Ski Racing 101: Your guide to World Cup and Birds of Prey in Vail

Chris Freud
Vail Daily
If you're new to World Cup ski racing, Austria's Marcel Hirscher is a good place to start. He's the six-time defending World Cup champion, due to his dominance primarily in tech events.
Justin McCarty/Vail Daily file

BEAVER CREEK — Not everyone grew up here. Not everyone was here to watch Tamara McKinney win gold in the combined during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail in 1989.

And, as such, not everyone knows the about World Cup skiing and what the FIS Birds of Prey races are. It’s OK to admit it. Most of us grew up in parts of the country where the World Cup is a strange quadrennial soccer tournament.

Thus, we give you Ski Racing 101, the answers to your questions.


Consider it Major League skiing in American sports parlance. The best skiers in the world compete at this level.

In format, it’s more like the PGA Tour. Each weekend during the winter, like golfers during the summer, the tour goes to venues around the world.

After the traditional opening races in Soelden, Austria, in October and Levi, Finland, earlier this month, the men’s tour starts in earnest in Lake Louise, Alberta, during Thanksgiving weekend and comes here annually during the first weekend of December.

After Birds of Prey, both the men and the women, the latter are in Lake Louise this weekend, head to Europe for the rest of the season. The men’s World Cup’s next stop is in Val d’Isere, France.


There are five different kinds of races, or disciplines — downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined.

Downhill and super-G are speed events. Giant slalom and slalom are technical, or tech events. As the name implies, combined is a mix of both.

The distance and speed involved decreases, while the need for turning increases as one goes from downhill to super-G to giant slalom, also known as GS, to slalom.

• Downhill is exactly what it sounds like — get down the hill as quickly as possible. There is one run in a downhill.

• Super-G is a shorter downhill with a few gates which racers are required turn past. The kicker in super-G is that racers do not get to ski the course before race day. The morning of a super-G, the racers can inspect the course to get an idea of where the gates are, but this element usually leads to some surprises on race day. Like the downhill, there is just one run.

• GS — see, call it GS — is a two-run race. There are anywhere from 56 to 70 gates with gates relatively far apart as compared to slalom.

The entire field starts a GS or slalom, with only the top 30 racers advancing to the second run, where the fastest racer from the morning run goes last and the slowest qualifier goes first.

This is called, “making the flip.” The racer with the lowest combined time from the two runs wins.

• Slalom is has the same number of gates as GS, but they are closer together, testing the racers agility to the maximum. Like GS, slalom is a two-run race with only 30 making the flip. (See, the lingo makes you sound smart.)


Now that you know what the disciplines are, here we go.

• The men race super-G on Friday, Dec. 1, at 10:45 a.m.

• It’s downhill on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 11 a.m.

• Giant slalom is set for Sunday, Dec. 3, with the first run at 9:30 a.m. and the second at 12:45 p.m.


The top 30 finishers in each race receive points based on their finish. For example, the winner gets 100 points, while the second-place finisher gets 80, etc.

By the way, in a two-run race, just making the flip doesn’t guarantee points. In the GS, slalom and combined, racers must finish both runs.

Racers rack up points in each of the disciplines, downhill, super-G, GS, slalom and combined, as the season goes through mid-March. The racer with the most points in a discipline wins that year’s World Cup discipline championship and gets a crystal globe for his or her efforts.

Whoever racks up the most points from all five disciplines from the entire season is the World Cup champion, and gets another globe for that.

The defending men’s World Cup champion is Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, and he’s won it an unprecedented six years in a row. Mikaela Shiffrin is the reigning women’s World Cup victor.


Absolutely nothing statistically.

Ted Ligety has won the GS at the World Championships, held biennially, in 2013, 2015 and 2017 and won the Olympics giant slalom in 2014. Those four wins do not count toward Ligety’s 25 World Cup wins.

This doesn’t make much sense, as a skiers’ record at World Championships, which were held here in 2015, is a very big deal and considered one of measures of his or her legacy.

The same goes for the Olympics, which we bring up as they’re happening in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While the World Cup events building up to the Winter Games are not qualifiers per se — every nation has different qualifying procedures — good performances are helpful to those athletes on the bubble.


Predicting ski racing is dangerous business. One is more likely to be wrong than right. That’s the nature of having the best in the world going at each other each week.

But, as we’ve mentioned, on the men’s side, Hirscher is the defending World Cup overall champion and he also won the GS globe last year.

Italy’s Peter Fill is the defending World Cup downhill champion. Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud finished second in the DH points, followed by Italy’s Dominik Paris.

Jansrud won the World Cup super-G title last winter, followed by Austria’s Hannes Reichelt, and Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.

Just start name-dropping and you’ll sound like you know your World Cup.

In GS on Sunday, keep your eyes on Hirscher and Ligety. They’ve won the last eight giant slaloms held at Beaver Creek.


Yes, which brings us to the U.S. Ski Team. For the men, this is the only weekend racing in their home country. This weekend caps the two weeks the World Cup spends in North America before heading to Europe for months. These races are home games for the Americans.

Ligety has six GS wins on this course, but the speedsters have also had success at Birds of Prey. Andrew Weibrecht got his first World Cup podium here in December 2015, finishing third. He had won two Olympic medals, yet this was his first time on the steps in World Cup action.

Travis Ganong skied to Worlds downhill silver here in February 2015. Steve Nyman has three podiums here in his career.


As of downhill training on Wednesday, Nov. 29, set for 11:45 a.m., there is no public skiing access to the course. Beaver Creek, as a World Cup host, has gotten its shuttle-bus service down to an art form. Park in the lots, and hop the bus to Beaver Creek Village. The bus to the finish stadium at Red Tail will be right there.