It’s not often mere mortals get the chance to race against a world class ski champion, but at the end of January in the small resort of La Paganella, in the Trentino region, Italy, recently retired American ski superhero Bode Miller was taking on all comers on a slalom course, while promoting new skis from his brand Bomber.
How could I turn it down? But I’m not going to lie - I was nervous. I’ve skied since I was six, for 20 years, but I’ve never competed before, and against THE Bode Miller… I needed some inside info.
So, who is Bode Miller? In his own words, in our interview the day before the race, “I’m Bode Miller, I was a World Cup racer for 20 years or so. Retired this year, but I last raced in 2015. Now just your average retired athlete!”
I think he may be trying to trick me, this man is not average. The collection of medals and cups at home must weigh heavy on his mantelpiece, with golds, silvers and bronzes from Winter Olympics, World Cups and World Championships across the alpine skiing disciplines.
He’s proved himself an ace at downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom. What’s more as well as being main ambassador and part owner of Bomber, he was off to commentate for Eurosport at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea - taking place now - shortly after our meeting.
OK, let’s get the lowdown on these Bomber skis. They’re handmade in Italy in the Piedmont region (which is actually where I'm from too) and I like the philosophy - skis that help you perform at your best, whatever your level. But in the race, he going to have got an advantage over me, because of course he’s skied on them before. So what are Bomber skis all about Bode? And how did you get involved?
“I have worked with different companies for so long, developing skis for racing but also for the consumer, but when I retired I found partners whose views and values aligned with mine. What we do is special for me because it represents what I tried to do for years - I want people to enjoy skiing, be safe and improve their lives.”
OK, not a lot of clues about performance there - though skis that will improve my life are fine with me. Bode advises me to use the Bomber Pro Carve - responsive, nimble, they sound right for a slalom race. And he’s on the same skis - in white rather than my pale blue - so I won’t be able to blame the tools if he beats me.
I ask about his best and worse racing memories - he finds it hard to choose, but the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver stand out. “They were pretty unique just because it was really difficult. The conditions were lousy and the quality of racing was low and I didn’t ski very well, but it was exciting in a way and I was proud.” Fair enough, since he won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal - in super-combined, super giant slalom and downhill respectively.
“All those factors that I just spoke about - the hill not being very easy to win on, the conditions, races delayed and cancelled - make it really hard to maintain your energy and stay focused and then, when the moment comes, to actually still execute.”
A clue! When racing I must maintain my focus.
“The way that I won the combined in Vancouver [points are combined from a downhill and a slalom run] skiing so poorly on the downhill and then having a really high-quality slalom round made that experience pretty cool. And the fact that I was on the older side - it was already my fourth Olympics - also made winning three medals there pretty cool too.”
He’s even older now - aged 40 to my 27 - maybe the balance is restored… I try another tack. So Bode, you’re known for prioritising speed over style, has that changed now? “No, but I think of it as prioritising substance over perception. The reality is that people waste lot of time worrying about how others see them - it’s a waste of my energy to try to affect what other people are thinking or how they are perceiving things.”
This is all good. But I need more, I need to ski like a pro. Do you have any advice for being a better ski racer? Or, put another way, how can I beat you?
“You have to keep your primary goal in mind - getting to the finish line quickly. Not looking a certain way, or edging a certain way or being in a certain specific spot. I find that’s easy for kids to understand but adults somehow want to be able to say ‘OK, if I do this and I do that I am going be fast’. But that’s unfortunately not the way ski racing works.”
Right, right - got it!
And so to race day. The scenery in Trentino is beautiful, especially the pink-tinged cliffs of the Dolomite mountains. But I was too nervous to admire them much.
Bode set the pace on the slalom course, set up on the black Olimpionica 2 slope, and then the almost 70 of us who had signed up to race him followed, trying to beat his time. This was the very slope where Bode and the US ski team used to train. Another advantage for Bode!
My plan of action? To focus on the primary goal of course, get to the finish and not worry about my style. But after seeing a few racers fall over I confess I got slightly worried - OK scared - and my primary goal changed to, get to the finish line alive!
And guess what, I didn’t win. But neither did Bode. He was beaten by a 15-year-old athlete from the Czech Republic, David Kubas, who got down the course in 20.01 seconds. Bode didn’t disgrace himself though - he finished in 21.05 seconds. As for me, I was pretty proud of my 34 seconds!
And I can’t blame the Bomber skis for sure, they are super light and easy to use, great in both, short and long turns - and so they should be at $1,600 a pair! Still, despite feeling slightly scared during the race, in general, having those skis on made me feel secure; like I could do and acheive anything I wanted.
But what about the real races going on at the Winter Olympics right now - who does Bode, as a commentator, think are the athletes to watch?
“The reality is the snow conditions when we get there are the biggest impacting factor, whether it’s ice, really quick snow or if they keep it slow. But if I had to pick somebody now to win a medal, for the men's speed events [downhill, super-giant slalom], Beat Feuz of Switzerland would be my top pick. Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud - both Norwegians - would be right there as well. On the tech side [slalom, giant slalom] I think Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen and Marcel Hirscher of Austria will win medals.
No mention of Team GB’s Dave Ryding in the slalom event from Mr Miller - but we know you’ll all be watching him anyway!