Why 70 is the best age to be a skier – and how to do it for a fraction of the price

Skiing behind Franz Klammer – the all-time Austrian sporting hero – is what anyone who has been lucky enough to share a slope with him does. Revered as perhaps the greatest downhill racer in history, first place is his territory. Would you overtake Emerson Fittipaldi or James Hunt?

Unfortunately, that’s what I did. It wasn’t, of course, on purpose. Intent on excitement and survival, I’d skied 20 metres past Franz before realising he had briefly stopped for a couple of the younger – well, middle-aged – members of our group to catch up. Focus, Peter. Age is no excuse for a momentary lapse in concentration in the maestro’s presence.

Klammer won Olympic Gold at Innsbruck in 1976

Klammer won Olympic Gold at Innsbruck in 1976 – Getty

Younger Millennials and members of Gen Z may be struggling to understand who – and what – I’m talking about. The 1970s, when Franz Klammer ruled the world of snow, is now a distant decade, but to me, it seems like yesterday.

“You can’t beat the clock of life, but at my age, I can still enjoy skiing as much as ever,” Franz said, as we rode the gondola together during three days of celebrations for his milestone 70th birthday, in his home Austrian resort of Badkleinkirchheim, close to the frontier with Slovenia.

An important endorsement for those of us who are happily skiing into our 70s and hopefully way beyond. No, you can’t mess with time. But 50 years ago Franz had a good go at it.

His illustrious career depended on dramatically carving hundredths of a second off his rivals at speeds of up to 80mph.

For four memorable years in the 1970s, he dominated the blue riband event of ski racing, winning Olympic Gold at Innsbruck in 1976, along with 25 individual race victories. These included four on the notorious Streif course on the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, revered as the most challenging on the World Cup circuit.

Franz told me in Kitzbühel one January as we watched the racers flying 80 metres through the air on the infamous Mausfalle jump: “There is no single winner on the Streif. Each and every competitor who gets to the finish in one piece is the winner.”

Writer Peter went skiing with Klammer in his home Austrian resort of Badkleinkirchheim

Writer Peter went skiing with Klammer in his home Austrian resort of Badkleinkirchheim

The chance to ski another run with Franz was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. Some 40 of the greatest downhillers of all time – both men and women, aged from 33 to 75 felt the same. They’d gathered in Badkleinkirchheim to take part in the Race of Legends and later raise what turned out to be a considerable number of glasses to the Archduke of Austrian skiing.

Among them was Konrad Bartelski, still Britain’s most successful downhiller, who competed for a decade against Franz on the World Cup circuit. He beat him into fifth place at Val Gardena in 1981, missing out on gold by a mere 0.11 of a second. These days, we have the great Dave Ryding slaloming into the history books, but Konrad’s remarkable run all those years ago remains Britain’s best-ever downhill result.

“It’s been a long and lasting friendship,” said Konrad. “Mostly, I finished behind him – as I have, by a few months, in the race to reach 70. But I can tell you that after Val Gardena Franz wasn’t happy about being beaten by an Englishman!”

Klammer competing in the men's downhill event at the Patscherkofel at the 1976 Winter Olympics

Klammer competing in the men’s downhill event at the Patscherkofel at the 1976 Winter Olympics – Getty

A crowd of several hundred enthusiastic local fans gathered at the finish to watch the event.

“This,” Franz explained before the start, “is the one race that I cannot win. I go down first and then all the others have to come as close to my time as they can, either faster or slower.

“For the young guy, it will be very difficult to ski as slow as I do. For the others, it will be very difficult to ski as fast as I do.”

Les Arcs is one of many ski resorts that offer discounts for older skiers

Les Arcs is one of many ski resorts that offer discounts for older skiers – Getty

In the end, it was 56-year-old Patrick Ortlieb from Lech, gold medallist on the wicked La Face course in Val d’Isère at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, who managed to get within eight-hundredths of a second of Franz’s time.

At the finish line, the chat between former rivals, many of them meeting for the first time in years, centred not on past wins, but numbers of grandchildren. Franz and his wife Eva have three: “Two boys and a girl. They chase me around. It’s a lot of fun, they are on skis already and I am leading a very, very happy life.”

But he added: “When I am going through the gates again, the thrill is coming back.” At 70, the light of Franz Klammer remains undimmed.


How to Ski with Franz Klammer

This winter expert skiers can join Klammer on Badkleinkirchheim’s Ski Before 9am programme on three dates: January 9 and February 6, 13 and 20. From €195 including breakfast on the mountain.

How to get there

The nearest airport is Klagenfurt (60 minutes), served by regular Ryanair flights from Stansted. Ljubljana, across the border in Slovenia, is a 90-minute transfer. Salzburg, served by multiple airlines including easyJet, is a 150-minute drive away.

Where to stay

The five-star Das Ronacher Therme & Spa Resort has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a saltwater pool with underwater music and meditation areas, and a sauna pool. Double rooms cost from £499 per night, half board.

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