VAL D’ISERE, France — On a day dominated by veterans, 34-year-old Mario Matt won his 14th World Cup slalom race to equal fellow Austrian Benjamin Raich’s mark, while 35-year-old Patrick Thaler of Italy got on the podium for first time in nearly five years.
Matt, a two-time slalom world champion, safely protected his first-run lead while other contenders struggled on the notoriously tough Stade Olympique de Bellevarde course.
“The last two years I was a few times on the podium, but always had some small mistakes on the runs and didn’t win,” Matt said. “I don’t have the feeling I’m old. Sometimes I have the problems with the back, but I already had this eight years ago, and when I don’t have the problems I feel fine.”
He beat Sweden’s Mattias Hargin by 0.53 seconds and Thaler — second after the first run — by 0.78 for his 15th overall World Cup win.
“You have to push your limits in order to win, but I was still surprised how fast I was in the first run,” Matt said. “I think no one felt too comfortable, but at least in the second run the first part felt really good, so I can’t complain.”
Matt was second in the slalom at Levi, Finland, last month, and his most recent previous win was at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, in March 2011. His first was nearly 14 years ago at Kitzbuehel, Austria.
“We trained in great conditions this fall, so that’s maybe why I am in good shape this early in the season,” he said.
It was another disappointing day for the United States. For the second straight day, neither Ted Ligety, who finished the first run in 39th, nor Bode Miller, who went off course, qualified for the second run. They failed to finish the first run in Saturday’s giant slalom.
“It was tough conditions where it was very hard snow but very grippy,” U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick said. “We have been trying on ice getting ready for Val d’Isere, but we didn’t make that transition very well today. So that’s something we’re going to have to work on.”
They next head to Italy to prepare for Saturday’s downhill at Val Gardena and Sunday’s giant slalom at Alta Badia.
“It makes for a kind of interesting week, because you’ve got glidy, glidy, glidy at Val Garcena and you’ve got to be on your ‘A’ game, clean skiing, for Alta Badia,” Rearick said.
Austrian Marcel Hirscher also failed to qualify. He won Saturday’s GS but struggled on the tricky top section and finished way down in 41st.
Matt, the slalom world champion in 2001 and ‘07, is rounding into form at just the right time for February’s Olympics.
“It’s still far away,” Matt said.
Hargin secured his first podium since finishing third at Schladming, Austria, in January 2011.
“I’ve been fighting a lot and it meant a lot to get the podium today,” the 28-year-old said.
Thaler’s only other podium — also third in a slalom at Kitzbuehel, Austria — was even longer ago, in January 2009.
“I was a bit emotional,” he said.
Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Grange finished fourth, 0.04 behind Thaler, and Sweden’s Markus Larsson was fifth in a far-from-usual top five.
Hirscher was aiming for a second consecutive podium double here after winning last year’s GS and finishing third in the slalom, but he made a huge error on the top section and finished 4 seconds slower than Matt after an early-morning first run under clear, blue skies but with temperatures bitingly cold.
After failing to make a GS second run for the first time in nearly five years, Ligety was 3.59 slower than Matt. Miller almost fell on the treacherous top section, recovered, but then lost control.
On a brighter note for the Americans, David Chodounsky finished seventh for a career best slalom performance.
“Val d’Isere is really tough, steep,” the 29-year-old said. “I was really happy with my first run, didn’t quite have the confidence to go at it, but it was solid.”