There is a buzz in the crisp mountain air high up in the Austrian Alps as 145 athletes from 20 countries are zipping down an obstacle-filled race track under bright blue skies to get ready for the first race of the season.
But instead of racing on skies or snowboards, fearless and frightened athletes from across Europe, North America, Asia and even Africa are lined up against each other on ice skates and barreling down a narrow ice track without abandon. They are flying down the hill four at a time in bruising fight-to-the finish battles at speeds of up to 80 km/h as large crowds of curious spectators gather to watch the action.
Welcome to the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship, a fast-growing winter sport that starts its 17th season this weekend in the Austrian ski resort of Wagrain-Kleinarl (altitude 1,000 meters). The 132 men and 13 women are training to race down the curve-filled 300-meter long ice track at the first of nine races this season, a four-month long championship held in six countries with the finale of the competition that bills itself as the "world's fastest sport on skates" to be held in front of a crowd of more than 100,000 spectators in Ottawa, Canada on March 3-4.
"People see a race on TV or a video clip with all the speed and action, and they feel like they've just got to come and try it out," said Marco Dallago, the 2014 world champion and race director of the Rider's Cup race here in Wagrain, who also came to the sport in 2012 as a walk-on. "This sport has a way of captivating you when you first see it and once you try it, there's no going back. My first race was such an incredible experience that it changed my life. It's great that we can give more people a chance to get their feet wet in this sport with this event. This is our biggest field ever and we've even got athletes all the way from Japan to Morocco."
"I saw a film clip online in 2008 and wanted to try it out ever since," said Adil el Maifi, a 36-year-old foreign exchange trader and Sahara desert tour guide from Rabat who spent nearly a week and a small fortune to get to Austria from his home in Morocco. "My first run down the track was not good. I fell and my legs were hurting so it was hard to do the jumps. But each time down got a little bit better. It's an amazing feeling to go downhill so fast."
Because ice skates were hard to find in Morocco, a country that has only two ice rinks and temperatures are often well above 20 degrees in the winter, el Maifi flew to Paris to buy skates a week before the race and then trained in Paris before flying to Austria. He hasn't skated on ice in three years and has never experienced freezing temperatures like in Wagrain but has trained at home with inline skates.
"I love winter sports," el Maifi said with a smile. "And this is the most challenging sport I've ever seen. I've been telling myself for eight years 'I've got to give this a try' and I'm really glad I did. I like the speed, I like the turns. I'm proud to represent Morocco here. But next time I think I need to be better prepared. It's a lot harder than it looks."