After a two-year COVID hiatus, the world’s longest come one, come all giant slalom returned to the beautiful Dolomites of Northern Italy. This year’s 24th edition of the Südtirol Gardenissima was a roaring success. On a glorious April Sunday, the valley made famous by the Val Gardena World Cup downhill welcomed 700 competitors of all ages.
The leg-burning course, over four miles in length and a 3300 vertical-foot drop, has 115 gates. To put it in perspective, the maximum vertical drop of a men’s World Cup GS is 1476 feet.
With 11 nations represented, entrants included weekend warriors, racing legends, determined masters competitors, World Cup stars, university students, adaptive skiers and at least one crazy journalist.
This unique race is open to anyone who can click into a pair of skis. However, Gardenissima’s GS course is exhausting for everyone. Some competitors challenge themselves to achieve a low time. Others want to finish by cruising along while marveling at the breathtaking Dolomites scenery.
The summit of Seceda Mountain hosts the start of the adventure. Racers, young and old, push their limits down a seemingly endless GS course. Starting as a two-course parallel, it eventually transitions into a more traditional single track. The racers speed down more than 1,000 meters of vertical drop, culminating just above the picturesque town of St. Christina in Col Raiser.
This year’s race was postponed one day after 70 cm of new snow blanketed the Dolomites. Ultimately, the organization and its 200 volunteers working all night provided superb conditions in a beautiful winter setting. Sunny skies and low temperatures, -14 Celsius overnight, helped provide ideal snow conditions on the race day. However, the slower snow meant the fastest racers were significantly slower than usual.
Emiliano Maltese, a 20-year-old university student from Torino with bib number 700 racing his second Gardenissima, finished utterly exhausted.
“I’m one of the last few people on this course; I am pretty tired – I woke up at 4 am, but now I think it’s about noon. I don’t know.” Maltese said, “There was a lot of snow on the slope and it’s quite difficult to be fluid with your movements. There was some anxiety for sure and now I’m quite tired.”
While Maltese represented the college crowd, local Michael Kritzinger, age 79, and Iva Novakova, age 72, were the oldest to participate. Kritzinger, representing the nearby Seiser Alm Ski Team, was third in the class that included three divisions of Masters with a time of 5:03.55. Novakova, who made the trip from the Czech Republic, posted a time of 6:08.10.
Journalists are encouraged to take a break from their recorders and laptops and experience the Gardenissima course for themselves. Initially thought to be a good idea, halfway down the track, this option seemed like the wrong choice considering the pain that consumed every muscle I have.
However, this humble scribe somehow survived his first Gardenissima – without crashing or missing any of the 115 gates – although, to uphold the ideals of journalistic integrity, I must report that two racers overtook me on the lower section. Fortunately, my post-race beer and the sound of the music belted out by the talented band in the finish pavilion tasted and sounded just as good for me as the duo who zipped past me.
Fastest in the field
In the National Teams category, veteran Italian racer and four-time Olympian Christof Innerhofer took top honors, clocking in at 4:07.14. Austrian national downhill champion and 2021-22 Europa Cup winner Franziska Gritch won the women’s event in 4:14.04.
Innerhofer told Ski Racing Media after his Gardenissima triumph, “This race is a special battle – it’s the longest race of the season. You feel tired after two minutes, but I tell myself, ‘No Christof, you have to push, stay in position, stay down and keep pushing,’ and I like that.”
Interestingly, Innerhofer used a pair of 212-centimeter super-G skis in this year’s edition after considering the softer snow and lower flat sections.
Brimming with pride, Innerhofer went on to say, “It’s good to see that I can still beat the young guys in such a long race with my age – that is not normal.”
Slovak athlete Andreas Žampa came to the Val Gardena area for a ski vacation only to learn about the race upon arrival. After his tenth-place finish, he offered, “Skiing down six kilometers in the gates is completely different from skiing six kilometers from training to home. My legs were exhausted at the finish, but the worst was my neck muscles; they were tired from always being in the downhill position,” the 28-year-old Slovak continued. “For me, it’s been fun, and I enjoyed the whole day.”
Ski legends shine; kids make their mark.
Italian Massimo Penasa took first place in the men’s Ski Legends category. Austrian Andrea Fischbacher won for the women in this category.
As part of the hectic day of non-stop competition, the Südtirol Gardenissima kids’ race took place in the afternoon. Ski clubs from eight countries brought their young athletes to Val Gardena to participate in the afternoon’s two-kilometer, 62-gate GS race, perhaps laying the groundwork for future champions.
Local racer Giacomo Demetz, representing the Gröden Ski Club, won the boys’ class with a time of 4:41.32, while Czech Alena Kuncova won the girls’ division, posting a time of 4:48.94.
24 years, 24 races, for chief of racing Kasslatter
Giovanni Kasslatter has served as chief of racing for all 24 editions of the Gardenissima race.
“The good thing about the 24 years is that we’ve had the best weather and the best conditions every year. This year, we had to postpone the race a day, but we are fortunate to be here,” said Kasslatter.
He continued, “We have two races today – the classic and the kids’ race – so it’s a big challenge for the entire organization.”
“What is so special about the Gardenissima is that the normal common skiers can challenge each other alongside the World Cup racers, so it’s like a big family get-together in Val Gardena.”
Kasslatter commended the large Gardenissima staff, including 250 volunteers, on ensuring that the fun-filled Italian race was a success. The significant snowfall and one-day delay made preparation more challenging, but the great outcome made the extra effort worthwhile.
Kasslatter continues, “The whole night, people worked to prepare the ski slope, and the best thing is that we have cold temperatures now, and conditions are great considering the fresh snow.” He adds, “Without these guys, the Gardenissima would not take place.”
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