The days have been gray and the snow either sparse or as heavy as porridge over much of the European ski racing circuit. There is no single spirit, blithe and daring, to dominate the days and enliven the nights as Jean-Claude Killy once did. The American team, which started the season with at least nominally high hopes for the men and superlative expectations for the women, has fallen near a state of despair, a condition caused by a series of disappointing races and agitated further by the fact that the team does not even have national uniforms and is, literally, out at the elbows. Smashups have been frequent and brutal all season, and last week the rather grim mood of it all was further emphasized when a promising French teen-ager, Michel Bozon, was killed in a fall in a downhill race at Meg√®ve.
Still, as 1970 ski racing moves toward its competitive pinnacle—the FIS World Alpine championships next week at Val Gardena in northern Italy—there are signs that the season is about to produce one of sport's classic battles: the challenge of the crafty old kings of the mountain by brash young hotshots.
The flashiest skis on the hills this winter have belonged to a pair of kids—to the cool, profoundly confident Frenchman, Patrick Russel, 23, and the soft-spoken, wide-eyed 18-year-old Italian, Gustavo Thoeni, who travels the circuit with his father. They are the best of a coming breed called the New Naturals, those kids who hurl themselves down the mountains with an exuberant abandon that leaves the veterans gasping—and perhaps a bit sad. As Billy Kidd, 26, now in his eighth season for the U.S., puts it: "It may help that the young racers now start with more advanced equipment than we did. But the older racers are trained to prepare for a turn before they get to it. The young ones race right to the gates full blast and then slam down on their skis because they know they can do it. I just feel so heavy and slow by comparison."
So the kids have come to conquer. Russel (pronounced Roo-sell) stood No. 1 in overall World Cup standings with 140 points after finishing first in last week's giant slalom in Meg√®ve. And Thoeni (pronounced Tony) was second with 107 points. Last year's cup winner and world champ, Austria's resilient and wily Karl Schranz, a hoary 31, stood third with 106. But there were even more of the New Naturals not far behind in points and all are genuine threats to win one event or another in Val Gardena. These included other French whiz kids such as Jean-Noel Augert, 20, Henri Duvillard, 22, and Alain Penz, 22; plus Australia's surprising Malcolm Milne, 21, whose straightaway style may be best suited of all for the Italian downhill, which is not noted for its scenic curves.
Perhaps Russel is the new best in the ski world. He is trim at 5'7" and 147 pounds, superbly conditioned and magnificently relaxed. Russel runs a slalom course with a floating, fluid style that always seems to conceal his rocketing speed. During the Lauberhorn slalom in Wengen, his start seemed almost lackadaisical, while the other racers were barging about violently, hitting poles, forcing themselves into momentum. Not Russel. "He looked as if he were powder skiing," said Canadian veteran Rod Hebron. "He didn't hit a single pole and he won."
It looks easy: to gain such speed Russel sits farther back on his skis than anyone else competing now (although both Thoeni and the Swiss oldtimer, Dumeng Giovanoli, 29, are trying to copy the style). Russel's nonsecret weapon is a strange new ski boot, which rises to mid-calf in back but is cut normally in front. This stiff support allows him to lean back during a run. And one can bet that, given Russel's success, the new boot will soon be marketed hotly around the world as the Patrick Russel signature model. The Frenchman also races on a set of skis with exceptionally stiff tails (Rossignols, of course, since Russel's dad is that firm's export manager), and the combination of boots and skis brings him out of each turn hunched far back—and fast. The style is considered much smoother and less frenetic than the more exciting but occasionally slapdash methods of Killy.
It isn't all equipment. An extreme worker, Russel trained under the famed French instructor Georges Joubert, and he spent his last seven summers bombing down a glacier near Alpe d'Huez. "Patrick has skied through more gates than any other racer alive," one associate says. His teammates call him "Castor" (it means Beaver in French)—but not because he trains so hard; because he has slightly buck teeth. No matter. It all paid off when he made the French traveling team and began spotting a few victories along the slalom trails. His steady gain spurred a generally overlooked comment from Killy: "It is time for me to retire because I don't think I can beat guys like Russel in the future." And if Killy was the only one who noticed Russel then, the rest of the racers spotted him when he won the slalom at Kitzb√ºhel last year.
Long-haired, darkly shaggy, Russel is a subdued swinger despite the fact he is inundated by finish-line dollies after each race and draws come-hither looks in all the bistros on the tour. He does not even—horrors!—own a sports car like his teammates; he drives a Volkswagen.
Russel will be favored by most to win the slalom at Val Gardena's big showdown, and many pick him for the giant slalom, too. But if he does not finish first, chances are excellent that the winner will be that apple-cheeked Italian, Gustavo Thoeni. Until this year Thoeni was all but anonymous outside Italy, where he had been quietly knocking off junior championships since he was 14. He did win the giant slalom at the Alpine cup at Val d'Is√®re last year, but that came during the doldrums of March, when everybody was exhausted from the long season, and it drew little notice. He then went to Australia and won another GS over such top-rankers as the U.S.'s Spider Sabich and France's Henri Duvillard.
Just a slight 5'8", 145-pound kid, Thoeni was still unnoticed when the 1970 season started. But he hit an instant spotlight when he won the first giant slalom of the year in Val d'Is√®re in December. "I could not believe it then," he says. But he believes it now. He also won the Hindelang slalom since then and has placed consistently well in the slaloms, building up his points and an almost-shy sort of confidence. "I have now come to believe that I can win the slalom or the giant slalom at Italy," he says. "Thoeni is very aggressive," says Don Henderson, the U.S. men's coach. "He is just a fantastic skier who never falls. He skis the way Billy Kidd did 10 years ago."
