Mythic world cup opening Sölden

Since the 2000/2001 season, the yearly held men’s and women’s Alpine Ski World Opening has been taking place on Sölden’s Rettenbach Glacier. This ultimate World Cup season kick-off attracts thousands of visitors and sports fans to the valley.

But what it is that makes the giant slalom races on the glacier slope high above Sölden so legendary? We got to the bottom of the mythic World Cup Opening by reviving some very special moments of the past in order to get attuned to this year’s races.

Legendary race track

No race without a proper track, of course! The World Cup race track makes the undisputed highlight of the entire opening weekend as the superb slope features a different shape every year. It’s easy to explain: the race track is built on glacier ice which moves permanently. Especially in its lower part, the slope has become steeper and steeper over the last years – as if a 65% gradient wasn’t enough!

Besides the season’s final races, the Alpine Ski World Cup Opening in Sölden is the one and only competition in the race calendar for both men and women who conquer exactly the same race track. According to the opinion of many athletes, the races of Sölden rank among the season’s most difficult ones – held on the occasion of the winter kick-off event! Even the male racers describe the slope as very demanding and tricky.

Weltcup Auftakt Sölden - Sölden, Tirol
An incredibly long crucial spot: the steepest part of the slope © Markus Geisler / Bergbahnen Sölden

One of the main crucial points is the very steep and extremely long central part of the slope. To cut a long story short: find your perfect rhythm in the upper part before you enter the steepest slope section, keep your skis in line and try to be as active as possible, then take all the speed to reach the finish line in the lower part.

Ski Weltcup Auftakt Sölden - Sölden, Tirol
She put her mark on Sölden’s races: Tina Maze © GEPA pictures / Ötztal Tourismus

Legendary (fe)male winners

In 2002, Rettenbach Glacier saw an absolute event premiere of the Alpine Ski World Cup: Norway’s Andrine Flemmen, Austria’s Nicole Hosp and Slovenia’s Tina Maze recorded exactly the same winning time! Tina Maze, three-time winner of the opening race, ranks among the record holders of Sölden – together with four-time winner Ted Ligety.

The victory of Ted Ligety in 2012 signed a totally new era in the history of Sölden’s races. Right before the 2012 season start, the material standards were changed by the International Ski Association to prevent further severe injuries in Alpine Ski World Cup races. The athletes had to use longer but narrower skis by increasing the curve radius.

Both the tension and uncertainty were enormous previous to the season’s first race held in Sölden. Nobody knew how to handle the new requirements but the answer was found soon: Ted Ligety from the USA controlled the new material from start to finish by inventing his own technique which resulted in a fabulous best time. He won the race by far, the rest was beaten by a mile.

Ted Ligety - Ski Weltcup Auftakt Sölden
Absolute record holder with 4 victories (at present): Ted Ligety © Erich Spiess / Ötztal Tourismus
Also Austria’s Anita Wachter set a new dimension in ski racing. In 1993, she won the competition by a margin of 2.63 seconds – this is still a record in Sölden! From an Austrian point of view, the triple podium in the men’s race was a truly unique highlight in 1998: the winner was Hermann Maier followed by Stefan Eberharter and Heinz Schilchegger.

Legendary takeoff

Ski Weltcup Auftakt Sölden
What crossed Erik Schlopy’s mind at that very moment? The broken ski is clearly visibly! © Ernst Lorenzi

True fans of the World Cup races in Sölden can remember Erik Schlopy for sure. The top skier from the US team made one of the most spectacular takeoffs in the history of ski racing. Entering the steepest part of the slope he broke one of his skis without even noticing it.

Unluckily he almost took off on the most inopportune spot of the whole race track – first he flew, then he slid down the steep slope before he could finally stop his falling. Fortunately he had no major injuries and passed the finish line wedeling on one ski.

Legendary fans

Since the beginning of the World Cup history on Rettenbach Glacier, a huge crowd of spectators and fan clubs have added to a memorable race and party atmosphere all weekend long. Acoustic and visual effects have always been the driving force behind the World Cup Opening – be it cow bells or jingles clearly audible also at the start house. The athletes appreciate their fans’ enthusiasm by doing the last turn right in front of their fan groups in the finish area. This is also the right place to give vent to their emotions.

What’s more, the fan club parade has become an unrivaled crowd puller. It takes the fans and spectators right through the village of Sölden. Fancy dresses and decoration are an absolute must when it comes to the great fan club parade towards the central Postplatz square where the World Cup Opening party is scheduled. No matter if Bavarian brass music, Swiss cow bells or French chansons – as long as they are loud, amusing and colorful!

Skiweltcup Auftakt Sölden
Great party atmosphere guaranteed thanks to the fans in the finish area © Markus Geisler / Bergbahnen Sölden
Ski Weltcup Auftakt Sölden
A view from the start house © Ernst Lorenzi

Legendary tension

No matter if you are an athlete, a member of the service team, an equipment supplier or a passionate fan: after the long summer break everyone feverishly awaits the World Cup season’s first ski race in order to appear in the most successful way! Also the racers and their support staff can’t wait to compare their performance against other international athletes.

Countless professional equipment suppliers hope to see their athletes on the podium. The fan clubs still try to improve their choreography by adding more unique features. Or more precisely: everyone involved in the ski races is sitting on pins and needles – waiting for the first results in joyful anticipation.

Legendary preparation works

The untiring organizing committee has to worry about completely other things: is there enough snow for a race? It only depends on their evaluation. The preparatory works for the World Cup Opening weekend held in October start in early spring by piling up masses of snow and covering the storage areas with sun-reflecting fleece. A minimum snow layer of 30 centimeters is required to fix the giant slalom gates safely.

In 2014 the organizing team found out that, besides high temperatures, also too much snow can be a problem. On Thursday prior to the race, there was about 80 centimeters of fresh snow in the finish area and more than 1 meter at the start. It almost seemed a Herculean task but the organizers could get the slope ready for the race and a superb World Cup Opening.

Ski Weltcup Auftakt Sölden
The race track experts use a water spray bar © Ernst Lorenzi

This year’s preparation works run according to plan. In mid-September we started to remove the fleece cover and to spread the snow equally over the entire slope. At the same time the snow-making devices went into operation, temperature permitting. TV broadcast cables are laid, safety fences and crowd barriers are installed about 10 to 14 days prior to the event. During the World Cup week the whole race track is closed by the International Ski Association to guarantee perfect slope grooming conditions.

May the World Cup Opening come quickly! Sölden is more than ready – looking very much forward to the race events taking place from 25 to 27 October 2019, a perfect opportunity to celebrate the unofficial start of the winter season!

(This article was originally published in 2016 and got adapted)

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Author Benni

When it comes to activity and motion, Benni pricks up his ears! He is a passionate snowboarder, mountain biker, climber & hiker and he knows no better playground for outdoor sports than the Ötztal. He is not the type to sit still - therefore Benni can be often found on the valley's most exciting bike trails and pristine powder snow slopes.

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