For almost 60 years now, the White Ring circuit has linked the Austrian resort of Lech with its neighbours Zürs, Zug, and Oberlech. Since 2006, each year 1,000 racers, amateurs and pros alike, head to the circuit to complete its 23km as fast as possible. The only way to do that is to ‘schuss’ (bomb straight downhill at high speed). OnTheSnow writer Henning Heilmann gave it a try.
Eva can't wait to start. Filled with excitement she is watching the first racers plunging themselves down the Rüfikopf. The 20-year old from nearby Dornbirn bears bib number 189; it's her fourth time at the White Ring. "The most important thing is to take part. I probably won't win this year, but I'm happy to be a part of it", Eva says. It's the morning of Jan.19, 2013, and the White Ring race is entering its eighth year.
The event was introduced in 2006 to celebrate the circuit's 50th anniversary – which became possible after the first ski lifts had been installed in the 1940s. The 23km race runs across several mountains, combining downhill and uphill segments. Most inclines can be overcome by lift, but on others racers have to depend on their muscle power. The White Ring had been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest ski race until the 25km "Schlag das ASSinger" race in Carinthia, Austria, outdid it in 2010.
Last-minute briefings at Rüfikopf
The White Ring starts right at the summit station of the Rüfikopf cable car at 2,360m. A huge crowd of racers is waiting in front of the mountain restaurant this morning, swapping last-minute words of advice. I'm wondering if it wouldn't be fun to try and get one of the 1,000 bib numbers myself, even though the weather is not too promising. But I'm already excited enough to be moving along the side-lines of a wicked race in which slowing down is not an option.
It's only been a day since I skied the course myself, with the sun shining and a ski instructor giving me excellent advice on how to refine my technique. And two days ago I was fortunate enough to be a part of a training race with Patrick Ortlieb, Olympic downhill winner of 1992 and record holder at the White Ring since its first issue in 2006.
Training session with the all-time champion
Two days before the race, Patrick Ortlieb explains the course to a small group of skiers: which bumps to avoid, which ones to simply race over, how to take the curves and how to enter the lifts in a way that allows you to get out as fast as possible.
"Be careful here, this bump is really extreme", Patrick warns at a junction where a country road crosses the slope that leads down from Madloch Joch to Zug. At other places he hurries us up with remarks like, "Slowing down is more dangerous here, there's no alternative but to schuss!"
There is no one who knows the circuit like Patrick, who still holds the course record with 44:35:07. His expertise covers everything from the best racing lines to advice on overall race preparation – and the miraculous characteristics of snow. "Never keep your skis inside the night before the race, otherwise ice will build up under them, and that will slow you down", he says. "Snow crystals are aggressive."
The day of the race
Rüfikopf top station at 9 a.m: In groups of twenty, with an interval of 1.40 minutes, the first competitors take a run-up for the first stage of the race – down to Zürs, via the Schüttboden and Trittalp lifts and the stunning Hexenboden piste. Meanwhile we, the journalists, take to the slope cautiously and slide down the sides, trying to get the best possible impressions of the race while not disturbing the racers. We meet one of them on our way – an unfortunate chap making his way back to the piste after an unintentional powder detour.
From Zürs we have to ascend to more than 2,400m, which we do by the Zürsersee and Madloch cable cars while the racers take the Seekopf cable car for the first part. Between the two there is a short downhill part followed by a sudden flattening and an ascent. It's risky to schuss here, but worth it if you don't want to push yourself up to the Madloch lift.
At the top of Madloch it's foggy, the wind is howling. What a shame: we learn that the next stage (the Madloch run, or ski route 33) won't count for the final score today. It is the most challenging run on the circuit, but the real pros don’t even schuss down this one – not today, that is, as it doesn't count anyway. Down in Zug the judges start counting again, so everyone hurries to get to the Zugerberg lift leading up to the Balmengrat at 2,100m.
The next stage is a really demanding one – almost 100m slightly uphill: some snowboarders decide to carry their boards under their arms and take to their heels; some skiers do their best to prove their cross-country skills; and others prefer to savour the delicious schnapps at Balmalp cabin.
The finish line
Schuss is the order of the day again on the last piste down to the finish line in Lech. Some easy jumps over the mounds on the last few hundred metres are the last chance for the racers to show off their body control. Meanwhile, down at the finish line, the crowd is having a blast, watching skiers fall, boarders sliding home on their behinds, and applauding the winners: for the men, it’s former Austrian World Cup racer and Lech native Pepi Strobl and for the women, it’s three-time winner Angelika Kaufmann.
Buying another round
A short while later, Babsi and Ricki at the legendary Schneggarei bar right next to the finish line are catering to the needs of the thirsty racers – handing out mug after mug of local wheat beer. Numerous competitors treat themselves to a "Fohrenburger Weizen" - or two, or three - and pizza baker Marco's giant pizzas that satisfy the starving racers' hunger. I learn that Eva, the girl from Dornbirn, came in 14th, out of 170 women. Great performance!
A few hours after the race, everything in the Arlberg region is back to normal. Lech is having one of the season's (many) great parties that go on well into the wee hours, while calm and quiet has returned to nearby Zug already. Only a few cross-country skiers blaze their trails in the romantic valley. For party-goers, Lech is the place to be, on the day of the White Ring as on any other day.
Our bottom line
If you ever come to Lech in Austria's Vorarlberg region, you should not miss the White Ring. If it's not overrun by 1,000 maniacs who try to complete the round as fast as possible, it is simply one of the most beautiful circuits of ski routes in the Alps, combining perfectly groomed slopes and breath-taking views.
The White Ring links Lech, Zürs, Zug, and Oberlech: 23km of slopes, joined by six ski lifts, with an altitude difference of more than 18,000 feet. The round starts at the Rüfikopf top station in Lech. Ring symbols along the slopes prevent you from getting lost.
The White Ring: for useful information on the world's longest ski circuits
Lech-Zürs tourist information: piste maps and accommodation index