BEIJING, China — Two-time Olympic champion Matthias Mayer clicked into his skis and descended into the unknown.
Then promptly missed two gates.
With the No. 1 bib in the opening downhill training session of the Beijing Games on Thursday, Mayer was the first to test a course that none of the competitors had ever been on before.
“It was more inspection today than racing,” said Mayer, who finished his run despite difficulty in finding the right line at the start.
Because test events were canceled over the last two years amid the pandemic, this was the first time that the world’s best skiers got a chance to see the Rock course up close.
“I was a little nervous,” Mayer said. “We (didn’t) know how the jumps are and how the speed is. So I had to find the right line. ... It was something special.”
With challenging jumps, high speeds, perfectly hard snow, clear and sunny skies with only a few gusts of wind on top, the initial verdict was overwhelmingly positive.
“The course is amazing,” said Vincent Kriechmayr, Mayer’s Austrian teammate. “The snow conditions are one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s really nice to ski here. My first impressions are really good.
“Nearly every section is difficult,” added Kriechmayr, who won gold in both downhill and super-G at last season’s world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Stefan Rogentin of Switzerland posted the fastest time of 1 minute, 44.0 seconds. Adur Etzezarreta of Spain was second, 0.08 seconds behind, and Christof Innerhofer of Italy was third, 0.26 behind.
Times and placings, however, were mostly irrelevant on a day when skiers were discovering the racing line for the first time.
Two more training sessions will be held Friday and Saturday before the men’s downhill opens the Alpine competition on Sunday.
“I was taking it easy because I didn’t know the speed, especially in the middle part where the speed is high and some guys had more than 130 kph (80 mph),” said Mayer, who won gold in downhill in 2014 then took first in super-G in 2018. “A lot of learning to do for tomorrow."
Mayer placed 37th, nearly 2½ seconds behind Rogentin, whose best World Cup result was fifth in a super-G in Val Gardena, Italy, in December.
The Saddle jump on the upper portion of the course appeared to be one of the more challenging sections of the course, launching racers off-balance into the air then landing with one ski high up in the air to regain control.
In all, there are five main jumps, including one right before the finish in between two walls of rock.
Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the Norwegian who has been the leading speed skier this season, described the course as “narrower” than any he’s been on.
“We have more of those snake turns than those long, juicy turns we have in the World Cup,” said Kilde, who placed seventh. “But with the jumps, with the terrain, with the snow, it’s a really nice flow.
“I’m excited to ski it tomorrow,” added Kilde, "and see where you can improve and where you can have more fun with it, knowing where you are, rather than let the course ski you.”