Val d'Isere: The hidden home of skiing's 'madmen'

Story highlights

  • Val d'Isere in the French Alps plays host to Alpine Skiing's premier competitions
  • The tiny mountain village has produced four Olympic champions, all of them characters
  • Henri Oreiller won first ever skiing golds at 1948 Winter Olympics and went on to race cars
  • Jean-Claude Killy also took three gold medals and went on to compete in Paris-Dakar Rally
Buried deep in the French Alps, the tiny 11th-century mountain village of Val d'Isere has an unmistakable "je ne sais quoi" that has produced some of the most successful -- and wild-spirited -- skiers in racing history.
Henri Oreiller, the "madman of downhill," and Jean-Claude Killy -- his speed-driven successor -- both spent their formative years on its slopes.
From its humble beginnings as a ski resort in the 1930s, it has become one of the world's top alpine destinations, hosting more top competitions than any other European venue. Local farmers mix with the moneyed elite who stay in its five-star hotels.
"I don't think Val d'Isere would be the place it is today without Henri Oreiller and Jean Claude Killy," writer Yves Perret told CNN.
"To be the resort of champions is what makes you different from a lot of other places. One of the downhill tracks here is called the Oreiller Killy track. They both remain here. They will always be a part of Val d'Isere."
Oreiller was its resident snow showman in the 1940s -- a fearless adrenalin junkie who lived up to his nickname, and claimed skiing's first Olympic gold medals when the sport was introduced at the 1948 Winter Games.
He was famous for tearing recklessly over bumps in the slopes, balancing himself in mid-air. When the thrill of skiing wasn't enough, he moved on to motor racing -- and was killed behind the wheel of a Ferrari in 1962, aged just 36.
Born in Paris, Oreiller has a shrine in the village that he called home, next to his wife.
"Oreiller is the man who inspired a lot of kids in Val d'Isere to try to become ski champions in the post-war period," said Perret, author of a book about one of Val d'Isere's most famous events.
"He was a funny guy who loved to play accordion and loved speed. He had a risky way of skiing, he took all the risks, everyone who saw him said he was an amazing skier."
Killy took his lead from Oreiller, and was part of a group of children who desperately tried to keep pace with Val d'Isere's "madman" while he trained on the slopes.
He went on to emulate Oreiller's golden hat-trick, at the Grenoble Winter Olympics in 1968, and his pursuit of speed and glory once saw him complete a trial race on one leg, legend has it, having broken the other one en route to the finish line.
"Killy was different. He was the guy that was always thinking of being the best and doing more training than anyone," Perret said. "He was, and he still is, always thinking of what can be done to improve things."
Having secured five major titles, Killy quit skiing aged 24. He also turned to motor racing, competing in the Paris to Dakar car rally, before he came out of retirement for one season only, winning the 1973 U.S. pro ski tour.
Now 69, he is still inextricably linked with Val d'Isere and was part of the committee that helped to organize the 2009 Alpine World Ski Championships.
Val d'Isere's village people weren't restricted to male stars -- the Goitschel sisters, Marielle and Christine, were also big names during the 1960s.
Both took home a gold medal at the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, while Marielle won a further seven titles at various world championship events.
For a time, they were considered the best female skiers in the world and further enhanced the reputation of their village.
Allied to Val d'Isere's personalities is a world-famous race which takes advantage of the resort's altitude of 1,850 meters and plentiful early-season snow. It proved a masterstroke of timing.
Val d'Isere launched the "Criterium de la 1ere Neige" ("Races of the first snow") in December of 1955 -- a full month before the regular ski season began. This year's event, featuring men's and women's races from December 7-15, was the 57th installment. Heavy snow on Saturday meant the women's Super G race was canceled.
The 2013 World Cup season officially began in Austria in October before moving to North America, but the main European leg traditionally kicks off at Val d'Isere before climaxing in Switzerland in March.
"The great advantage of the Criterium is to be the first event in Europe," said Perret, who wrote a book marking its 50th anniversary.
"It is a different pressure for the athletes who come from North America. There are 20 or 30 races in the season but Val d'Isere, like Itteville or Wengen, are special.
"It is a little different than winning in other places. Like in tennis if you win Wimbledon or Roland Garros, it's much more important than winning in any other regular tournament. All the great skiers from the last 50 years have won in Val d'Isere."
The special aura that distinguishes Val d'Isere from its many competitors relates directly to its humble roots.
A single, perilous path was all that used to connect the village, tucked away near the border with Italy, to the nearest town 19 miles away where its inhabitants used to trek to sell their molded blue cheeses.
"The village plus the ski resort combines to create that special atmosphere," says Val d'Isere tourism official Jane Jacquemod, whose daughter Ingrid competed in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics.
"We have families who have been here for generations; you get the farmer who has his stable of cows more or less in the middle of the village, rubbing noses with the five-star hotels."