Up in a tiny crease of the Swiss Alps at a place called Wengen, where the Jungfrau and the Eiger have been staring each other down for centuries, the officials of the Lauberhorn ski races decided early last week that they would promote some special fun a couple of days before their famed Alpine events. The fun would be a 100-foot jump for the racers. A what? In the sport of skiing, racers do not jump, and jumpers do not race down mountains. The officials thought reversing the roles would be very entertaining for the hordes of British tourists who swarm into the tiers of old palatial hotels and make Wengen a sort of low-rent St. Moritz. Naturally, the Americans did not enter for fear of injury (it usually is difficult enough for them to keep from falling down just going through slalom poles). But the French, of course, did enter, because they have Jean-Claude Killy, a prankster as well as a splendid racer, and everyone knows the French are goofy anyhow. So, when Killy made his nonsensical jump he wore his number tied around his neck and his socks pulled up outside his boots. In the midst of the jump, to the absolute horror of both the officials and the British tourists, Killy dropped his stretch pants down to his knees, revealing his bare legs and undershorts.
As it turned out, this single act epitomized the whole Lauberhorn week, for when the meet ended Sunday most of the favorites seemed to have been caught with their pants down, especially America's Billy Kidd, who, until Sunday, was in the process of knocking everyone off the Alps for the third week in a row.
Last weekend Kidd began doing at Wengen what he had done previously in Hindelang and Adelboden—crushing the Europeans, Killy included, in Alpine racing, their own private sport for years. On Saturday Kidd was a creditable 11th in the Lauberhorn downhill (Killy was 15th). Austria's Karl Schranz won it, wearing a secret weapon: an experimental wind-resistant black-plastic suit. Fifty of the 93 racers beat the old course record of this classic European downhill.
The slalom, however, is Kidd's best event, and his good showing in the downhill put him in an excellent position to win the combined championship. He had beaten the Europeans soundly at Adelboden, and through the first run of the slalom he was blistering them again. He flowed down this twisting, shady course almost two seconds faster than anyone—and five seconds faster than Killy—and needed merely to stand up in the second run to take both the slalom and combined.
Kidd's victory was so thoroughly expected that dozens of spectators had drifted away, and many present were beginning to yawn and pester the hot-chocolate concessions. The racers before him, including Killy, had simply not gone fast enough to force him into anything but a cool, steady run of ordinary time in order to win. Now here he came. He was flowing again, well in control, in and out of the gates like a man fastened to the slope and being led to victory by an invisible tow rope. The big clock at the finish banner showed him far ahead and, finally, he was only eight or so gates from the bottom, a mere 60 yards, when it happened.
Somehow, probably for a flukish reason that he will never be able to explain and because things never come easy for Americans in skiing, he skidded past a gate. It was not a fall, just a skid, but it was enough to blow it all. Kidd had to step back through the gate, and the loss in time was a devastating nine seconds—the difference between a monumental American first and 18th place, where he eventually wound up.
"I was just being too cautious," said Kidd, gloomily, later. "It was an error in calculation or something. When something like that happens, it's usually because you're taking chances. Here I was cooling it, and it happened. I just sat back, or—well, I don't know."
Oddly enough, the disappointment of the Americans in the Lauberhorn was both greater and smaller than that suffered last year when the Europeans came to the U.S. and defeated them laughingly. At that time the feeling was that Kidd really would have been stealing something if he had won. But not now. In the two weeks preceding the Lauberhorn, in his duels with Jean-Claude Killy, Kidd had established himself as a racer of true talent. He was, in fact, the favorite at Wengen. And even after the slalom was over, the surprised winner, Guy Périllat, the Frenchman who seems to have been racing forever, consoled Billy with the fact that he (Kidd) deserved to have won.
"It's a different feeling to realize you lost on a fluke rather than because you're not as good," said U.S. Coach Bob Beattie. "Kidd is right up there with them now, one of the greatest, and when he loses it's an upset, of all things."
Fortunately, this is the longest ski season ever, and Kidd and Killy have plenty of time for more duels. Having started just after the first of the year, the season will continue, for most racers, straight through the world championships (FIS) in Portillo, Chile, in August, which may be the silliest date ever set for an event so important. For the Americans, there actually will be two seasons. They will compete in Europe through next week's Hahnenkamm in Kitzb√ºhel, Austria and in the Grand Prix de Meg√®ve, then they will come home for the U.S. Alpine championships at Stowe, Vt. and the American International team races at Sun Valley, as well as a few lesser things. They will then recess until June, when Beattie packs them off to South America to try to recapture their form, particularly Kidd's present form, in a series of summer races prior to the FIS.
The instant the 1966 season began it had all of the sitzmarks of a two-man personal duel between Kidd, who was—let's be honest—a flop in 1965 after winning a second place in the Olympic slalom of 1964, and Killy, who was clearly the world's best racer last year.
The first major race was in Hindelang, a remote Bavarian village. Kidd liked it immediately. For one thing, he thought the rather shallow hills resembled Vermont, his home. For another, Hindelang was the place where he had won a third in slalom prior to the last Olympics. He liked it even more after he had raced there again.
Kidd, with two subtle, smooth runs, won the Hindelang slalom by two seconds. Killy, who had the fastest first run, did nearly what Kidd did at Wengen. He crashed five gates from the finish in the second run when a binding came loose. But the clock showed that he could not have beaten Kidd anyway. With his seventh-place finish in the giant slalom the day before, Kidd also proved to be the best combined racer at Hindelang. It was the first American victory over the strong Europeans since Jimmy Heuga, a good seventh at Wengen, won the Kandahar combined following the last Olympics and one of a precious few ever.
"Funny feeling," smiled Bob Beattie, who always talks about winning but finds doing it extremely hard. "This could be the start of something."
