• Caitlin Kennedy

Criterium de la Premiere Neige

The Criterium de la Premier Neige is one of the biggest events of the season, with the World’s top ski racers descending on the slopes of Val d’Isere for a key stage of the World Cup circuit. We decided to delve back into the history of the event before the main events taking place over the next two weekends. But first, a brief look at the history of ski racing as we know it today.

Pocket History of Ski Racing

Back at the beginning of the 1900s, Alpine skiing was the bad boy of the ski World, looked down at as “not a real sport” by the Nordic Ski big guns. As is evident from their names, Nordic skiing (or cross country skiing today) developed in Scandanavia, whilst Alpine skiing developed in the Alps, which generally had steeper slopes on which to let gravity do its thing. Eventually, the speed disciplines of Alpine skiing were allowed into the cool kid’s club in 1930 when Norway, Sweden, and Finland finally withdrew their resistance.

Once fully sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) the path was paved for today’s modern Alpine events; slalom, giant slalom, supergiant slalom (super-G), and downhill—each of which is progressively faster and has fewer turns. The Super-G and downhill are known as speed events, which are contested in single runs down long, steep, fast courses featuring few and widely spaced turns. The slalom and giant slalom are known as technical events, which challenge the skier’s ability to maneuver over courses marked by closely spaced gates through which both skis must pass; winners of these events are determined by the lowest combined time in two runs on two different courses. The Alpine combined event consists of a downhill and a slalom race, with the winner having the lowest combined time.

Key moments in the History of the Criterium de la Premier Neige

1955 - With the first competitions of the season not until January, Charles Diebold and Louis Erny saw a gap and decided to introduce a new First Snow Race, three years after organising the World Championships on the Face de Bellevarde. 55 skiers took part in the first edition, with Jean Bourdaleix named as the Critérium’s first winner and local skier, Firmin Mattis, taking the lead in slalom and combined.

1960 onwards - The first events were mostly attended by French skiers. Due to the monopoly the French ski team was having on the international scene, other skiers adopted French methods of training and included the Criterium in their program.

1967-1968 - There was a snow shortage this year but the tenacious President of the Club des Sports Louis Erny, was undeterred and moved the races onto the Pissaillas Glacier. Marc Holder, then President of the FIS, attended the races which weren’t part of the World Cup at the time. Impressed by what he saw, he granted the Criterium World Cup status the following year.

1979 - This year saw a Herculean effort from Parisian-born Caroline Attia. At the start of the downhill, she dislocated her shoulder, but injury didn’t stop her from crossing the finishing line of the OK slope – at around 100km/hour with her arm hanging down – 3 seconds behind the winner.

1981-1982 - During the Critérium of December 1981, the former triple Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy and the president of the General Council of Savoie, Michel Barnier (now chief Brexit negotiator!), proposed holding the Winter Olympic Games in Savoie. A year later, during the 1982 Criterium, Henri Dujol, the Mayor of Albertville, officially announced the candidacy of the city and Savoyard Department for the Games of 1992.

1988 - At the beginning of the season, snow was sorely lacking and the organisation of the Critérium looked like it would be compromised. For the first time on the World Cup Circuit, snow was transported by helicopter to the slope in order to pass the FIS snow inspection.

1995 - For its 40th anniversary, the Critérium celebrated the return of a women’s event, once again on the “OK” (short for Oreiller-Killy named after two Olympic Chamionships who hailed from Val d’Isere, Henri Oreiller and Jean-Claude Killy), after a 6-year hiatus.

1998 - This year marked the return of Austrian Hermann “Herminator” Maier who had been disqualified the previous year for claiming victory too soon, having removed his skis before the finish line. Safe to say he did not repeat the mistake and he came back feroucious and determined to take home the top prize. This he did, finishing first in the super G, more than a second ahead of fellow Austrian, Stephan Eberharter.

