Last Thursday Claudio Gubellini hopped into his tombamobile, a 1989 four-wheel-drive Fiat Ducato with 175,000 miles on it, and set out from the outskirts of Bologna for a four-day drive that would cover 835 miles and four countries.
At four bucks a gallon for gasoline, this is a long way to go to watch Alberto Tomba ski for about four minutes. It is an even longer way to go to not watch Alberto Tomba ski for about four minutes. Though Gubellini could have seen Tomba ski a giant slalom in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, and a slalom in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, last weekend—and though, from Gubellini's vantage point at the finish line with his fellow coffee-and-brandy-fueled lunatics in the Tomba Club Castel de' Britti, the view is like looking through the wrong end of binoculars—he didn't dare open his eyes. "Nervous. High tension," said the 31-year-old Gubellini, who works in his father's company and uses his 30 vacation days a year to follow Tomba. Gubellini has known Tomba since Tomba began dating Gubellini's next-door neighbor, back when both men were fuzzy-faced adolescents. "I wait until somebody in the group says, 'Alberto wins!' " said Gubellini. "Then it's O.K. to look."
If Gubellini had not kept his eyes shut last weekend he would have seen Tomba ski with his brakes on to win the GS in Kranjska Gora on Friday and then put together a smashing second run to win the Garmisch slalom by almost two seconds on Sunday. In fact, the gap between first and second place was greater than the gap between second and 13th place.
This season Tomba has won seven of his last nine races: two of the four GSs and all five slaloms. His streak in the slalom is now seven—his last defeat in that specialty was on Jan. 16, 1994—and his two World Cup victories last weekend gave him 40 in his career, tying him for third alltime with retired Swiss racer Pirmin Zurbriggen and moving him three behind Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg. Only the 86 wins by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden are beyond his reach, although Stenmark's legacy surely isn't. Tomba could become the first skier since Stenmark to win an overall World Cup title skiing strictly slalom and GS, which Stenmark did three consecutive years in the 70s, when there were fewer events. Tomba has 750 points in the current World Cup season, 400 more than runner-up Jure Kosir of Slovenia.
Tomba isn't simply performing well. Right now he is the sport of skiing. In a season plagued by injuries to some of the sport's bigger names and weather in Europe that until the new year would have made it difficult to hold a snowball fight much less a ski race in the Alps, Tomba has been dominating. He has won in five different countries. He won three races at two sites within three days the week before Christmas. He won the World Cup's first night race, a slalom in Sestriere, Italy.
No wonder Tombamania is back. For the true believers in the Tomba club who bring their air horns, Vecchia Romagna brandy and unquestioning loyalty, it never went away. But after failing to win a gold medal in the last Olympics, Tomba has resurfaced as the skiing Bomba of old. This is a smarter, tougher version of the 21-year-old prodigy who won seven World Cup races in the three months before the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and then earned the slalom and GS golds in those Games. Tomba was a personage more than a fully formed person then. Now his bristly black hair is shorter and his sideburns stretch to his earlobes. (Tomba explains that if his helmet falls off during a race, his head is now more aerodynamic. Grazie, Alberto.) He has matured. After the race in Slovenia, northernmost of the former Yugoslav republics, Tomba dedicated his win to the victims of the war in Bosnia. It was certainly a more noble sentiment than when he wondered if his father would buy him a Ferrari after the Calgary Olympics or his declaration that he would change his training routine during the Albertville Games by partying with five girls until three in the morning instead of three girls until five in the morning.
The old Tomba was La Bombast, part of an image he cultivated too well. He was a raging combination of technique and testosterone. He was shocked—shocked!—when, in the greatest German shootdown since the days of Baron von Richthofen, Katarina Witt refused a date with him at the Calgary Olympics.
There was more than enough truth in the accounts of Tomba's escapades to make him into a character easy to lampoon. Tomba still is majoring in wine—he has 2,500 vintage bottles back at Castel de' Britti, the suburb of Bologna where he has a house, not to mention the 28 bottles of Slovenian grape the Kranjska Gora organizers gave him to mark his 28th birthday last month—although he is now committed to one woman. Her name is Martina Colombari, a former Miss Italy. They are engaged but have no wedding date set.
