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    Monday, December 15, 1997

    The White Circus

    Welcome to Edi Podivinsky's life on the road

    EDI POVIVINSKY
    By EDI POVIVINSKY -- For Sun Media
    Edmonton's Edi Podivinsky is another Alpine Ski World Cup win waiting to happen. At the Winter Olympic Games during February at Nagano, Japan, the 1989 world junior downhill champion and three-time Canadian downhill champion will race all disciplines except slalom. He will try to better a bronze-medal performance at Kvitfjell, Norway, at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994.
      Three seasons ago, the 27-year-old Mackenzie Canadian Alpine Ski Team veteran won his first World Cup downhill at Saalback, Austria, in January. It was the culmination of ability, drive and focus necessary to be a champion founded as an Albert Alpine ski team racer.
      Podivinsky enters his ninth season with the national team ranked among the very best downhillers in the world. Last season's third-place downhill finish at Kvitfjell came on the heels of a fourth-place World Cup downhill finish in Kitzbuehel, Austria, and an equally-impressive fourth-place Super-G placing at Whistler, B.C., the year before.
      'Fast Edi' will get the job done this year again. He's got all the right moves. The Sun welcomes Toronto-based Edi Podivinsky to a regular guest column in this space every Monday.
      VAL D'ISERE, France -- Another Alpine Ski World Cup downhill racing season is under way, and if you were not aware of it, likely the unseasonably-warm weather and lack of snow in the usually "Great White North" has left you thinking more about golf than about skiing.
      In fact, our World Cup season officially opened in late November at Park City, Utah, with Banff's own Thomas Grandi winning Canada's first World Cup men's medal in the giant slalom event.
      The following week was supposed to see the opened WC downhill (DH) for men at beautiful Whistler Mountain, B.C., but unfortunately we were not able to stage our race because of inclement weather.
      The WC (as Calgary's Ken Read coined it, the "White Circus") then moved to Beaver Creek, Col. Typically, the World Cup DH season opener is held on a course that is a little easier than most. The athletes and the officials have always felt it is better to start the season on an easier type of course. That has certainly not been the case this year. Had Whistler been able to host the opener, it would have been one of the fastest, most dangerous and exciting courses of the year.
      As it turns out, Beaver Creed was also a very fast and dangerous course, claiming among its victims Blue River, B.C.-based Cary Mullen, who will be out indefinitely after suffering a concussion from a spectacular finish-line crash. Cary is recovering in Calgary with some nerve damage behind his left eye.
      Cary, we are wishing you all the best for a quick recovery and prompt return.
      Unfortunately, we were unable to capitalize on our home-continent advantage. We had only one racer in the top 15, Brian Stemmle, from Aurora, Ont., who seems to have recaptured his form of a few season ago. I am disappoint with my result, but I realize I have always had my problems at the beginning of the season, and I was looking forward to the next race here, where we have been successful in the past.
      Traveling to Val d'Isere to me signifies the real start of the season. As long as I have been on the team, only once have we not started the season there. It is a two-day trip from Canada and we left Vancouver last Monday evening, arriving in Zurich, Switzerland, Tuesday afternoon. But the time we got our luggage and cars, it was Tuesday night, and we drove to a place halfway to Val d'Isere called Annecy. The next day, we drove the rest of the way to the mountain, where we unpacked, threw our mattresses on the floor to sleep because the beds are so soft, and got ready for the following day's training run.
      The program for Wednesday was one training run, however, the weather did not clear and it looked bad for Thursday too. One more typical day in the life of a ski racer. The snow conditions in Europe have also felt the effects of El Nino this season -- Val d'Isere barely scraping by with the minimum snow requirements need to hold a WC race. The town was almost void of all snow, but the DH track was covered with artificial snow so that it looked like a long white carpet rolled straight down the hill, surrounded by the requisite orange fencing on both sides of the course, and on both sides of that, green grass.
      Thursday's scheduled training run, like is so often the case in Val d'Isere, was canceled. We had high winds on the top of the mountain as well as rain.
      On a day like that, though, we were still up at 6 a.m. (we are all wide awake at that time anyway due to the nine-hour time difference with Vancouver). We had breakfast and then waited in our hotel. At 10 a.m. we had the final word the day was a washout, so we headed to the gym instead. We played some basketball, did some race simulation type jumping. We ate lunch, and then tried to stay awake (jet lag) in the afternoon by staying active.
      The race course at Val d'Isere is what is know as an autobahn or "super highway," named after the European highways that have no set speed limit. It's a fast, relatively smooth course, with wide sweeping turns that can be negotiated at high speed. It is a classic DH course they have been racing relatively untouched for 42 years. Some of the finer historical points of the course include the Columbin Jump, named after the Italian racer who broke his back after crashing on the jump, only to return the following year and break his back again on the very same jump. From there, the course winds down the mountain to its most technical section, the compression turn. Near the bottom of the course, when a racer's legs have already jellified, the skier is thrown onto the tails of his skis from the forces of the compression (steep decline followed by a steep incline, much like skiing into a bowl), then launched into the air and expected to make two crucial 90-degree turns to avoid the two orange monsters (suspension nets) that loom just off the course. From there, it is just more autobahn.
      France is a country renowned for its chefs, its back-breaking soft beds, and its mountains. Val d'Isere is located in the northwestern tip of the French Alps. It boasts one of the largest skiable terrains in the world.
      Skiers can ski three completely different areas in one day and never ascend on the same lift twice.
      You could end up in three completely different towns at the end of a skiing day. (Good if you are adventurous, bad if it is a foggy day). The French do not seem as concerned with perfectly manicured runs and groomed snow. They believe that every run should be unique and somewhat of an adventure to negotiate.
      A second training run was also canceled Friday, but we had the draw Friday night in anticipation of a training run Saturday morning and race in the afternoon. This is always a desperate measure, and rarely does it go off as planned. At the public bib draw, I picked No. 4 because my service man expects that with all the new snow, the course will deteriorate very quickly.
      The rules state that we need to have at least one timed run on the course before the race.
      We were up before 6 a.m. and it was pitch black outside so we couldn't see what the weather was like. We had a light breakfast and headed to the hill. It was still dark as we got on the train-ski lift that took us through the mountain to the top of the course. As we got off the train, we saw the first traces of light on the horizon, and if there is one bonus to being a ski racer, it is mornings like these where we're the first ones up the lift and above the cloud line high in the Alps.
      However, as we looked down the track it was blanketed in a thick layer of fog.
      We took a look at the course, and the visibility was very poor, less than 50 ft. The weather moved a little, but at 11 a.m., it was still impossible to see down the course and they decided to cancel the race.
      We spent the day in the hotel, playing hockey to burn off a little energy -- we take our skates everywhere we go (we are Canadians, after all). We packed up and drove to the next stop in Val Gardena, Italy, this morning.
      The Europeans will all drive home and spend the next few days at home.
      Of all the stops in Europe this winter, we most look forward to Val Gardena.
      We will stay in a small, family hotel called the Alpen-hotel, where the Canadian team has been staying since the "Crazy Canuck" era. They treat us very well, and more importantly, the food in Italy is second to none. We also look forward to the course where we have had the most success in the past decade, with memories of Whistler's Rob Boyd on top of the podium twice.
      Stay tuned as I recount our time in Val Gardena next week.
      I promises to be an exciting race -- I can't wait.