The Freeride World Tour stop in Fieberbrunn has always been hugely popular among the Austrian freeride scene, and this year the local fans will be more excited than ever. Following a victory in Andorra and a third-place-finish in Kicking Horse, local hero Valentin Rainer will drop into the north face of the Wildseeloder as the current leader of the overall men’s ski ranking. We talked to the Scott athlete just before his trip from his current home in Innsbruck to the eastern fringes of Tyrol.
Interview: Klaus Polzer
Hi Valentin, you’re about to leave for Fieberbrunn. It’s going to be your first FWT contest in Austria, right? How does that feel?
Yes, it’s going to be my first contest on the World Tour in Austria. Last year—my first season on the tour—I didn’t make the cut unfortunately, so I couldn’t compete in Fieberbrunn. I was really bummed about that. I still went to watch, and at that time it was already looking very good for my re-qualification to the Tour, since I did well at the challenger contests in Nendaz and Jasna. So it didn’t hurt too much to go there and only watch the contest last year. But this year I am really looking forward to going there and finally competing. And it’s not only me—all my family and friends are looking forward to this and they are going to be there to watch.
do you feel any pressure? you’re not just going to Fieberbrunn to compete—you are also going to defend your top spot in the overall ranking.
It still sounds like a dream when somebody tells me that I am leading the ranking. But it’s only halfway through the Tour, so it doesn’t really mean anything. For me, it doesn’t change a thing. I would be as happy if I was going as fifth or tenth to Fieberbrunn. I am really just looking forward to compete there.
Vale sends a clean 360 on his home turf at St. Anton last spring. Photo: Klaus Polzer
I would be as happy if I was going as fifth or tenth to Fieberbrunn.
don’t you think it’s going to be different to go to your home contest as the current leader? I guess there will be even more media attention focused on you.
That’s true—I can already see that there are more requests for interviews and so on. Actually, the way I see it, I am allowed to give more interviews. After all, it’s a good thing for me and for our sport in Austria. But as soon as I’m up on the top of Wildseeloder waiting to drop in, I’m only going to be focused on my run. I’m not worried that I’ll be distracted. Luckily, there are only the riders up there and some people from the Tour and it takes some time to hike to the top, so it should be easy to focus just on my run.
Looking back at the three FWT stops so far this year, are you surprised that it’s worked out so well for you this season?
My personal goal for the season before the start of the Tour was to make it on the podium at least at one event. I didn’t do that last year, so I thought that would be a good goal to have for this season. Then the first event in Spain didn’t actually go that well. I thought that I had quite an okay run, but the judges didn’t agree and I ended up pretty far down in the ranking. That left me wondering what I was actually doing on the Tour. Somehow I managed to leave all that behind and ski completely without pressure at the second stop in Andorra. I just skied for myself and did what I wanted to do. When I was at the finish and saw the number one come up next to my name, I was almost shocked. I knew that there were many more riders to go at that moment, but obviously I had done a run that the judges liked as much as I did. That was an amazing feeling. Of course, staying in that number one spot was even better. I had already achieved more than I was hoping for in this season. That really gave me a boost. Making it on the podium again in Kicking Horse was just the cherry on the top, even more so since I was up there with my buddy Max Hitzig. Of course, it’s my aim now to hold on to that golden bib [indicating the current overall leader]. But even if that doesn’t work out, I am already super happy with my season on the Tour this year.
Valentin entered the 2023 season hoping for a podium, and promptly won the second stop. How's that for overachieving? Photo: Flo Gassner
Vale and Max Hitzig have been a force to be reckoned with on this year's Tour. Photo: Gassner
That moment in the finish area in Andorra seemed to be very emotional for you because your friend Christoph Schöfegger had died in an avalanche just a few days before.