"Oh, Alberto's still Alberto," says Paolo Comellini, his manager of seven years. "He is a vivacious boy. But the maturation process he has gone through this year is very important. Martina is part of that. Now he takes more personal responsibility. The world first saw him as a boy. Now he is a man."
"His problem six years ago was that Alberto couldn't finish a sentence," says Helen Scott-Smith, a freelance journalist who has traveled the ski circuit for a decade. "He would say, 'I'm skiing's new messiah.... Eat now.... What a great run.... That was a great run, wasn't it?...I'm hungry.' They were random thoughts that just popped out. Now he has grown out of that. Not long ago, he asked me if I thought 28 was old."
Part of Tomba's allure is his insouciance. He once said that his dream race included a glass of wine before the start and a cigarette midway down before crossing the line in first place. "Yes, he's like the guy who says he doesn't play golf but hits his first drive a mile down the fairway because he's done nothing but practice for months," says Tomas Karlsson, the U.S. men's coach. "Tomba works very hard." Last summer Tomba cut 25 days off the beginning of his standard training regimen in Argentina and Chile but redoubled the intensity of his workouts. He returned home ski-buffed, his 200 pounds stripped of the heft that seemed to plague him between Olympics.
Tomba opened the 1994-95 season with a fourth-place finish in the giant slalom in Tignes, France, but having finished 21st in the first run, he was ecstatic after a second run that lifted him one step from the podium. "The most important thing is to be convinced of your chances," Tomba said Sunday. "Being first in that second run in Tignes was a great moment. That helped me do well because it made me believe. Another great moment was [the GS] in Alta Badia [Italy], where I was surprised to do well." In a slalom on Dec. 22 Tomba made a mistake midway down the course that turned him sideways to a gate and brought him to a full stop. He straightened out, pointed his skis south and won the race. He celebrated a la Bomba, somersaulting at the finish line, blowing kisses to his fans and then kneeling to kiss his dog, Yukon.
"He's almost unbeatable now," says Girardelli, who was second at Garmisch, "and I don't see any rivals for the World Cup championship." Tomba's path has been cleared by injuries—some major, some nagging—to top skiers such as Michael Von Grünigen of Switzerland, Lillehammer Olympic slalom gold medalist Thomas Stangassinger of Austria and 1994 World Cup champion Kjetil-Andrè Aamodt of Norway. But Tomba has leaped ahead of all the competition by achieving frightening speeds in a sport where hundredths of a second usually separate racers.
Tomba is not a textbook skier like Von Grünigen, but one thing he has over his rivals is science. This is not the science of skis and wax. This is the science of force and angles, the ability to put pressure on his skis to keep them running fast. "In a way, Tomba is very un-Italian because he is so quiet on his skis," says Karlsson. "Gustavo Theoni [the current Italian coach] and the other great Italians were very quick but very nervous, moving a lot. Tomba is efficient. He wastes nothing." His dominance has been so absurd, he drew laughs instead of cheers when his first run at Garmisch on Sunday was a second ahead of the two racers who skied the course before him. Tomba plays the clown without even trying.
There is only one question remaining for Tomba this season: Can he win an overall World Cup championship without picking up points in the speed events, the downhill or the Super G? Probably not. Comellini said Tomba will decide at the end of January if he will enter the Super G at the world championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, which begin Jan. 30. Tomba broke his collarbone in 1989 at a Super G in Val d'Isère, France, and since then he has stayed away from that event. Tomba says that he isn't scared. Simply prudent. But the possibility of winning a World Cup title, which would affirm his place in the skiers' pantheon, might entice him to try the Super G. As for the downhill, forget it. When Tomba was a kid his mother, Maria, forbade him from racing the downhill, and he has no intention of starting now.
Before the season Tomba also vowed this would be his last year of skiing competitively. "Tomba," Comellini said, sighing, "says a lot of things." Tomba has backtracked on that promise, saying Sunday that he would simply consider his options in the spring "when the flowers come out and everything is fine."
"We will see Alberto then," said Claudio Gubellini, who with the 40 other members of the Tomba Club headed their cars back through Austria after singing themselves hoarse and dancing themselves warm following Sunday's race in 20° weather. "He has a big house and a big pool, and he invites us over. He is very rich but very genuine. He has the human touch, which is why we come to his races. It's very important to him that his people are around."
Is Tomba a good swimmer?
"Of course." Gubellini said. "He is a very eclectic man."