After winning her eleventh straight World Cup slalom, Shiffrin is leading the overall with a 105-point advantage over Gut. PHOTO: US Ski Team
The White Circus is once again united as the women's tour recently returned to Europe after successful stops in the US and Canada. In their absence, the men were in France and able to make up three of their five cancelled North American races. The World Cup Tour will remain in Europe traversing the Alps until March when it returns to Squaw Valley, California, women's tech races on the 10th and 11th followed by the season-ending finals in Aspen, Colorado, March 15th through the 19th.
December finishes the calendar year with a stacked schedule of multiple events and venues. The men's speed teams move to Val Gardena, Italy, for a Super G on the 16th and downhill on the 17th, while the tech teams head to Alta Badia for a GS on the 18th as well as the spectacular nighttime parallel GS on the 19th. Across the border in France the women will be in Val d'Isere for the Alpine Combined (downhill and slalom runs) on the 16th, the downhill on the 17th and a Super G on the 18th.
Surrounded by the visually stunning Dolomites the Italian resorts of Val Gardena and Alta Badia have been calendared men's tour stops for more than three decades. The 'Saslong Classic' at Val Gardena is one of the top-five downhill courses in Europe and where Steven Nyman (USA) looks to tie Franz Klammer (AUT) and Kristian Ghedina's (ITA) record of four wins. The track's non-stop micro-terrain and notorious Camel Bumps combine to launch racers into the air more the two-dozen times during their sub two-minute run.
"This year the snow is money! There's more terrain, the rolls are sharper and more defined. You can push the line from top to bottom."—US Men's Assistant Speed Team Coach, Scotty Veenis
"This year the snow is money! There's more terrain, the rolls are sharper and more defined. You can push the line from top to bottom," said the US men's assistant speed team coach, Scotty Veenis. "Maintaining line and speed in the Ciaslat is critical to a good result. There are three rolls entering and exiting that demand precise timing and the ability to absorb terrain."
Across Gardena Pass, Alta Badia delivers one of the toughest GS tests on the men's tour. Both Ted Ligety (USA) and Marcel Hirscher (AUT) look to increase their multiple win count on the Gran Risa. However, Alexis Pinturault (FRA) could be a spoiler. Pinturault is three-for-three with two wins in GS this season and is racing with determination not seen from a Frenchman since Killy. He and his teammates have raised the bar in GS skiing with noticeably higher levels of aggression and line-cutting tactics landing four of them in the top-ten overall GS points.
Conversely for Ligety the season has been a struggle so far with a string of red lights as he crossed the finish line, something Ted hasn't experienced since his days as a junior racer. Though some quarter does need to be given for injury recovery, Ligety is harder on himself than anyone else and looking the leaderboard without his name in the top three can only fuel his resolve.
US tech team head coach Forest Carey spoke with POWDER about what is impacting Ligety's performance. "Ted's knee recovery has gone well, it's not holding him back at all. His back has been a problem limiting his preparation to the level of competing with the elite guys. Fifth place in Sölden was positive, having no snow in North America hurt preparation and having Beaver Creek pulled out from under him negatively impacted results."
But there may be a broader question that needs answering: Are the technique and tactics of GS undergoing another change? Carey's answer puts perspective on this. "There is no doubt that other GS guys are skiing faster than [Ted] now, he has ground to make up. It's difficult to see a scenario where Ted will be able to beat Alexis or Marcel's skiing in Alta Badia, but stranger things have happened. If his back will allow him to train properly it will be a good showdown in February to see if Ted's cleaner, longer line or the more direct approach from the French and others will be faster."
Turning to the women's tour, new faces on the podium have made for very exciting viewing. Case in point is that of 26 year-old Slovenian, Ilka Stuhec pulling off a 'Lindsay' by sweeping both Lake Louise downhills. That feat propelled her to fourth in the overall standings and with speed-focused Val d'Isere up next Ilka could potentially move into third overtaking Sofia Goggia (ITA). What makes this noteworthy is that Stuhec's team of two (her mother is both coach and technician) can compete at all in a World Cup environment where top echelon racers not only have a national team behind them but a personal support team as well.
“It's high speed with lots of terrain—it takes some courage to be fast here, which our girls have. We're missing Lindsey, but our speed team is competitive and has a lot of fire coming into the next races." —US Women’s Head Coach Paul Kristofic
"It's been an amazing start both on home soil and in Europe,” said US Women’s Head Coach Paul Kristofic. “The [Val d'Isere] track is in great shape. It's high speed with lots of terrain—it takes some courage to be fast here, which our girls have. We're missing Lindsey, but our speed team is competitive and has a lot of fire coming into the next races."
