely terrifying to stand on the side of the hill and hear one of us zip by going 70 or 80 miles per hour. It sounds like a fighter jet ripping by you. Even for me, as someone who does it, I hate standing on the side and listening to them go by because I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m doing that, too?’ It’s nuts.”
Admission to the races is free. There is a race arena at the finish with a grandstand, but spectators also can hike up a ways to the side of the course. Watching downhill or super-G will take up an hour or so of your day, and you can spend the rest of the day skiing or snowboarding. The downhill is scheduled for Friday at 10:45 a.m. The super-G, which has slower average speeds but still produces speeds in excess of 75 mph, is set for Saturday at 11 a.m. A giant slalom will follow on Sunday. Races will be televised on NBCSN and the Olympic Channel.
Ganong is from Truckee, Calif., and is one of the top U.S. downhillers. The Denver Post asked him to explain what it’s like to be a downhiller.
Q. Why is Beaver Creek so cool for those who go to see ski racing for the first time, as well as for you?
A. Beaver Creek is one of the most fun downhill tracks on the circuit. Every World Cup downhill track is different — different vertical from top to bottom, different pitches (slope angles). There’s big jumps, small jumps, rolls, side-hill fall-away turns. There’s big exposure, where you come over a roll and all you see is a town 2,000 feet below you.
Every week we show up to these venues and we have to figure out how to go as fast as possible from the top to the bottom, and it’s very competitive. The times are separated by hundredths of a second, which is crazy when you think about how long the tracks are, how many miles we’re going. We’re going two, three, four miles down this mountain, and to be separated by two-hundredths of a second is just mind-blowing.
Q. You plan your racing tactics based on your experience on each course, and also how you find the course feeling in downhill training runs. How does that work?
A. It’s all about trying to figure out the line in each section, in each turn. It’s like a puzzle, trying to figure out what the speeds are going to be like coming into each section. Say there’s a section we’re coming into with a huge left-footed turn. If you’re going into that turn at 60 mph vs. 80 mph, it completely changes where you start the turn, where you end the turn, where the apex is. It’s a mind game as well as a physical game.
Q. What are the forces like on your body, racing at the highway speeds downhill creates?
A. We are our own suspension system, our own engine, and there’s no mechanical advantages except that our skis are levers and our boots give us connection to our skis. We are pushing more Gs than a fighter pilot, we’re going faster than you can go on any road in the U.S. without getting a speeding ticket, and we’re jumping almost as far as ski jumpers jump.
At the Sochi Olympics (2014), on the second to last jump, I jumped over 100 yards in the middle of a course where I was trying to negotiate turns and rolls and terrain features. It’s just a really complete sport where it’s mentally challenging, it’s tactically challenging, it’s physically demanding and there’s a lot of risk. The competition is really close, so you have to take those risks if you want to have success.