Ligety kicks off World Cup season with win in chilly Soelden
The Associated Press
SOELDEN, Austria — On Oct. 24-25, chilly Soelden, Austria played host to the first race of the FIS World Cup alpine season with men’s and women’s Giant Slalom. The region had been pounded with snow: The base at Soelden Resort is already at 30 inches, while Loveland reported right around 22 inches on opening day Oct. 29. The primo conditions convinced the U.S. Ski Team to hang around for a few more days of training and competition while its North American home base, the Copper Mountain speed center, struggled with warm temperatures.
The U.S. squad looks strong, led by superstars like Ted Ligety and EagleVail’s Mikaela Shiffrin. Linsdsey Vonn sat out the first race but is expected to return in time for one of her strongest courses, the downhill at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada from Dec. 1-6.
Until then, here’s a look at the top American news from the Soelden premiere.
Ligety on top, again
American standout Ted Ligety earned his 25th career World Cup win Sunday, overcoming a tough course to take the season-opening giant slalom.
Trying to regain dominance in his strongest discipline, the Olympic and world GS champion held on to his first-run lead to beat Thomas Fanara of France by 0.15 and Marcel Hirscher of Austria by 0.17. The rest of the field finished at least 1.90 seconds off the lead.
“It was tough. I am a little bit surprised I made it to the finish line as it’s a battlefield out there,” Ligety said. “So many ruts in there and tough to see so I just tried to hammer and look for speed.”
The victory marked Ligety’s 50th podium finish in a World Cup race. He became the third American male skier to reach the feat after Bode Miller (79), who is skipping this season, and Phil Mahre (69).
It was Ligety’s fourth win on the Rettenbach glacier. The Austrian resort, which features an icy course with a steep pitch, is the traditional venue for the first race of the Alpine skiing season.
The American has dominated the discipline since 2012 but was beaten for the GS title by Hirscher last year. The Austrian went on to win his fourth overall title.
Hirscher won here last year but settled for finishing third this time.
“It went better than I expected,” he said. “I am very relieved that I am there among the best. You see the other guys getting stronger so I have to keep up with their progress.”
Ligety made no secret that regaining the GS season title from Hirscher is his main priority.
“My big goal for the season is trying to get the giant slalom title back,” said Ligety, who didn’t rate high his chances to take the overall championship, even after the perfect start to the new season.
“A bunch of little things have to come together to make that possible,” the American said. “But I am definitely an outsider contender.”
Shiffrin in second
In the season-opening race on a sun-soaked Rettenbach glacier, Brignone held on to a commanding first-run lead to beat last year’s winner Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States by 0.85 seconds.
“I can’t really believe what’s happening,” said the Italian, who finished in an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 24.27 seconds for her first victory in 99 World Cup starts after seven previous podium places.
“It’s so great. When I saw the green light in the finish, it was just incredible. The two runs I kept pushing. My legs were burning but it felt so good.”
The last Italian winner of a women’s GS had been Denise Karbon in Ofterschwang, Germany, in January 2008.
“That I wasn’t on the first place until now is because I didn’t deserve to be,” said Brignone, who missed most of the 2013-14 season after undergoing ankle surgery. “I’ve been waiting so long for this victory. I wasn’t on the same level as the top skiers but I’ve worked hard to get there.”
Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein came 1.25 behind in third and Lara Gut of Switzerland was another 0.06 back in fourth. 2010 Olympic GS champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany recovered from a disappointing first leg and posted the fastest second-run time to improve from 12th to sixth, 2.28 off the lead.
Brignone led Shifrin by 0.95 before the final run but soon lost 0.43 of her advantage as she went wide on a right turn. The Italian accelerated on the steep part to increase the difference to 0.89 and nearly held on to that advantage until the finish.
“Federica absolutely nailed her first run and in her second run she did a really great job as well,” Shiffrin said. “I don’t think anybody could beat her today.”
The Italian also led here four years ago but skied out early in her second run as Lindsey Vonn took the win. The American four-time overall champion skipped Saturday’s race after having only just recovered from an ankle injury and chose to train super-G instead.
Also missing were defending overall champion Anna Fenninger, who was ruled for the season after knee surgery following a training crash Wednesday, and Slovenia’s Tina Maze, who has taken a year off from racing.
Shiffrin shared victory here with Fenninger last year for her sole victory in the GS so far but was happy with second place this time.
“I felt really good with my skiing,” Shiffrin said. “It’s really hard snow, like icy and a little bit grippy when you ski it. You can push out the snow and it totally came back. I felt like I attacked, and I had more confidence than I had before in GS so it’s a good place to start.”
The 20-year-old American, who has been dominating women’s slalom since 2012, has been widely regarded as a main contender for the overall title this season.
“Obviously today is a very good start and if my slalom keeps going well, I can make points,” she said. “But it’s too early to tell and I really don’t want to focus on that now.”
Vonn on the sidelines
Vonn skipped out on the first race of the Alpine skiing season as she didn’t feel confident about the icy conditions on the race hill, 10 weeks after fracturing an ankle bone.
The four-time overall World Cup champion returned successfully to training on skis Oct. 22, but decided after another practice session the next day not to start in a giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier on Oct. 24.
Vonn wrote on her Facebook page: “In the few runs I’ve had since returning to snow I have felt strong, confident and been skiing without pain! However, the icy conditions on the race hill coupled with the fact that it’s only been 10 weeks since I fractured my ankle makes me slightly hesitant.”
The American says she plans to return to the World Cup in Aspen in November as a warm-up for Lake Louise.
Can a speed racer win overall?
Technical events? 23. Speed races? 19.
The men’s World Cup calendar has sparked a debate about fairness. Do downhill and super-G racers have an equal chance to win the overall title when slalom and giant slalom specialists are given four more opportunities to score points?
Hannes Reichelt doesn’t think so.
The super-G world champion slams the inequality in the calendar, saying it leaves speed specialists without a realistic chance.
But though his Austrian teammate Marcel Hirscher has won four titles in a row while competing almost exclusively in slalom and GS, opinions among racers are divided.
Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal says “the same amount of races … would be the most fair. But that (Hirscher) has won four in a row is not an argument that it’s not fair.”
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