Commentary

At Birds, 'the world just falls away'

Updated: December 4, 2009, 2:42 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Skiers spend the bulk of the World Cup season in Europe, which means months of packing and unpacking bags, dealing with foreign languages, calculating exchange rates -- Are you kidding me? The dollar fell against the Euro again? Do you know how much that makes a pint of Hoegaarden? -- and celebrating Christmas with teammates rather than family. ("There is no mistletoe," two-time Olympian Scott Macartney said. "It's an all-men's team.")

But before that long stretch across the Atlantic begins, there is the Birds of Prey, the only men's World Cup Alpine event in the United States. Up here high in the Rockies above Beaver Creek, Colo., the accents are familiar, the beers are priced in dollars and you're more likely to hear John Denver than "The Happy Wanderer."

[+] EnlargeBirds of Prey
Al Bello/Getty ImagesU.S. skier Scott Macartney said TV doesn't do the Birds of Prey course justice: 'The world just falls away.'

"It's our one race at home," U.S. team skier Marco Sullivan said. "It's cool to display what we do for the home fans, and it's a good send-off before we go to Europe for the season. On top of that, it's just a great course. No matter where it would be, it's just fun to get on this hill every year."

Opened in 1997, the Birds of Prey is where Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves took first and second in the downhill in 2004, the first time two Americans had ever finished 1-2 in a World Cup downhill event. It's where Hermann Maier won eight times, including the downhill and the super-G in the 1999 World Ski Championships. And it's where reigning World Cup champ Aksel Lund Svindal crashed to end his season two years ago, then came back to win the downhill and super-G last year.

"It's absolutely special," said U.S. team member Jeremy Transue, who has skied here more times than he can count. "It's the only race that my family and friends can get to, and it's really cool to come down in a race. You hear people cheering everywhere, but here, it's really loud and you know it's all your friends and your family and that makes it a little more special."

"I'm always psyched to be here," U.S. skier Andrew Weibrecht said. "To be at home anywhere is great, but especially Beaver Creek. It's an unbelievable venue, and they put on a great race. There is no other course like it. You don't catch that much air that often."

The downhill course starts at 11,400 feet in elevation and drops more than 2,500 feet to the finish line with an average grade of 23 percent, and sections of 45 percent, turning the Birds of Prey into Birds of Prayer.

"TV doesn't do it justice," Macartney said. "It's high speed, and the steepness is kind of hard to describe. When you come up to the Talon and Brink area of the course, the world just falls away. You see the other side of the valley, and you don't see anything else."

Last winter's stock market index didn't have as steep a downward profile. What's the grade like? "You take your hockey rink," Macartney said, "turn it on edge and ski down it."

"This is an awesome downhill course," 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety said. "The top starts off flat. It's kind of calm up there, but it's not that easy because there is so much terrain and they build in so many rolls, and then you break over that pitch, and it's super-steep and it comes at you really quick. You have to change modes instantaneously. Then you have some long, gliding turns, and then the jumps come, and they keep coming at you. The last 30 seconds of the course is only three or four turns, and it's just huge jump after huge jump."

T.J. Lanning suffered season-ending knee and neck injuries this past weekend at Alberta's Lake Louise (the only other World Cup event in North America this year), but the U.S. team still heads into the Birds of Prey with what should be one of its deepest teams. Ligety won the combined at the 2006 Games in Torino and four World Cup races after that. Steven Nyman has a World Cup downhill victory and several other high finishes. And this Bode Miller guy you might have heard about returned to the team in October. Several on the U.S. team said as many as eight American skiers could have podium finishes this season.

Plus, the team has the home-course advantage this weekend. The super-combined is Friday, the downhill Saturday and the giant slalom Sunday.

"The hill is awesome for us," Ligety said. "It's always a plus for us. It's great to take those European skiers out of their element and have them living out of duffel bags and eating hotel food, as well."

What? The bill doesn't include the service charge? We also have to leave 20 percent tip? What kind of country is this?

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com