Speed Skiing

History, Records, Myths and Legends

Photo Archivio Marchese and Archivio Cravetto

History links Cervinia to speed skiing, the most adrenaline-filled race man has ever faced. The next pages will carry you in a journey backwards in time: we will retrace the most important stages of speed skiing, we will breathe in the atmosphere of the race and the trainings, we will look in the eyes athletes Leo Gasperl, Zeno Colò, Pino Meynet, Masaro Morishita, Steve Mc Kinney and at last we will discover that, ultimately, Cervinia and its fame were profoundly and positively influenced by speed skiing.

Speed Skiing The unbeliavability of an instant lasted years

By M. Adele Mander and Paola Marchese

Cervinia, as many other alpine locations, became soon a modern skiing venue, where ski is the main focus and the challenges of hikers run side by side with the greats of speed. Many years will come when internationally renown athletes, actors and celebrities gathered, attracted by the modern image of this emerging alpine venue. To bring skiers to an altitude cableways were built and, for many years to come, those represented records in terms of length, altitude and capacity.

In this fizzy context pure speed, that has always fascinated skiers, represented for Cervinia a period that lasted many years where everything was arranged, during summertime, the great sports event of speed skiing.

It was an event with unheard before media coverage.

The big names

Let’s go back a bit and recall that on July the 21st, 1963 in Plateau Rosa there had been the first speed skiing race, to which forty-eight athletes took part, among which five women of various nationalities. Top speed was reached by Plangger from Germany, at 168,224 kph. This competition, requiring great athletic commitment, courage and skills to who faces it, is organised in 1930 in Saint Moritz. In this location the race is conducted until 1934 when it moved to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Other editions before 1963 were held in Plateau Rosa, Sestriere and Courmayeur. The first great athlete establishing a world record, unbeaten for sixteen years to come is Leo Gasperl, reaching 136,6 kph in 1931. Zeno Colò is the man beating him reaching 160 kph with his high egg position, forerunner of the aerodynamic egg-shaped position that to this day athletes keep to reduce drag but, unlike his successors, he does so wearing wood skis and didn’t wear a helmet. The athlete joins the “100 kph club” and beats Colò’s record. In 1964 Luigi di Marco smashes the record once more at 174,757 kph. He was called “turtle man” for his position. Back then the connection between the athlete and apparel maker Colmar allows to reach the record also thanks to a new suit realised with a material called Thermospeed, matched with a layer of polyurethane foam, snug and slippery.

The other Italians that left a sign are Sandro Casse, who won in 1971 with 184,144 kph) with support to the team straight from ski maker Sohler, Toni martinelli with his truncated skis. Casse repeats his run in 1973, reaching 184,237 kph, nearly disqualified because of voluntarily covering a sponsor’s name. His skis have at both ends electrodes used to measure structural solicitations. In 1975 Pino Meynet smashes the previous record at 194,384 kph.

The event makes the Plateau Rosa glacier and to the Gobba di Rollin an important socialite venue of the seventies.


The smell of speed skiing

A month before the start date of speed skiing races, Cervinia started to liven up, the first athletes arrived beginning the last part of his training. Italians and foreigners observed each other to figure out the rivals’ secrets. In the middle of June the athletes gathered to get used to climate and altitude and, during their trainings, ran across the town and fields around Cervinia in flashy suits. Their presence made everyone breathe the smell of racing.

The younger crowds cheered for Hakkinen, the Finnish athlete bringing a lot of speed skiing charm with himself, Pino Meynet, the local champion, blonde and serious, who in 1975 became world record holder and Mc Kinney from the States.

The athletes became crowds-gatherers, a mix of languages that brought to Italy novelties like skateboards, becoming their main vehicles on the roads to Valtournenche.

The customs of these places changed radically when the athletes arrived, everything adjusted to their schedules. First of all the journalists, sponsors, photographers gathered and the glacier livened up with flags, colourful gazebos, music and beautiful girls in bikinis. The days flew by. In the morning people used to go up to the slopes to cheer the Italian champions, wrapped in snug suits giving them the look of astronauts, with unseen before slippery helmets. In the afternoon everyone rushed to the press room to discuss in any language. Via Carrel was crowded with people from all over the world, groups out of pubs and around the sponsors’ cars.

July saw a transformation of the Cervino valley, the race on skis aimed at hitting a new world speed record brought each year more tourists, athletes coming from all over the world, escorted by producers of apparel and materials to test, coming with sponsored cars and a following of ski men.

The competition days were hectic for everyone. Races and press conferences became proving grounds for young students just starting business and learning foreign languages. Afternoon and evening events where you could meet your idols and check the rankings to know if the athlete you liked was among the first five.

Speed skiing transforms Cervinia

Different editions of speed skiing conditioned and left an evident sign in Cervinia, where each year novelties and customs were brought, innovating the way of life of these charming places. Here, ski location among the most important in the world, the Società delle Funivie strived to improve, every time more, the organisation of this event.

Valtournenche had in those years its quickest transformation, overlooked by the majestic glaze of its peaks. New accommodations were built, condos and chalets expanded and grew, new ascent plants were installed and improved the ones existing. The valley was brought to high levels of quality, where sport and tourism were primary elements that shaped it. The territory gathering the sportsmen of speed skiing had and still has a magnificent nature, splendid mountains, excellent slopes and a myriad of buildings hosting every year more mountain aficionados.

By M. Adele Mander and Paola Marchese

Photo Archivio Marchese and Archivio Cravetto