It was. The gypsy skiers, almost 100 of them, moved on to Adelboden in Switzerland, just a couple of blazing white peaks away from Wengen. This was a special giant slalom meet of two days, one G.S. a day, and of more than routine interest because it has always been Killy's best event. In one spurt during late 1964 Killy won two consecutive giant slaloms.
Adelboden provided brilliant, sunny weather, although the slopes were cold and a bit icy. Picturesque, small and friendly, Adelboden again was a place Kidd and the Americans liked—the food was exquisite and the shop girls were even more so. Nothing, however, was as exquisite as Kidd on his skis.
Killy won the first race by 1.04 seconds over Kidd, a speedy runner-up in a finish that would have made almost any American ski enthusiast delirious a year ago. "Kidd's in the groove," said Beattie, "and this is his kind of slope. He might just swamp 'em tomorrow." Swamp was an appropriate word for it. Kidd's second race was super, perhaps his best to date. He was poised, coiled and perfect as he bested his rivals by two seconds. Struggling to overtake him, the more daring, explosive and acrobatic Killy was skating out of a gate halfway down the course when he suddenly did an awkward split, hung a tip on a gate pole, came out of the ski and dived into the snow, finished. For the two races combined, Kidd was better than anyone by 1.3 seconds.
It was time now for the European press to go mad. "One must admit, at this point," said Serge Lang of L'Equipe, the French sports daily, "that Billy Kidd is the best ski racer in the world. From now on, Kidd is the man to beat."
The people of Wengen had certainly kept up with things and appeared to agree. They knew that Kidd had won two races and two combines, and that Killy had won only once and had fallen twice. They made Kidd the leading celebrity the minute he arrived. When the Americans unpiled from the little railway car that brings you up—straight up—from Lauterbrunnen, Interlaken and points below, baggage men, clerks, hotel porters and waitresses ganged around the station to see him.
"Where is Kidd?" they asked, autograph books thrust forth. "Which one is Billy the Kidd?" There was a lot of guten Tag, danke, bitte and geben Sie, and that kind of thing. Children followed Kidd as if he were playing a flute, and at night would stand transfixed while he sharpened his edges. Photographers and reporters intruded, frequently during meals, and—almost as if they had parachuted in—American college girls began turning up with long, golden, beat-type hair and an immense amount of free time.
Bob Beattie—no longer in the role of the coach who used to argue, in the face of bitter results, that his young racers were capable—was loose, at ease and happily astonished.
"Unaccustomed as we are to victory speeches..." he would smile, and then try to explain why Billy Kidd was beating Jean-Claude Killy. There was no big secret explanation. The two racers are as different now in style and personality as they ever were. Kidd is still the quiet introvert with the perennially uncombed hair, a sort of worrying, concentrating type, who likes Beattie to give him something to think about every day. "If I tell him nothing more than we have to ski down the mountain instead of up, he likes it," says Beattie. Unlike the nimble and carefree Killy, Kidd still is one of those athletes who can really do nothing more than ski. He is, frankly, terrible at everything else, from table tennis to soccer. He is not even very good at improvising on skis. For example, Beattie says he still doesn't know how to time a skate through a gate. Rushing down a mountain, nevertheless, with all things normal, he is probably technically better than anyone in the world.
"He was good a year ago," Beattie said at Wengen. "He just didn't win. Now, if anything, he's simply more mature, more experienced, more confident. Maybe he feels less pressure over here, I don't know. He's on different skis, and he likes them better. Maybe that's part of it. The main thing is he's still working hard, he's confident and he's beginning to psych the Europeans the way they've psyched us for years. When he runs a slalom they all watch, and when he blows one like this he's doing it—no one's beating him."
Kidd agrees with most of this. Now 22 and still a student at the University of Colorado, he looks as if his legs are bigger and, therefore, stronger, but his weight is unchanged: 155.
"The main thing I can say is that last year was important in experience," he said. "I started off well in our own races [he won seven in a row], but then came Vail and the team races and I fell in the second run of the slalom when I thought I was going to win. I could never get back any confidence. But that fall was when I was going all out, trying to come from behind. This time I played dumb and tried to change my rhythm, I guess."
Kidd added, "I really took it easy in the summer at Lake Tahoe. Just forgot about skiing. I was even late for Bob's September camp and out of shape, but I was relaxed and ready to go to work. We had a good program through Christmas, and I feel good and I'm skiing well. The only other thing is, I like these new skis."
Kidd still uses Heads for the downhill and giant slalom but, like the French, he is now racing on French-made VR 7 Dynamic slalom skis, which are wood wrapped in fiber glass. A layman's eye cannot see any difference in them, but the side camber is exaggerated—they are broad in the tip, narrow at the boot. "They came out about a year ago," Billy said. "They're soft, better on ice and better in ruts, which we've been racing on. They make you feel quicker, whether you are or not. I feel like I can cut quicker on them."
Down in the ski room below the Park Hotel, where the Americans were staying in Wengen and where Billy was filing his VR 7s the night before the slalom, a golden-haired American girl asked Kidd if his new skis were responsible for his success.
"No," said Billy quickly, if not curtly. "I'm winning despite them."
A couple of reporters were near, and Kidd, grinning, thought it best to add, "Killy uses them, too, you know."
Killy, who finished sixth in the Wengen slalom, was more disturbed by Kidd's misfortune than by his own mediocre (for him) performance. "Billy has been skiing fantastically," said Killy. "He has simply been beating me. I thought he should have won today by four seconds. He is going to make us work harder, because he is the best just now."
Jean-Claude added cheerfully, "There are going to be a lot of good races before this year is over."
It's true. And the important thing for American skiing is that Billy Kidd, despite the skid at Wengen, is going to be right in the middle of them, perhaps winning more than his share. Funny feeling, indeed.