2012 - Although used to dealing with a lack of snow, the Organisers were faced with a different challenge (more akin to this year) in 2012 when heavy snow falls forced a change of the program at the last minute, reversing the Men’s Giant and Slalom, which for the first time saw its second round held at night. This proved advantageous for Tignes boy, Alexis Pinturault who exploded down the floodlit course to take home an historic victory.

We also asked Radio Val’s Benoit Launay, spectator of the Criterium for over 30 years, about his experiences watching and reporting on the event...

How has the Criterium de la Premier Neige changed over the years?

Well it was born in 1955. To begin with, it was just a small race held on the Solaise. Then in 1967, the competition was added to the World Cup Calendar as the first event of the season, and the Criterium de la Premier Neige was born.

Why are the Men’s Downhill and Super G events no longer held in Val d’Isere?

In the women’s races, the Super G and Downhill are still in the programme, using the OK piste. But for the boys, it’s more difficult. In the 2009 World Championship and the 1992 Winter Olympics, which were partially held here in Val, both the downhill and Super G were held on Le Face de Bellevarde. In other years, the men have participated in Downhill/Super G on the OK piste. But with the level of competition these days, only the Face is suitable for the men’s speed events and it is hard to organise that kind of competition on the Face this early in the season. At the end of the day it is the FIS who decide the program of events in Val d’Isere.

Which skier left the greatest impression on you in all the years you have watched the Criterium?

Denis Rey. He was in the “top gun” ski team with all the best French ski racers of the 90s. He was never in the medals, but was a true athlete and a fearless skier. He fell several times on the OK piste above La Daille and never won anything because he was too erratic. But he was the most gifted skier of his generation in my opinion. After his career came to an end, during winter he came to live in Val d’Isere in a hut in the La Daille forest, without running water or electricity. He was a real character!

The biggest crash you’ve seen during the races?

It was indisputably Silvano Beltrametti, an Italian racer, who crashed into the nets during the downhill competition on the OK piste back in 2001. Very sadly, he became paraplegic as a consequence of this accident. He returned to Val d’Isère 3 years ago and was met and honoured by the Mayor.

What’s been the most dramatic moment of your reporting on the competition?

35 years ago, I had just arrived in Val d’Isère and was tasked with doing the commentary on the sound system at the finish line. At the time, I knew nothing about skiing but I had to pretend like I was a connoisseur. Save to say it did not go well. It was impossible to pronounce the names of the Russian competitors. I didn’t get offered the job again!

Which discipline do you prefer to watch?

The Slalom. Even though the Giant requires a demonstration of speed, technical prowess and exceptional endurance, the Slalom is shorter, with an amazing rhythm and of course we can watch the entire course.

Who are your favourites to win this year?

Clement Nöel, of course in the men’s and Mikaela Shiffrin for the women.

Timetable of events:

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the biblical level storm hit Val. The dates, times and actual running of all the races are very liable to change. The Men’s events have been switched and at time of print (5pm Friday night), the Slalom course inspection should be at 7am tomorrow. We decided to remove the provisional timings because, really, who knows what’s going to happen! Tune in to Radio Val d’Isère for the most up to date info.

Men’s Race Programme

Saturday 14th: Slalom Men

Sunday 15th : Giant Slalom Men

Women’s Race Programme

Friday 20th : Opening ceremony on the Main Street in Val d’Isère, with a procession of the competitors, DJ and vin chaud.

Saturday 21st: Women’s Downhill

Sunday 22nd: Women’s Alpine Combined (Super G and Slalom)

Where to watch: Watch from the bottom of the Face for the men’s races and the OK for the women’s races. There will be Savoie Specialities on offer, music and general merriment during the races. Bring a flag.

Who to look out for:

Clement Noel, young home-grown Olympian. Frequently places top 3 in Slalom.

Dave Ryding, Britain’s top ski racer

Mikaela Shiffrin, American skier, practically unbeatable in Super G at the moment.

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