If you are a golf fan it is the equivalent of spending 10 days with Tiger Woods, or if you love basketball, kicking it with Lebron James for two weeks. For local skier and former racer Hank Minor, spending 10 days with Bode Miller in Europe was simply a dream come true.
Minor, owner of Apple's Bar & Grill, traveled with Miller's Team America contingent in late January and early February, witnessing Miller's historic wins at Chamonix and Val d'Isere, France.
"It was an amazing, awesome experience," Minor said.
The 38-year-old Minor caught a flyer with Team America through Miller's head coach, John McBride, a longtime friend of Minor's from his racing days.
"Johno is a local from Aspen and he was a club coach for Aspen and I was from Sun Valley," Minor said. "We used to meet all over the place and remained really good friends. This is the second trip he has taken me on. I went to Kitzbuehel in 2004 when he was a U.S. coach."
Minor said the trip to Europe was a spur-of-the-moment deal, which just happened to coincide with a trip his family, including wife, Heather, and kids, Wyatt, 6, and Tatum, 3, had already planned.
"I e-mailed Johno after Bode won in Bormio on December 29, just to congratulate him. He said, 'Why don't you get on one of these trips?' so I looked at the calendar. My wife and kids go someplace with her mom every winter and I saw that the dates were the same as Chamonix and Val d'Isere, two places I've always wanted to go."
Minor had crossed paths with Miller twice before in Sun Valley, during the U.S. Spring Series in 1998 and when the U.S. team was training for the 2002 Olympics. Even six years ago, Miller, a New Hampshire native, had yet to evolve into the force that he is today, with a U.S. record-setting 30 World Cup wins under his belt.
A three-time Olympian, Miller ended his 10-year run with the U.S. Ski Team last May to take charge of his career, and judging by the success he has had this season, the move has paid off. Miller posted his fifth World Cup win of the season at Val d'Isere on Feb. 3, wrapping up the 2008 super combined title at the same time.
"His head is just into winning and the focus is insane," Minor said. "But at the same time, Bode is very relaxed, very fit and very happy. He's joking all the time."
Minor said Miller's hand-picked support team includes three coaches, a bus driver/cook, a cousin who sells Miller paraphernalia at race sites, a secretary/manager and a pair of ski reps from Head, one who takes care of all his technical skis and the other who manages the speed skis.
"It's one of the best group of coaches I have ever seen," Minor said. "I sat back and kind of listened and watched. I have been around it enough to see where they are making solid decisions. They know what is going to make him the best. They are just traveling together, winning and having fun."
Miller and the rest of Team America are navigating the 2007-08 Audi FIS Men's World Cup tour in a couple of buffed-out buses, which despite being vehicles, lack none of the comforts of home.
"The coaches' bus has been gutted in the middle and there is one hell of a weight room. There's a bike, vibration plate with dumbbells, balls, TV. Everything you need to be fit," Minor said. "We were all lifting weights and Bode came in and just waved us aside and loaded up the machine. He's an animal."
Vive la France
Minor arrived in France on Jan. 23, and was surprised to see Miller's bus parked in plain site of the finish line at Chamonix.
"I thought he would be hidden, but he wasn't. No one messes with him, but people take a lot of pictures. Generally, he just parks where he can get power and that's it. He rents a hotel room so he has a place to shower," Minor said. "Bode is definitely Michael Jordan over there. He's everywhere. When they introduced the racers at the bib draw the decibel level for Hermann Meier was a six, Didier Cuche and Benny Raich were sevens, and Bode was a 10. He got the loudest screams. He's a rock star."
Minor, who moved to the Wood River Valley as a 1-year-old with parents Brad and Sally, sister Patsy and brother Matt, had the good fortune to see four races in France, all won by Americans.
"It was super cool to see Marco Sullivan win the downhill at Chamonix. I had the best seat in the finish and to hear them play the U.S. national anthem when you're in France was just amazing," Minor said.
Sullivan pulled off the win in the 60th Kandahar Trophy downhill on the tricky La Verte course to post the first World Cup win of his career by 4/10ths of a second over Didier Cuche of Switzerland. Miller was seventh.
The following day was all Miller, however, as Bode claimed the super combined by winning a shortened downhill and had the ninth-fastest slalom run to best Croatian Ivica Kostelic by .45 of a second. The win moved Miller, the 2005 overall champ, into the overall World Cup lead with 1,067 points, a lead he still maintains over Austria's Benjamin Raich (974 points) and Didier Cuche of Switzerland (882 points) with a super G and giant slalom taking place at Whistler, B.C.
"Bode wants the overall title," Minor said. "He didn't talk about winning the combined title or when he passed Phil Mahre. Now that he is out on his own, I think there's more personal pressure and expectations. He gets to do it his way and that is how he's always wanted it to be."
Minor said Miller's focus has sharpened and narrowed; the skier who allegedly partied his way through the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy has been supplanted by a 30-year-old man carving out his own path in racing history. A man who neither drinks nor indulges in the excesses that can derail a promising career, according to Minor, though he hedged when asked about some of the more ardent fans on the World Cup tour.
"Yeah, there's ski groupies. I didn't see any, though."
After winning at Chamonix, Team America headed toward Val d'Isere for a downhill and super combined.
"I would go inspect with them every day," Minor said. "On the first day Bode said 'This is no joke of a downhill'. It was so sick and is intimidating just inspecting it. The final jump was massive with 40 meters of air, but it turned out the speeds were not as fast as they expected them to be.
"I poached some sections and they were super bumpy and icy. They inject water into the course to turn normal snow into ice and up the difficulty level. It was hairy and definitely separates the boys from the men among the racers."
Minor said Bode and his coaches also prepare for races by endlessly analyzing video of both Miller and his World Cup competitors.
"Bode doesn't need to be taught to be a better skier, and video is used mostly to determine line," Minor said. "They see where Bode comes down and gains or loses and then they can overlap it with someone else and see the different chances or different risks. Didier Cuche was taking a pretty radical line on one of the big turns and Bode said, 'I am not sure I am ready to ante up to that one yet."
The Val d'Isere downhill was scheduled to be held on the 1992 Olympic Bellevarde course, but unfortunately for the 20,000 spectators, including the president of France, almost two feet of snow scuttled the race.
"Johno and I went skiing and we both immediately tweaked our necks. So, we slowed it down and skied all day. Bode grabbed his friend Jake and went snowboarding and then went out the next day and killed it."
Miller won the downhill portion of the super combined by more than a second over Swiss skier Didier Defago, leading U.S. head coach Phil McNichol to say, "Bode put on quite a clinic in downhill. He can be crafty and he really schooled everyone today."
With the victory, his fifth of the season and 30th altogether, Miller added a fourth alpine discipline title with a two-run time of 2:18.45. Kostelic was second in 2:18.83. Miller previously won giant slalom (2004) and super G (2005/2007) titles, as well as the overall title three years ago.
Minor flew home shortly after that, packing along a wealth of memories for years to come.
"I realized I have a damn good friend in Johno. I got to see the best skier in the world perform and win and live in his trailer for 10 days. I was trailer trash in the back," Minor said with a grin. "I will never get that opportunity again. I was the first guest to be on the bus and travel with them and I can't thank all those guys enough."