Ah, but can mere boys move in to steal the day at Val Gardena from the wise and toughened veterans? What of the moody Karl Schranz and his teammate, 30-year-old Heini Messner? What of the Swiss cook, Giovanoli, who already has his share of triumphs this year? And what, for that matter, of the Americans, Kidd and Sabich?
Russel, for one, is impatient with rationalizations about the powers of experience. "Yes," he said, "Schranz and Giovanoli are very strong. But to them racing is like a job. They don't have the punch the young ones have." We will let Schranz, seamed and full of philosophic sighs these days, make the rebuttal across the generation gap: "The young ones are all specialists. I have always tried to be good in all three events. These young guys go all out in the first races of the season—but I would be surprised if they can keep it up. They still have a lot to learn. They win early, but when they get to the real tough courses, in Wengen and Kitzb√ºhel, it is the old ones like Giovanoli and myself who beat them. I won races, too, when I started in 1955. But experience helps me in winning today. As they say, when you get to be my age you are not supposed to win anymore. But I have no intention of giving up. Let them go at their pace. I go at mine."
And a dazzling pace it is. Last week Schranz won another downhill race over a treacherously iced course in Meg√®ve—and teammate Messner finished second. In the third spot was the upstart New Natural, Duvillard, and Karl was delighted. "I showed them today that I am not afraid," he said, and then broke into a rare grin. "And I beat their boy, Duvillard!"
But boys and girls together, the French team is nonetheless phenomenal this season, gathering a momentum that is shaking the ski world. Besides Russel's overall World Cup lead among men, Mich√®le Jacot and Francoise Macchi, both just 18, rank one-two on the women's list. The team as a whole has piled up an insurmountable 1,035 points for the Nations Cup, compared with 473 for the Austrians and 352 for the U.S. The French show a team spirit that is the wonder of the circuit: they are stunning in their shiny, oiled-silk navy blue racing suits with the baby blue stripes down the sides and legs; it is a sort of sexy, spray-on Space Cadet uniform that brings them on like a cross between Captain Midnight and Manolete. All season the French have glowed with exuberance, class and confidence.
This is more or less in exact contrast to the atmosphere around the American team, for it has followed a dreary, rutted trail, full of nagging injuries and black moods. Perhaps it all began to sour way back around Christmas when Jim (Moose) Barrows, a fine downhill racer, went to the French resort of Flaine for some extra training. He smashed into a spectator during a practice run and crushed the bones in one side of his face; now, after surgery to install a metal plate, Barrows hopes to race in Val Gardena. But his mishap was only the first in a string of injuries.
Kidd banged up his right ankle a couple more times (making it the most injured ankle in skiing history), most recently last week. It will, he insists, be mended in time for the championships. Sabich twisted his knee when he crashed into the woods at Meg√®ve, also last week. Rudd Pyles, a pretty good downhiller, winging along at an estimated 60 mph, slammed into a spectator who was attempting to cross the racecourse just under a blind hump. He severely wrenched his knee (and broke both the spectator's legs). That was last week, too.
"We are all a little depressed," said Henderson, who left the comforts of Holderness prep school to become the men's coach this year. "That is because we have not won anything and we have nothing to be proud of. We came with such great expectations."
To watch the French team winning in nearly every meet is demoralizing enough, but to compare the U.S. state of dress with the French elegance undermines morale even more. The U.S. team looks like a collection of welfare cases. "Sure, the French are fired up and all we need is one little spark," said Henderson. "But there is another depressing factor—we don't even have a team uniform. Last May I contacted Head Ski & Sportswear, and told them we wanted the uniforms for October. But apparently our contract with Head did not include some necessities—such as clothes. They promised to send somebody to take measurements but nobody ever came. Some of our racers then sent in their measurements by mail and Head sent some sweaters, parkas and warmup pants—but they didn't fit and they were not very attractive. In fact, the sweaters were blue with orange stripes and the boys refused to wear them and threw them away. Now the boys are wearing their own old ski clothes. Whether we'll have uniforms in Val Gardena remains to be seen. We did design some U.S. sweaters with red, white and blue stripes—with stars on the blue stripes—while we were training. We got them from a French company, and maybe they will help team spirit a little bit."
The U.S. girls, meanwhile, although they did decide to keep and wear those sweaters with the orange stripes, have done only slightly better on the slopes than the men. "Nobody counted on the French girls to be as good as they are," said Dennis Agee, new coach of the girls this year. "Most of our girls have more World Cup points than they had at this time last year. But I don't think we have lived up to our potential. We had some injuries, but I don't want to use that as an excuse. In Oberstaufen I was taping five ankles and a thumb at one time." There also is a feeling that American girls are simply overawed—and thus unstrung—by the tremendous team depth and individual brilliance of the French fillies. There is good reason for the feeling. Last week during the slalom at Saint-Gervais, America's perky Kiki Cutter, 20, recovered enough from an ankle injury to attack the course with her old dash—and was clocked as the leading racer after her early second run. As she waited breathlessly for the rest of the field to complete its run, she murmured, "I don't have to win. But I would like to win. I would like to win." Well, Kiki did win—her first of the season—but behind her in a lineup covering the next six consecutive places there followed shiny young ladies from the French Republic.
"We can't do much in World Cup standings anymore," said Kiki. "We just have to be real good at Val Gardena." It is considered quite likely that either Kiki or Judy Nagel or Barbara Cochran—who is fourth in overall World Cup points for women—could win the slalom in Italy. If they do, maybe some of the gloom will lift from the U.S. view of the ski racing season. It could even do more for American spirits than a whole warehouse full of new uniforms.