The start of the FIS World Cup alpine skiing season is upon us, with the first few races having been completed in Austria and Canada for the men and in Austria and Colorado for the women. Snow is starting to fall in the northerly climates, and winter is upon us. It’s time to hit the slopes and take a look at the early action from around Europe and North America as we gear up for the heart of the calendar…
In Sölden, Austria on the weekend of October 22-23, a pair of Americans got their giant slalom campaigns off to a splendid start as Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety took their respective races. The Saturday women’s race saw native Austrian Elisabeth Görgl fly through the course with a sub-1:10 time and jump out to an early lead among the favorites in her first run. But she was sitting behind surprise leader Federica Brignone, a young Italian in just her sophomore season on the World Cup, who had a half-second lead on the field at 1:09.43. Vonn posted the fourth-best time at 1:10.25, nearly eight-tenths of a second off the pace behind Brignone, Görgl and Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg.
Times slowed naturally on the second run, as the snow warmed up and was carved up with each successive run. Vonn, blazing through the lines, took the lead in the final of the two runs. Rebensburg skied well in her run that followed, but stopped the clock four-hundredths of a second slower than Vonn’s aggregate time. Görgl, skiing next and needing to merely maintain an advantage, faltered badly and finished 15th in time on the second run to slide from second to third. Brignone, with the win basically in hand (needing to finish within 0.82 seconds of Vonn’s elapsed time), didn’t merely falter but instead crumbled under the pressure. In the upper part of the course, after just a few gates, she lost her edge and took a spill, bagging a DNF to drop to 29th overall on the day and missing out on the first podium of her burgeoning career.
In the men’s race on Sunday, Ligety had an easy enough time of things as he took an early lead in the first run. Then, skiing with the proper balance of speed and conservative control in the second run, Ligety coasted to a comfortable victory of nearly three-tenths of a second over France’s Alexis Pinturault and Austria’s Philipp Schörghofer. Victory at Sölden has long eluded Ligety — in the last three editions of the race from 2007-2009 (it was canceled last season due to lack of snow by race day), Ligety finished second behind Aksel-Lund Svindal, third behind the Swiss tandem of Daniel Albrecht and Didier Cuche, and runner-up again behind Cuche. So for the man who has won the FIS World Cup giant-slalom title in three of the past four seasons, it was sweet success against a course that has long eluded him.
From Austria, the skiers of the World Cup tour had a month off to travel to North America. The women picked up where they left off in Aspen, Colorado, with giant slalom and slalom courses on the docket. Saturday’s post-Thanksgiving GS served up sweet revenge for Rebensburg and bittersweet inconsistency yet again for Görgl, as both moved up one step on the podium from their positions in Sölden on a day where Lindsey Vonn was having back troubles and wasn’t up to the task on one of her least favorite courses of the circuit. Görgl was the early leader after the first run, posting the only time under 1:05 in the heat to build a sizable padding on her rivals. And once again she failed to duplicate her aggressiveness in the latter run, her time of 1:07.12 only 21st best in the second run.
Despite Vonn’s mediocre day, Americans made it two-for-two reaching the podium at giant slalom events this year. Julia Mancuso, the veteran from Reno who was the 2006 Olympic gold medalist in the discipline, parlayed two strong runs into a third-place finish six-hundredths of a second ahead of Austria’s Anna Fenninger. For Mancuso, who has become more of a Super G and downhill specialist, it was her first GS podium on the World Cup circuit since finishing second in Lienz, Austria in December 2007.
Sunday saw the first slalom action of the nascent season, and defending 2010 Olympic, 2011 World Cup and 2011 world champion Marlies Schild of Austria picked right up where she left off last season. The 30-year-old, who won six slaloms on the tour last season en route to the discipline’s season title, had a cushion of over three-quarters of a second over Finland’s Tanja Poutiainen after the first run, blazing through the course with the only time under 53 seconds. Her second run only saw her get better, extending the gap in her eventual victory to 1.19 seconds over eventual runner up Maria Pietilä-Holmner of Sweden. If Schild continues to attack the gates with this level of form, nobody will be able to catch her on her way to a title defense.
While the women were in Aspen, the men were in Canada at Lake Louise, Alberta to contest the first downhill and Super G of the burgeoning campaign. The pure speed of the downhill graced Saturday’s competition, and it a man many thought would retire at the top last year who showed why he stayed in the game for 2011-12. Didier Cuche, the two-time defending World Cup downhill champion who has taken four of the past five season titles, is no less a threat at age 37 than he was a decade ago. The Swissman held off his younger compatriot, 24-year-old Beat Feuz, by just six-hundredths of a second to take the title.
Before this race, Cuche was already held the record as the oldest man to win a World Cup race after he took the Super G in Kvitfjell, Norway last March. His victory in Alberta extended that record eight more months, and the way the Swiss superstar is skiing he might just tie Franz Klammer’s legendary mark of five career downhill season titles on the FIS circuit. Feuz will surely have something to say about that, as will others like Silvan Zurbriggen and Klaus Kröll. But after one downhill Cuche has thrown down the gauntlet and shown that his farewell tour — if indeed this is his final campaign — will be no joyride.
Sunday’s Super G was just as competitive even if the final result wasn’t quite as close. Cuche nearly pulled off the double on the Canadian sojourn, posting a fast time that looked like it might hold up until Norway’s Aksel-Lund Svindal took to the course. Svindal, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in the Super G, had the benefit of seeing the other favorites hit the course, though soft snow did force him to take chances on a run already rutted from the previous competitors. Fighting his way down the line, the two-time World Cup overall champion showed his resolve to take the third Lake Louise Super G of his career.
It has been a sweet-and-sour, all-or-nothing venue for Svindal during his career — the first victory of his career came there in the Super G in November 2005, he won there again in 2007 and now thrice with this year’s triumph… but he has also failed to reach the podium there any other year since 2003, finishing 10th, 16th, 19th, 9th, 14th and 29th during every year he has not won the race. This year was a sweet year for a change, though Cuche is now well-positioned to challenge him all season long.
Coming up this weekend, the sexes swap places across the border as the men head south and the women north. The first Saturday and Sunday of December see the women take on the courses at Lake Louise for their first downhill and Super G competitions of the season. The men, meanwhile, head to Colorado, bypassing Aspen for the Birds of Prey course at Beaver Creek. Pray for some good snow — the men struck on Tuesday, canceling the first downhill practice runs at the venue when conditions were unsafe.
Led by Bode Miller, the skiers sat out practice and demanded repairs to a course that was not up to its normal par level of excellence. When you’re willing to put your body on the line at speeds in excess of seventy, eighty miles an hour, after all, you ought to be entitled to working conditions as safe as possible. So think good thoughts as the pros of the World Cup circuit finish up their early campaign ahead of the high drama of December and the new year…