Speed, big jumps : Downhill is the king of the alpine skiing disciplines. There is something awe-inspiring in watching racers go down the slopes at speeds of up to 140 km/h (If you go that fast on the motorway, you're breaking the law in most countries).
A downhill is long, anything up to two and a half minutes; any ordinary person's legs would give in a quarter of the way through. A downhill is steep: the coaches standing by the side of the piste wear crampons or avoid the steeper sections altogether. On the more famous courses like the Lauberhorn in Wengen or the Streif in Kitzbuehl, a downhill can also seem very narrow: You're heading down the slope at around 100 km/h when you come to a jump where the landing is some 50 m further down and maybe 20 m wide; not all that much of a margin for error. But the best downhill ski racers don't mind all that much: they inspect the course beforehand (as in all events) and usually know within a metre where they ought to be and where they ought to be heading throughout the race - so much so that they could almost do it with their eyes closed!
Along with super-G, downhill belongs to the speed disciplines of alpine skiing (as opposed to the technical giant slalom and slalom). Unlike the three other events, however, downhills are organised over three days, and the course stays the same throughout. Being so fast, the gates skiers have to go through are little more than markers of the side of the run, except in areas where the organizers decide the racers would pick up too much speed and add a few gates to slow them down. In the other events, the gates alternate between red and blue, but in downhill, they are all one colour: usually a fluorescent red. Like super-G, a downhill is run in one leg only, except for events which lack enough snow or which are too short for some other reason: in this case, a sprint downhill is run; two short runs of around one minute each.
The first day will comprise a long (up to two hours) course inspection where the racers have to decide which line is the best to take and then memorise the whole course, imagining being at high speed and then the first practice run during which the racers get their bearings and decide on which skis to use, what wax is best, whether they can take a tighter line without losing speed or missing any gates. Some of the evening will be spent comparing video recordings of the faster skiers to find out where time can be made up.
The second day starts with another inspection: More memorising of the course, examining areas of lost speed and trying to know exactly where to go when you can't see the next gate because of a bump, jump or some other obstacle. Then comes the qualification run; this is very important: the first 30 get to pick their starting number for the following day. Which number they choose is always an interesting gamble: It is generally agreed the the course starts out slow because of snow changes during the night, gets faster, and then slows down as the course begins to break up. The best skiers in qualification will usually choose bibs between numbers 10 and 20.
The third day is the race: one last inspection followed by the race itself.
Downhill is an event where a number of factors have to be decided on:
The skis will be between 2m10 and 2m25 long, but each racer will probably have several pairs of each length, which will all behave slightly differently; finding the best ski for the day will mean the racer's performance is not affected so much by his material as his technical ability and concentration. There are strict rulings on the radius of the skis (which has to be over 33 m): a ski which had a shorter radius could suddenly "fold up" and set off on a curve which the racer can no longer control.
Waxing is a problem in all events, but the stakes are highest in downhill because of the need for speed. The trouble with all speed enhancers is that the course will seem different according to the speed the racer is going : if an area is identified where he could have taken a slightly tighter line, doing so could be canceled out by arriving into that area with greater speed. Good skiing is all down to feeling the course.
The whole idea of picking the line is to keep a lot of speed and to stay on the course : no mean feat for first-timers, which is why experience counts for a lot. Staying on the course is as simple as anticipating difficult bends and jumps and preparing for them ; keeping speed is more of a problem : the snow on the line chosen by other racers gets is faster than the rest of the course, but if you pick the same line as everyone else, you won't be faster than them. Every time you put pressure on the edges, you loose speed, so the whole speed thing is geared on eliminating unnecessary turning, keeping the turns as tight and short as possible and doing each curve in one fluid movement.
Jumps pose a problem because of the fact that you lose a lot of speed going through the air. Again, a balance has to be found : the alternative is slowing down so as not to jump so far or to release the tuck position slightly so as to have more freedom of movement to pre-jump (also known as doing an abstracken : pulling the knees up to the chest so as to deaden the upcoming jump)
Downhill is also one of the two disciplines in the alpine combined (the other being slalom).
Because of the fact that a downhill takes a least three days and uses up a very long piste, few organisers are willing to set up a downhill event. As a result, experience in downhill is very difficult to obtain for younger ski racers. The general constraints on skiing and training means that there are many more people concentrating on the technical events than the speed events and that only the inexperienced all-rounders or the very gifted racers (Norwegians in particular) participate in the alpine combined.