Yes, that was a very emotional experience. I had just heard about the accident two or three days before, but the time between the events in Spain and Andorra is super stressful because there are only a few days between them, and there’s not much time to think about anything else than the contest. I had said to myself beforehand that this run would be for Schöffi, but when I was in the finish area it really hit me, because it was the first time that I didn’t have to think about the contest and my run since I had heard that Schöffi had passed away in Japan. So it was a really emotional moment, and I’d like to think that Schöffi sent me some extra power for that run. We really miss him—he was such a great character in the freeride scene back home in Innsbruck.
Aside from the Tour, how was your winter so far? There wasn’t much snow in most parts of the Alps until Christmas. How did you even prepare for the Tour?
Well, right before the start of the winter I had a little injury, so I couldn’t ski that much for a month. When I could ski again, I skied a lot in the park to practice my air game, so I didn’t miss the powder as much before Christmas as I normally would. Luckily, we got a decent snowfall just before the Tour started, so I had two weeks or so to get plenty of freeride laps in and get confident with my skiing. It wasn’t ideal, but it also could have been worse.
Slashing in St. Anton. Photo: Polzer
You’ve been in the competitive freeride game for a while, but last season was your first year on the World Tour. Did you change anything about your preparation in summer and autumn for your second season on the tour, or did you follow the same routines as before?
I didn’t change much, I would say. After last season I went on a surfing trip and relaxed a little. When I was back home in Innsbruck, I did a lot of different sports that I like and that also help for skiing, like skateboarding and slacklining, and I did a bit of cliff jumping to practice my air awareness. And I also did my training in the gym, of course. I’ve been doing that under the guidance of Stefan Häusl for years, and that’s been super important for my general progression. I might have been doing a bit more last summer and I can feel that, because I still feel pretty strong despite all the traveling on the Tour, which isn’t super helpful to keep a training routine going. But overall I wouldn’t say that I’ve done anything hugely different last summer compared to the seasons before.
How much do you still work with Stefan as a coach? You were with him for years as part of the freeride team that he started at St. Anton am Arlberg.
I still work a lot with Stefan in summer. This winter he’s the coach for Justine Dufour-Lapointe, so he is pretty busy with that. But I guess I have to talk to him a bit before the contest in Fieberbrunn because he probably knows every single rock in that face [Stefan Häusl won the first men’s ski FWT contest on the Wildseeloder in 2011 and competed on the face for many years].
Vale sends a large-and-in-charge backflip on his way to third place in Kicking Horse. Photo: Gassner
Rolling through the finish gate. Photo: Gassner
A season on the Freeride World Tour is pretty draining, and I just want to enjoy some relaxed skiing when the Tour is done.
After the tour final in Verbier, there’s still some time left before the end of the season, and hopefully we’ll still get some more snow. Do you have any plans for when the contest season is over?
I don’t have too much planned. For sure we want to do some filming around Innsbruck. We have a film project, Decide to Ride, going on with my buddy Flo Gassner as filmer. Flo has followed Max Hitzig and I before and during the Freeride World Tour, and we definitely want to do a final episode with some soul shredding. Then I might go up to Riksgränsen in spring to experience that special atmosphere. The Swedes on the Tour are raving about it, so I probably should see it for myself at some point. Other than that, I don’t have much planned at the moment. A season on the Freeride World Tour is pretty draining, and I just want to enjoy some relaxed skiing when the Tour is done.
That film project of yours has given us some good insight of life on the FWT, particularly for the Austrian squad. But is it actually Austrian? Max Hitzig has been competing under a German flag this season. Can you tell us what happened?
I am not quite sure either, but obviously Max is only in possession of a German passport. He has basically been living in Austria his whole life, and he’s definitely talking and behaving like a typical guy from Vorarlberg. That’s why he was starting under the Austrian flag up until last season. But now with the more formal procedures of the FWT, particularly when it comes to traveling to North America, it came out that he is actually a citizen of Germany. For me, it makes no difference. He’s still a great guy and my best buddy on the tour, and I enjoy skiing and traveling and filming with him. For everything else, I guess you have to ask Max.
Valle and Max on the lookout for their next lines. Photo: Gassner