The event was famed for 20 years among the homegrown ski racers from Kennebunkport to Meddybemps as Maine's own annual Sugarloaf Schuss, but last week the Schuss was no more. In its place upon the white and woody slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain, deep in the bush of Maine, they held something with infinitely more class. It was called the World Cup and Tall Timber Classic, and each day's program commenced with bearded lumberjacks scrambling up 80-foot white-pine poles to post the morning flags. First prizes to the skiers were engraved silver axes. So prestigious was the occasion that the United Methodist Church of Kingfield sought to enhance its Sunday collection-plate take by advertising daily "World Cup breakfasts" at $1.00 each for ski race enthusiasts passing through town.
There were no boomers from Meddybemps entered at Sugarloaf last week. World Cup titles were up for grabs and the full circus of international ski racing had moved in among the woodchoppers. It had been a bizarre and frustrating season in Europe, and there was no superstar to illuminate the field in 1971—Jean-Claude Killy was long gone to far greener pastures and Karl Schranz, winner of the cup in 1969 and 1970, was not in contention. Indeed, although the racing names were vaguely familiar to many, the leading contestants for the Earth's Alpine ski racing championships were a strangely faceless cast.
As events began at Sugarloaf, the men's World Cup list was led by Patrick Russel, France's slalom genius, with 125 points. An Italian with choirboy features, 20-year-old Gustav Thöni; had 115, and next came two more Frenchmen, slalomist Jean-Noel Augert with 107, and downhiller Henri Duvillard with 105. Then, the first men's event was something of a historical and meteorological freak: the classic Arlberg Kandahar downhill—which at 43 years old is Europe's most venerable Alpine race—was to be run for the first time on a mountain of the Western Hemisphere because this winter's snowfall in Europe had been so depressingly sparse. But under bright skies and over quick snow the transplanted Kandahar seemed to be quite at home in Maine.
The 1970 world-champion downhiller, Switzerland's Bernhard Russi, charged down Sugarloaf's short, roller-coaster course and finished a full half second ahead of France's Duvillard. In third place came a small, tough-looking Italian named Stefano Anzi. As things turned out, Russi's victory cinched him the 1971 World Cup downhill medal—and it was well that it did. Two days later, a local employee struck a match inside the trailer where the Swiss team's skis were lovingly serviced and tenderly stored, and—blam!—the place burst into flames; apparently there had been a leak in bottled gas. Some $15,000 worth of skis were reduced to black, gnarled slats before Sugarloaf snowblowers smothered the fire. Swiss racers were forced to run their giant slaloms on unfamiliar, borrowed skis.
Next day of the classic, the men staged the regularly scheduled downhill. It should be noted that the caliber of the downhill course that exists on Sugarloaf Mountain bears about as much resemblance to the murderous terrain of, say, the Hahnenkamm, as a World Cup breakfast with the Methodists of King-field does to a dinner at Maxim's. Many skiers found the Sugarloaf run built more along the proportions of an oversized giant slalom than a truly heart-stopping downhill. Thus, the more delicate techniques of the slalomist counted almost as much as the more daring, aggressive style of the natural downhiller.
At any rate, the men's downhill at Sugarloaf may have proved to be the most surprising—possibly the most decisive—race of the overall World Cup competition for 1971. To most everyone's amazement, the winner of the silver ax turned out to be the rugged little Anzi. To nobody's surprise, Austria's very good Karl Cordin finished second. Then, to everyone's astonishment, an Austrian bomber named David Zwilling flashed into the finish area and collapsed in gales of laughter. When bystanders asked what was so funny, he pointed to his feet: one of them was without a ski. He had lost it far up the course and had streaked nearly three-quarters of the run on a single board. (He was disqualified, which was a shame. But he finished.) And finally, to more wonderment, the gentle Thöni finished third. Until last week, the best downhill finish he had managed was a 12th place.
From his teammate Anzi and other friends around the finish-line fence there came cries of "Bravo, Gustavo, bravo!" Then, in a scene the powerful French have experienced often, but the so-so Italians have only dreamed about, Stefano and Gustav posed arm in arm for photographers—both with their bright lemon-yellow Spalding Formidable skis thrust out for all the world to admire. For that moment, at least, the gleaming, skintight, red race uniforms of the Italian team seemed glamorous instead of just flashy.
Thöni's unexpectedly fine finish moved him into the overall cup lead over Russel. His ultimate victory was by no means guaranteed—there were still the giant slalom at Sugarloaf and slaloms and giant slaloms to be run in Heavenly Valley, Calif, and Are, Sweden before this marathon season ends. Nevertheless, the men's World Cup for 1971—a rather odd-looking crystal sphere the size of a volleyball stuck atop a thick glass pedestal—suddenly seemed nearer Thöni's grasp than anyone else's.
Then, on Sunday young Bravo-Gustavo made another large stride toward wrapping up the trophy for once and all. Before some 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the two-run giant slalom, Thöni pulled off still another Italian Tall Timber coup: streaking to first place down a course that was fairly soft after an eight-inch snowfall the night before. He finished No. 1 in the first run and No. 2 in the second, thus edging out by 22/100ths of a second one of the burned-out Swiss team members, Edmund Bruggmann, who was racing on borrowed skis. And from whom were the skis borrowed? Well, from Gustav Thöni.
The giant slalom victory added still another 10 points to Thöni's World Cup total and when everything was added up after the fine Italian week in Maine, the combined standings showed him with 140 points. Russel, who had gained nothing at Sugarloaf, still had his 125 points but now so did Henri Duvillard, whose third in the giant slalom and second in the Kandahar gained him 20 points.