PHOTOS: Courtesy of –tzal Tourismus

And so it begins: 21 weeks on the road traversing three continents and a dozen countries with stops at 30-plus venues, by any measure a grueling competitive schedule. The men and women of the World Cup start their season-long pursuit of a Crystal Globe, the coveted prize for earning a World Championship. Racers representing their national teams have been training since last spring vying for a chance to be named to their country's World Cup squad.

Read how veteran US Ski Team downhiller Steven Nyman stays remains cool and calculated at 60+ miles per hour.

During the season, behind-the-scenes coverage of athletes and coaches will uncover what to expect and why at major events like the Hahnenkamm downhill. U.S. Team standouts Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, and Steven Nyman will add event-specific perspective as they compete against Europe's best for podiums and Globes.

Follow European favorites like Aksel Lund Svindal and Anna Fenninger-Veith—both returning from 2016 season-ending injuries—as well as tracking last year's overall World Cup Champions, Lara Gut and Marcel Hirscher, who are sure to throw down strong challenges for the rest of the field.

Austrian fans—among the most enthusiastic in Europe—line the GS course at Sölden.

Austrian fans—among the most enthusiastic in Europe—line the GS course at Sölden.

The season officially launches October 22 in Europe where tech events for both women and men will test their skills in giant slalom at Sölden, Austria, and then move north to Levi, Finland, for slalom.

In late November, the tour jumps across the pond to North America for the first of two swings. The visually stunning area of Banff, Alberta, is first up where speed events for both men and women will dominate the calendar—including the aptly named "Lake Lindsey" classic where an injury-free Lindsey Vonn will attempt to continue her dominance at Lake Louise in the women's speed events.

Thanksgiving weekend will bring World Cup racing back to New England (1991, Waterville, New Hampshire, was the last WC event held there) where the women will do battle in giant slalom at Killington, Vermont. Wrapping up the first North American swing is Beaver Creek, Colorado, which will hold downhill, Super G and giant slalom events, the most anticipated contest being the GS duel between Ligety (USA) Hirscher (AUS) on the Birds of Prey course.

Vonn, pictured here after winning the downhill competition in Garmisch, Germany, in February 2016, currently has 76 world cup wins. PHOTO: Erich Spiess/ASP/Red Bull

Vonn, pictured here after winning the downhill competition in Garmisch, Germany, in February 2016, currently has 76 World Cup wins. PHOTO: Erich Spiess/ASP/Red Bull

In December, the White Circus travels back to Europe for an extended stay. Italy and France are the initial host nations providing the perennial venues of Sestriere, Val d`Isère, Alta Badia, Val Gardena, Courchevel, Madonna di Campiglio, and Santa Caterina.

But January is when every race fan anxiously awaits the Super Bowl of ski racing: back-to-back downhills at Wengen—the Lauberhorn—and the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel where, with few interruptions, the Swiss and Austrian men of speed have played musical chairs on the top of the podium for decades.

The second and third week of February will see the 50th anniversary party of the World Cup play out at the World Championships on the slopes overlooking the glitz and glamor of St. Moritz, Switzerland, the showplace of winter sports in the Alps since 1864.

March sees the White Circus caravanning back to the U.S. as the World Cup makes a long-overdue return to Squaw Valley, California, for the women's giant slalom followed by the season-ending championship finale in Aspen, Colorado.

First Stop: Sölden, Austria

As it has for more than two decades, Sölden, Austria, will kick off the 2017 World Cup tour where, respectively on October 22 and 23, the women and men will test both technique and tactics in this annual fan-friendly giant slalom arena on the Rettenbach Glacier.

The drive up the second highest paved road in Europe leaves the –tztal Valley in the rearview mirror then rolls across the shadow of the 12,362-foot Wildspitze, tracing its peaks on the winding path to the Rettenbach. Just short of the 10,000-foot mark the start house, now empty, await the women and men of the 2017 World Cup.

The treeless track at Sölden camouflages its challenging terrain—arguably among the toughest of the giant slalom courses on tour—making it a difficult venue to begin the season. Ask any of the racers and they'll confirm the long steep pitch and typically bulletproof surface make its punishing reputation well deserved. Beyond technical skills, Sölden tests both the fitness and athleticism of these elite racers.

World Cup women and men take on Sölden, Austria's Rettenbach Glacier, in the first races of the 2017 season.

World Cup women and men take on Sölden, Austria's Rettenbach Glacier, in the first races of the 2017 season.

The top 30 women and men of the World Cup tour anxiously await their bib number to be drawn for the first of two runs, setting the tone of their season-long points race for both the giant slalom and overall World Championship titles. As part of their preparation, the confident veterans among this field will visualize tripping the wand, correcting their mistakes from last year and imagine the feeling of stepping onto the podium at Sölden.

Racers to Watch at Sölden

Sölden's returning top-three women, racing October 22:
Fredrica Brigone, Italy: Defending champion, finished 4th overall in GS.
Mikaela Shiffrin, USA: Finished 2nd, but her season was interrupted by a knee injury.
Tina Weirather, Lichtenstein: Was 3rd at Sölden, 5th overall in GS.

Strong contenders:
Anna Fenninger-Veith, Austria: 2-time GS Globe Winner (2014/2015) returns from injury. She has a grudge-match with Sölden where her season began and ended last year.
Eva Marie Brem, Austria: Finished 8th at Sölden, but was 1st overall in GS.
Lara Gut, Switzerland: Finished 4th at Sölden, 3rd overall in GS and 1st in the overall combined.

Podium Wildcard Pick:
Ana Drev, Slovenia: Had four top-10 GS finishes in 2016; a hard-charger, she needs to complete two runs at Sölden to end up on the podium.

Where to watch women's races:
Run 1: Streaming-NBC Sports 10/22/16 4:00am to 5:30am ET
Run 2: Streaming-NBS Sports 10/22/16 7:00am to 8:30am ET
Recorded-Universal HD 10/22/16 3:00pm to 4:30pm ET

Sölden's returning top-three men, racing October 23
Ted Ligety, USA: Defending champion, 4-time Sölden winner, is back from injury.
Thomas Fanara, Italy: 2nd last year, tied for 6th overall in GS.
Marcel Hirscher, Austria: Finished 3rd; without Ligety to contend with most of last season, he was 1st overall in GS and 1st overall for the combined title.

Strong contenders:
Alexis Pinturault, France: Only managed 5th in Sölden but was 2nd overall in GS season.
Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway: Tied 6th at Sölden, was 3rd in GS and 2nd in overall in 2016.
Felix Neureuther, Germany: Tied 6th with Kristoffersen, had seven top-10 finishes in GS, 8th overall.

Podium Wildcard Picks:
Mathieu Faivre, France: 9th at Sölden but 4th overall in GS, and was in front of his teammate Victor Muffat-Jeandet, who was 10th at Sölden. Watch them battle the field for a podium step.

Where to watch men's races:
Run 1: Streaming-NBC Sports 10/23/16 4:00am to 5:30 am ET
Run 2: Streaming-NBS Sports 10/23/16 7:00am to 8:30am ET
Recorded-NBCSN 10/23/16 10:00pm to 11:30pm ET