Swiss skier Lara Gut celebrates her giant slalom victory alongside Mikaela Shiffrin (left, in second) and Italian Marta Bassino. PHOTO: Tom Kelly/U.S. Ski Team
The Rettenbach glacier makes Sölden, Austria, a dependable venue for the opener of the FIS World Cup season. This Tirolian resort has hosted both women and men on the same giant slalom track for nearly two decades. Moderate terrain on the upper part of the course funnels racers onto its notorious 60-plus degree pitch. More than a dozen leg-burning turns lead to a delay gate that transitions to the flats where carrying speed to the finish is critical--all this on a surface most skiers would call 'boiler plate.' But things weren't quite the same this year.
Though sets were nearly identical to past courses, the injected surface was unusually 'grippy,' which provided more than a few surprises at the season's opening race day October 22. Hero snow is a welcome surface for racers with a light edge touch, but not for those who hammer their turns. Past Sölden winners tend to be in the latter category, which allowed some back-of-the-field names to climb up the leaderboard this time around.
"The snow was the best ever, like Colorado," said U.S. Ski Team Alpine Director Patrick Riml, who grew up racing in Sölden. "Even with a high bib number you could not only qualify but have a good result."
Women's Field Unable to Catch Lara Gut
Uncharacteristically, the women's event had eight racers with bib numbers between 33 and 65 qualify for a second run. Among them was Petra Vlhova (SVK) wearing bib 55. Despite a career record of finishing only two of nine World Cup GS starts, Vlhova showed strong angles on the pitch and great touch in the flats throwing down the fastest second run, holding off 11 of the top-30 women, and posting a time that was three-tenths of a second faster than Gut, the eventual winner. That performance might have earned Vlhova a shot at the podium on any other day; this day she finished 8th.
Another Sölden surprise was 20-year-old Marta Bassino, a rising star on the very competitive women's Italian team. This was only her 19th World Cup GS start yet Bassino skillfully adapted her smooth style and light touch on the grippy snow to nail the pitch on both runs finishing a surprising 3rd and earning her first World Cup podium.
The race for the top step was over after the first run when 2016 World Cup overall winner, Lara Gut, wearing bib 2, skated hard past the first gate, and pulled off a 1.42 second margin over her closet competitor, Mikaela Shiffrin (USA). Shiffrin's performance was good enough for back-to-back second steps on Sölden's podium.
It's worth mentioning that Gut, starting second in the first run, might have benefitted from course conditions as the critical transition area off the pitch into the flats was still in the shade. By the time Shiffrin ran (16th) the strong alpine sun was baking the surface. Could this have changed the outcome? Probably not, but Shiffrin can take away a bit more confidence on the day knowing her time might have been closer to Gut's.
"The goal this season is to bring Mikaela's GS up to the level of her slalom. She's working hard on arcing her turns cleanly from top to bottom," said Riml. "You could see this in her second run and she was right there among the fastest times. Mikaela is far from her peak in GS. This will come in the next couple of races. She'll be super competitive in GS."
Last year's winner, Fredrica Brignone, (ITA) was fourth after the first run but dropped to ninth, while the 2016 overall GS winner, Eva-Marie Brem (AUS) let the home crowd down at 26th. Notable Sölden no-shows were Ana Fenniger-Veith (AUS), Victoria Rebensburg (GER), Lindsey Vonn (USA) and Julia Mancuso (USA).
With a healthy full field, the breadth of competition among the women will open up the points race for the GS Globe. Critical within that race will be the chase for the overall championship. Mounting formidable challenges will be Gut from the speed side and Shiffrin from the tech side with that rivalry destined to converge on the GS course, the stronger of the two in that discipline in position to take the overall Globe.
Athleticism Rewarded in the Men's Race
The challenge for the men in their first run was controlling speed on a course set that was ten seconds faster than usual due to afternoon clouds that kept snow temperatures somewhat lower for the second run and helped to maintain the grippy surface added the challenge of flat light on a rough track. The ability to manage these compounding race conditions, especially on the pitch, favored the athletic athletes over the technically precise.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend was that someone other than Ted Ligety (USA) or Marcel Hirscher (AUS) stood on the top of the podium. Ligety, despite and outstanding second run, finished fifth and Hirscher second. Felix Neureuther (GER) grabbed the third step on the podium. But the day belonged to the French as Alexis Pinturault, firing-up his teammates by claiming his fourth Sölden podium and first win, rallied three more of them into the top-15, jump-starting their season.
Surprises also came from high bib numbers making big moves: Nineteen year old Marco Odermatt (SUI) started 53rd and broke into the top 20 with solid runs to finish 17th and Benedikt Staubitzer (GER), moved from 39th to 12th. But the men's surprise of the day came from 23-year-old Zan Kranjec (SLO) who started 24th but displayed veteran skills turning in his best World Cup GS finish by placing 4th, 21-hundredths ahead of Ligety.
The Ligety-Hirscher Rivalry
Looking ahead for Ligety, coming back from a season-ending injury, particularly having never experienced one in his career, is as much a mental process as physical. This may have played into Ligety's first run as his second run delivered more confident moves down the pitch. Ligety has a few weeks to train and continue to build confidence off that second run before battling Hirscher on another physically punishing GS course--Beaver Creek.
"There's always a question mark when you come back--am I able to take the risk to battle for the win? The straighter first run set was challenging for Ted coming off the injury," said Riml. "The second run was more offset and he put the hammer down. The way he skied the transition from the pitch to the flats was incredible. Before the race I would have been happy to see him in the top five."
Meanwhile, Hirscher faces his own challenge preparing a campaign to win an unprecedented sixth straight overall men's title. The question is will he become distracted by team pressure to help turn the fortunes of the struggling Austrian men around? Following in the footsteps of a frustrating 2016 season, more than 30,000 of Hirscher's countrymen walked away from Sölden on yet another Sunday distraught that no Austrian skier stood on the top step of the podium. Relative to their on-going rivalry for both the GS and overall titles, that additional baggage could be what Hirscher has to carry when going up against Ligety.