Downhillers Prepare to Strike at Birds of Prey, Plus Who and How to Watch

This article originally appeared on Ski Mag

After a prep period that has taken them from places like the "end of the world" in Ushuaia, Argentina, to the high glaciers of Europe and then back to Copper Mountain, Colorado, the world's fastest skiers kick out of the gate, this weekend in Beaver Creek, CO.

The World Cup tour's speed skiing start comes later than expected following the cancellation of two planned downhills in Zermatt/Cervinia. With the removal of Lake Louise from the FIS calendar, Beaver Creek is not only the first speed event of the year but also the only stop in North America for World Cup speed skiers.

Bernard Russi designed Beaver Creek's Birds of Prey course for the 1999 FIS World Ski Championships to create a North American venue that could rival the great courses of Europe. Since its debut in 1997, it's done all that and has become a classic on the tour.

The venue has delivered some of the most exciting moments in American speed skiing. Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller shared the podium three times in their careers, with Rahlves winning twice and Miller three times. Rahlves' 2003 time of 1:39.59 is still the downhill course record. (Last year, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won in 1:42.09.) Since then, the course has been tempered, with swingier turns and moderated jumps to accommodate the higher speeds achieved by improved equipment. Scoring well requires nailing precise turns while also going with the course's flow from start to finish. American Ryan Cochran-Siegle notes: "You need to have a wide range of skill sets to perform well there."

The Course

Doug Lewis has been calling Birds of Prey races live for over 30 years. He explains that the course, which starts at a dizzying 11,427 feet above sea level, has almost everything that goes into a World Class Downhill. It starts slow, with thirty seconds of pancake-flat on "Flyway." As Lewis puts it, "If you do not have a pair of rockets on your feet, along with a talent for riding a flat ski and being aerodynamic, you should just pull over before The Brink as you are probably too far out to podium."

Over The Brink, all peace is abruptly shattered as skiers head into a 20-second bumpy freefall, which Lewis calls "a little bit of Kitzbuhel stuffed onto the Rockies." From there, racers head into a series of bone-rattling high G-force turns through Russi's Ride, where speeds hit the high 70s.

And then comes the big air -- a series of jumps called Screech Owl, Golden Eagle, Harrier, and Red Tail. This is where American Jared Goldberg finds his favorite feature of the course: "Golden Eagle jump is one of the biggest on the tour, and I like going big."

The one thing Birds of Prey lacks is length. Its 757-meter vertical drop is beneath the 800-meter World Cup standard and requires an exception from the FIS. Commentator and former downhiller Steve Porino suggests a way to solve this while making it more exciting to viewers.

"I think the FIS should play with the idea of a two-run downhill, and Beaver Creek would be an awesome one to try it out."

Porino notes that Birds of Prey is one of the most exciting downhills on the tour. "It's dynamic and you can see the difference between athletes," he explains. A two-run downhill, eliminating the top flats and featuring the all-action portions of Birds of Prey, would allow the event to build to a crescendo as it does in tech races.

"That's what I want to see," says Porino.

Who to Watch

Look no further for favorites in both events than Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. "Kilde crushes the start," notes Porino. The combination of strength, skis, and skill has earned the Norwegian victories for the past four races on the hill, downhills, and super-Gs in both 2022 and 2021.

Close on his heels is 2023 World Cup overall champ Marco Odermatt. The Swiss skier won the first of two super-Gs on the hill in 2021 and was runner-up to Kilde in last year's downhill.

Austria's Vincent Kriechmayr, second to Kilde in last season's DH standings and super-G winner here in 2017, will be looking to get back on the podium.

The Canadians will look to build on their tradition of success in Beaver Creek. They'll be led by reigning world super-G champion James Crawford, who was third in last year's DH.

For the American team, Ryan Cochran-Siegle is a podium contender in DH and SG any day especially on a technical track. He has scored three top-ten DH results on the hill, but he is looking to scorch a run on home turf in super-G, which is considered his strongest event.

Cochran-Siegle points out that one of the things that makes the course so difficult is the immaculate preparation by Beaver Creek's Talon Crew, who set the gold standard in course prep. After the snowmakers and groomers do their magic, close to 350 course workers, including 250-plus volunteers, come out to maintain a signature Colorado surface that is somehow rock-hard yet grippy and holds up throughout the entire field. "It's an equal playing field, and that’s when the best skiers know how to excel," notes Cochran-Siegle.

How to Watch World Cup Skiing Live This Season: It’s all on Outside Watch!

Joining Cochran-Siegle and Goldberg on the American squad are veterans Bryce Bennett, who has been skiing the course for a decade, and Sam Morse, who skied his way back onto the team last season. Local hero River Radamus scored his best-ever SG result here last season (16th) and will look to build on that. Unfortunately, their teammate Erik Arvidsson suffered a season-ending knee injury at Copper Mountain the day before moving to Beaver Creek.

Goldberg is stalking his first DH podium, having finished just off it last season at Kitzbuhel's Hahnenkamm. He calls Birds of Prey's technical aspects "a little like old school super-G." He notes that the team's off-season prep has them especially ready for this course. "We trained way more GS than we've ever trained," explains Goldberg. "I’m excited to go into this year with that."

Birds of Prey also offers American skiers something more valuable than entertainment: Inspiration. Goldberg was ten years old when his hometown hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics and recalls watching World Cups in Park City as a kid.

"It really helped me to just see that there was something you could do with ski racing later," he says. "[Birds of Prey] is our only option for younger athletes to come and see us."

Three men's World Cup races are scheduled in Beaver Creek this weekend. Catch the races live on Outside TV and on NBC/Peacock.

Friday, Dec. 1

10:45 a.m. - Downhill, live on Outside

Saturday, Dec. 2

10:45 a.m. - Downhill, live on Outside

12:00 p.m. - Friday's downhill (delayed) on CNBC

3:00 p.m. - Saturday's downhill (delayed) on NBC

Sunday, Dec. 3
10:45 a.m. - Super G, live on Outside
2:30 p.m. - Super G (delayed) on NBC

*All times Mountain Standard Time (MST)

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