Schladming: Why Alpine ski event should be on your bucket list

By Libby DawesBBC Sport
Schladming fans
From the top to the bottom of the run - fans squeeze in to catch a glimpse of the action
XXIII Olympic Winter Games
Venue: Pyeongchang, South Korea Dates: 9-25 February
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, Red Button, Connected TVs, BBC Sport website and mobile app.

A group of British fans we spoke to begged us not to write this feature...

"Don't tell everyone about it! It's Europe's best kept secret!" they claimed.

Well, apologies that group. The Schladming night slalom is too good not to share.

Here are six reasons why this unique event deserves a place at the top of your sporting bucket list.

The venue

The finish line of the men's slalom event at Schladming
Space is at a premium at the finish line

For the most part, Schladming, about 100km south east of Salzburg in Austria, is a relatively quiet former mining town, popular with confident skiers and snowboarders.

But for one night a year, a 50,000-strong crowd engulfs the sides of the Planai, (Schladming's terrifyingly steep mountain) when the biggest names in alpine racing come to town.

As a spectator sport, Austria's national sport has never been more popular. But the only way we can describe this particular race is as "the FA Cup final meets World Championship darts". All the grandeur, history and anticipation of Wembley, with the rowdy, chaotic feel of a packed Alexandra Palace.

British hopeful and Liverpool fan Dave Ryding (who has adopted a few darts-style nicknames himself, including "Dangerous Dave" and "The Rocket Ryding") told us after Wednesday's race that it's "like walking out at Anfield".

The grandstands are awash with colour, with flags from what looks like every European nation, plus the odd Star Spangled Banner from the United States. But what strikes you most, as floodlights illuminate the course, is the steep gradient of the hill, which defies belief.

No camera angle will do it justice and standing at the bottom looking up, you wonder how on earth anyone makes it to the finish line in one piece, especially slaloming between gates at full speed with thousands of screaming people watching you.

The fans

Schladming fans
Night slalom essentials: Flags, flares and cowbells

Fans come on pilgrimages here from all corners of the globe, some for the action, all for the party. There is no denying that for the masses, this is a two-day carnival. The continental beer flows and the unrelenting din of the cowbells and air horns make for a raucous atmosphere despite the below-freezing conditions.

It is immediately apparent that this is a very inclusive event. Fashion makes way for warmth, and sometimes warmth makes way for penguin onesies.

The streets become a slushy dance floor and although the soundtrack for the night is at first questionable, after observing the locals for a while, you notice every single one of them sings along to the Austrian euro-pop blaring into the streets from the overflowing bars . Think 'Steps with added oompah'. (And FYI, nothing wrong with a bit of Steps).

"I love how un-cool it is here!" says one of the many British 'Dangerous Dave' fans in the crowd. "They shun the popular songs from the charts and stick to their traditional Austrian roots! We totally embrace it too! Why wouldn't you!"

The racers

Marcel Hirscher
Austria's Marcel Hirscher became the joint second most successful skier of all time after his slalom victory in Schladming

The action gets under way. The top 15 have drawn straws to determine the order in which they will run. The racers with the quickest times then progress to round two, when they ski in reverse order, hopefully providing a grand slam finish as the final racer tries to beat the fastest time posted by his rivals.

Deafening cheers are heard at the appearance of any Austrian weaving over the crest of the Planai; the loudest - and we are talking 'One Direction crowd' levels of noise - are reserved for 2014 Olympic silver medalist and home favourite Marcel Hirscher.

He is effectively Austria's Cristiano Ronaldo.

"He is the best skier in the world!" says a man with the red and white of the Austrian flag painted on his face, and a young child on his shoulders.

"My son is named after him!" he says as his voice breaks - whether from emotion or a dry throat we are not sure, but he seemed very pleased to be in his hero's presence.

"He makes us proud to be Austrian! We hope he can win for us at the Winter Olympics"

The rivalry

Henrik Kristoffersen
Snowballs thrown from the crowd were no match for Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen

Hirscher's closest rival for gold is 23-year-old Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen - the Lionel Messi of the discipline to Hirscher's CR7.

Hirscher is resilient (he broke his ankle in a training accident in August and won at Beaver Creek less than four months later), dedicated to improving and admired by his compatriots.

Kristoffersen has natural flair, smooth execution, and a fiery personality on the "field" but a soft side off it.

In the heat of the moment on Tuesday, Kristoffersen appeared to be fuming after spectators threw snowballs at him part of the way through his second run, but he casually shrugged it off during his subsequent press conference.

How much the Austrians love this event (and their man Hirscher)

The British fans had hoped for a dramatic finish from Ryding in Schladming but the result was exactly what the home crowd wanted.

Hirscher snatched the title by 0.39 seconds from Kristoffersen, equalling Austrian legend Hermann Maier's record of 54 World Cup wins. As if this crowd needed any more reason to celebrate.

Hirscher and Kristoffersen are the undeniable favourites for the top two spots at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and, barring a slip-up from them, Ryding and the rest of the field are racing for bronze.

Dave Ryding
GB's Dave Ryding thanked the crowd on Instagram for their support: "The fans were unreal last night... what an atmosphere! I was taken aback by the amount of Brits there too.. thanks for coming out!"

Amongst the melee of Austrians, we find a group of about 20 friendly Brits who witnessed the 2017 edition of the race from the same grandstand last year.

One of them described the atmosphere when Kristoffersen snatched the crown from Hirscher by less than a second: "The crowd didn't know how to react! At first it went completely silent and then the disbelief started to creep over. As a neutral it was sort of hilarious!"

After seeing the crowd's emotion the moment the lights on the finish line turned green on Tuesday night, confirming Hirscher's victory, we pictured the opposite. In our mind, it can have been nowhere near as much fun to witness as the bedlam that greeted the Austrian's triumph.

There's something about sport under floodlights

As the podium is packed away, the crowd, wrapped up in woolly hats and snow/beer jackets, head off into the night for a dance. The Planai empties and one or two race goers giggle as they lose their footing on the steep, snowy mountain side. Yes, let's blame the slippery ground...

The glare of the floodlights highlights leftover smoke from dozens of flares, and the aftermath of the pyrotechnics and the condensation from thousands of excited bodies appears to linger in the air. It could of course be clouds forming - we are after all 2,500 feet above sea level.

All we know is, we cannot think of a spectacle quite like it. If you know of one, let us know. We want to go there too.


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