Regarding Shiffrin's potential for the overall Kristofic points to priorities. "Mikaela has the capacity to ski fast in the tech disciplines and has invested significant time [training] for the speed races—she had good results at Lake Louise,” said Kristofic. “At times we have to make difficult decisions managing her energy between tech and speed to not compromise the intensity she can bring to challenge for wins in slalom and GS."
After winning her eleventh straight World Cup slalom, Shiffrin is leading the overall with a 105-point advantage over Gut. But the balance between them shifts on tech and speed event schedules with Gut clearly going into Val d'Isere as the favorite. And with Lindsey Vonn (USA) on the injured reserved list Gut could sweep all three events and have a commanding lead Monday morning.
Racers to Watch (Check starts lists for changes the day before each scheduled race here.)
Val Gardena, Italy (Go here for live streaming times and full event replays)
Men's Super G Friday, December 16 (Broadcast on Universal HD 5 p.m. ET)
Kjetil Jansrud (NOR): Looks to have a slight technical edge over teammate Svindal
Aleks Kilde (NOR): This Viking is ready to climb up a step
Aksel Lund Svindal (NOR): May save the knee for the downhill
Andrew Weibrecht (USA): Has good results here
Carlo Janka (SUI): Momentum from Val d'Isere could carry over
Men's Downhill Saturday, December 17 (Broadcast on Universal HD 5:30 p.m. ET)
Steven Nyman (USA): Is motivated for a fourth, record tying win
Axel Lund Svindal (NOR): This Viking seems invincible in DH
Kjetil Jansrud (NOR): Will give it all for the win
Guillermo Fayed (ITA): Has been on the podium here
Erik Guay (CAN): Nails the lower course and is a strong finisher
Alta Badia, Italy (Go here for live streaming times and full event replays)
Men's Giant Slalom Saturday, December 17 (Broadcast on NBCSN 8 p.m. ET)
Alexis Pinturault (FRA): Is on an absolute tear, may pull a teammate or two with him Marcel Hirscher (AUT): the Austrian is starting to feel the pressure from the French
Ted Ligety (USA): Will demonstrate his resolve here
Stefan Luitz (GER): Is starting to show good form
Mathieu Favre (FRA): Has tasted victory this year and wants more
Men's Parallel Giant Slalom Sunday, December 18 (Broadcast on Universal HD Universal HD 6:30 p.m. ET)
Kjetil Jansrud (NOR): Won last year's event
Andre Myhrer (FIN): Showed strength in this format, third last year
Alexis Pinturault (FRA): Athleticism will benefit him in this format
Mathieu Favre (FRA): Very aggressive, which suits this event, top-ten last year
Ted Ligety (USA): Ted needs a win; this course could launch a come back
Val d'Isere, France (Go here for live streaming times and full event replays)
Women's Alpine Combined Friday, December 16 (Broadcast on Universal HD 6:30 p.m. ET)
Lara Gut (SUI): Won it over Vonn last year by 1/100th of a second
Michaela Kirchgasser (AUT): Was third last year
Marusa Ferk (SLO): Has good AC results, was fourth in 2016
Francesca Marsaglia (ITA): Is one of the hard-charging Italians, was seventh last year
Margot Bailet (FRA): Has two top-five results in Alpine Combined
Women's Downhill Saturday, December 17 (Broadcast on Universal HD 4 p.m. ET)
Lara Gut (SUI): Needs these points to keep her close to Shiffrin
Ilka Stuhec (SLO): Has big momentum from Lake Louise
Cornelia Huetter (SUI): Gut can help pull her along
Margot Bailet (FRA): Has good results in DH
Laurenne Ross (USA): Is gaining confidence in speed events
Women's Super G Sunday, December 18 (Broadcast on NBCSN 9:30 p.m. ET)
Lara Gut (SUI): A strong result here should put her back on top of the overall
Tina Weirather (LIE): Has Lake Louise to build off of
Sofia Goggia (ITA): Has technical strengths to combine with speed
Nicole Schmidhoffer (AUT): Has moments of brilliance, just needs to put it al together
Ilka Stuhec (SLO): Was fifth at Lake Louise SG and has momentum in speed