Birds of Prey World Cup – Beaver Creek, Vail, CO

I jumped on the empty shuttle bus headed back down from the racecourse. Right before it was about to pull away, on jumped a skier who’d just finished his race for the day.

“From hero to goat in one day”, said Bode Miller.

“More like from Bode to Bode”, someone in his entourage noted as he smiled and nodded.

And that’s Bode Miller in a nutshell: American Olympic hero, world class Olympic partier, and perennial risk-taker. Miller is generally unpopular with American reporters who cover skiing. The Chicago Tribune referred to him in 2009 as “a tedious bore given to statements that smack of hypocrisy.” The Denver Post said that Miller’s behavior had alienated him from “pretty much everyone but those who mindlessly celebrate rebels simply for their rebellion, however misplaced it might be.”

And he’s also quite possibly the greatest American skier of all time.

Miller’s highs and lows were all on display at the Audi Birds of Prey World Cup in Beaver Creek, CO. He won the Men’s Downhill on Friday, dazzling the crowd with his ability to attack the intrepid Birds of Prey course with reckless abandon. That was followed up by a near disastrous Super G run on Saturday, where an edge and a quick turn had him on one ski and nearly off of the course. He recovered to finish the race, and even made up a good amount of time, but still finished a full 1:40 behind (an eternity in the alpine skiing world) the leader and in 21st place.

“That’s just it. This course is so tough, you catch one edge and you’re a full second behind. It’s a treacherous part of the course, and I missed my line just a little bit, and had to go like hell the rest of the time to try to make it up”, he said.

The Birds of Prey World World Cup event included three events; the Downhill, the Super G, and the Giant Slalom. The Downhill is widely considered the most exciting event in alpine ski racing, where Downhill racers attempt to be the fastest one down the mountain through a minimum number of control gates, and speeds in Downhill often exceed 80 mph. A cross between Downhill and Giant Slalom, Super-G is a one-run event like Downhill, but with more frequent turns. Racers compete for the fastest times, but need to pass through more control gates than in the Downhill. The Giant Slalom is a more technical event, where racers ski down the mountain through even more gates, which requires many short, quick turns.

The course proved tough when the weather picked up.

In a sport that traditionally attracts the affluent, it’s the Bode Miller types who’ve opened the sport up to the masses over the last decade. Their speed and daring feats down the mountain have brought a wider audience to alpine skiing, and a more diverse and younger crowd to resort towns like Beaver Creek and Vail. While still an expensive leisure activity, with your ski pass level serving as a status symbol in the Denver area, skiing and snowboarding have definitely found their way to a younger generation seeking more adventurous activities.

As for the event itself, the weather may have been the biggest competitor. Friday was perfect for the Downhill, with clear skies and cool temperatures keeping the course fast and visible. Then the snow came, and wouldn’t let up. Visibility was in issue for both the Super G and the Giant Slalom, as conditions on the top half of the course were tough. Obviously it’s hard to see going that fast through snow flurries, but the new snow also adds friction to the skis, slowing them down.

The weather didn’t deter the crowd though, as the finish area at the end of the course was packed with raucous fans. Cowbells, kazoos, and signs are the norm for skiing fans, which creates a fun and exciting atmosphere. Alpine skiing being a very international sport, citizens of the world showed their pride with flags, color-coordinated winter attire, and temporary face tattoos. One particular Croatian fan went to town on his kazoo, in what seemed to be the longest national anthem of all time.

My kazooing friend.

Undeterred patriotism wasn’t the only thing on display, as the skiers themselves excited the crowd as their interval times posted to the main leaderboard during each run. Each new interval at or close to the lead would create a surge in the crowd, which would reach a boiling point, ready to explode with a new leader. But it was our story’s hero, Bode Miller who elicited the most anticipation and cheers from the crowd. “He’ll either win or crash”, said one fan. Either outcome, it was apparent, would make the fans happy.

A fateful bus ride.

Back to the shuttle bus making its way down the mountain. With the snow falling on this day, covering tree limbs and mountain cottages, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. A win already under his belt for the weekend, Miller seemed to have already put his latest run behind him. “What will you do for the rest of the day?” I asked. “Probably go back to the hotel, maybe hit up the hot tub”, he said with a smile.

It’s a wonderful life.

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