Plot thickens on the World Cup circuit | SummitDaily.com

Plot thickens on the World Cup circuit

Chris Freud
The Vail Daily

OK, remember when Mikaela Shiffrin started the slalom season by finishing 11th in Levi, Finland, and assorted people were freaked that something was wrong?

This is why one race does not a season make.

The results since Levi in slalom for Shiffrin are fifth, fourth, first and first.

Through five of nine slaloms, Mikaela is all of one point behind Sweden's Frida Hansdotter (320-319) with Slovenia's Tina Maze (294) in third place in the race for the discipline globe. Shiffrin's also third in giant slalom (226), well within striking distance of Austria's Eva-Maria Brem (270) and Anna Fenninger (242).

With less than one month until the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships hit town, this is just one of many intriguing storylines happening on the World Cup.

SPEED MONTH

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If the season stopped today, for some reason, Shiffrin would be second in the overall behind Maze (777-545). That's because, well, Maze is back as an overall threat. (Coming off 2,414 points in one season in 2012-13 was simply unrealistic to duplicate. The Slovenian understandably still had a good 2013-14 with two Olympic golds. But the pressure's off.)

Reason No. 2 is that the schedule has been tech-heavy. We've got three downhills and super-Gs each the next three weekends before the circuit comes to Beaver Creek.

So as we shift our eyes to Bad Kleinkircheim, Austria, for the first of this tripleheader, the speedsters like Lindsey Vonn, Switzerland's Lara Gut, Fenninger and, yes, Maze get to make their move.

While it is not her publicly stated goal, and she's only competed in six races (only speed and no tech) so far this season, Vonn is still sixth in the overall. She's already won two of the first three downhills this season and is 1-for-2 in podiums in super-G (second in Lake Louise, Alberta).

Given that she's finished eighth, first and first in downhills, Lindsey's back in that discipline. I'm hoping to see her pop through in a super-G this month, be it in Bad Kleinkircheim; Cortina, Italy; or St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Since super-G requires a bit more timing, it's not surprising she's not there yet in her comeback. My bet is that she does come to Beaver Creek with a super-G win under her belt.

Whether it's downhill or super-G, the next win on the tour will be historic. Vonn is at 61 career wins, one behind Austria's Annemarie Moser-Proell's all-time women's mark of 62.

HIRSCHER'S BACK

"I think it is a tough fight," Austria's Marcel Hirscher said of the men's overall race last month in Beaver Creek. "Right now, there is no chance against Kjetil."

And, wow, look Hirscher's leading Norway's Kjetil Jansrud as the Austrian looks for his fourth overall title in a row. This is the way Hirscher works. He will talk up the opposition to the hilt and then steal everybody's lunch.

If Hirscher were in a news conference and asked about competing in a race against some Buddy Werner League 7-year-olds, Hirscher would talk about how the tykes were definitely the favorites.

"I don't think I will be able to finish the course," Hirscher said of the hypothetical Gopher Hill racecourse.

As well as Jansrud is skiing, Hirscher's winning his fourth overall crown. The questions are discipline globes. Hirscher trails Germany's Felix Neureuther by four points in slalom. That race will go down to the World Cup finals. In GS, Hirscher leads Ted Ligety, 360-286.

Just as with the ladies, there are more speed events on the calendar, including Wengen, Switzerland, next weekend and Kitzbuehel, Austria, after that. What's fun to see is that after Jansrud (294) and Italy's Dominik Paris (220) in the downhill standings are none other than Travis Ganong and Steve Nyman both at 191 points.

Ganong, 26, is in the process of understanding all things World Cup downhill. It takes a few years to learn the courses and get it all figured out. In his last nine starts in downhills — World Cup or Olympic, he has eight top-10 finishes, including his first win two weeks ago. The only time Ganong was out of the top 10, he was 13th.

WHAT ABOUT BEAVER CREEK?

With the Worlds coming, we first ask John Garnsey, Vail Resorts' president of global mountain development, to rename Beaver Creek as Val Gardena. That will assure that Nyman will win the World Championships men's downhill, as Stevie Ny has all three of his career wins at the Italian resort.

OK, seriously, as a survivor of Vail '99, when a sixth-place finish in super-G by Chad Fleischer was the top American performance, we could be seeing something historic. The U.S. Ski Team has a legitimate medal contender in everything but men's slalom.

Ganong and Nyman are in the mix in men's downhill. Andrew Weibrecht is bit of a long shot in the super-G, but he tends to podium in big events like, say, the last two Olympics. Ligety is the defending world champion in super-G, super-combined and GS.

On the women's side, you have to like Vonn's chances in downhill and super-G. (Again, we're talking about just making the podium, though Lindsey should be the favorite in the downhill.) Same goes for Shiffrin in slalom and GS. Julia Mancuso is always overlooked and always seems able to punch into the podium at Worlds. (Super-combined?)

Six medals in 2005 in Bormio, Italy, is the high-water mark for the U.S. Ski Team at Worlds. Eclipsing that is not an outrageous goal. (My bet is that happens.) Four gold medals, three by Ted (super-G, super-combined and GS) and Shiffrin in the slalom, in 2013 in Schadming, Austria, is also a possibility. (I'll say three, Ligety in GS, Vonn in downhill and Shiffrin in slalom.)

Then there's the unthinkable — total medal count. Austria generally wins this. It is their birthright, certainly in their fans' opinion. The Americans have never won it. Everything would have to break right for the home team, but it's not a laughable concept like it was during the medal-less 1999 Worlds.

The next three weeks on tour in Europe should give us a good indication of what's ahead.

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, cfreud@vaildaily.com and @cfreud.