The 2014-2015 season of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup starts this week in Soelden, Austria, with the giant slalom races at the slopes of the Rettenbach Glacier. For almost five months, the best alpine skiers in the world will compete for the right to lift the crystal globes, awarded to the winners of the overall classification and to the best in each of the five disciplines. The World Cup finals are scheduled for the weekend of March 22nd, in the French resort of Méribel, but before that the world’s best will compete on the World Championships, held in Vail/Beaver Creek, USA, from the 2nd to the 15th of February.
As an introduction, it is important to explain that the four basic alpine skiing disciplines are the downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom. The downhill is the fastest one, with the competitors sometimes achieving speeds of over 150 km/h, and, thus, it is also the riskier. The super-G is also a speed race, but the velocity is not as high as in the downhill, as the racers have to make more turns, and start their runs from a lower altitude. The giant slalom and the slalom are considered technical disciplines, with the skiers having to pass between a set of poles, called a gate, using quick and short turns. The speed on a giant slalom race can average around 40km/h, with the slalom competitions being run at an even slower pace. There is also a fifth event, the super combined, which usually includes a shorter downhill (or a super G) race and a slalom. The winners of each event are the skiers who cross the finish line in the fastest time, with the technical disciplines including two runs per competitor while the speed events only include one descent per racer.
Now, time to meet the favourites. As usual, ladies first.
A generational change
The female tour begins the new season without a clear favourite, with the overall World Cup title being taken by four different athletes in the last four years. The reigning champion is the Austrian Anna Fenninger, who took the title from the hands of Maria Hoefl-Riesch after the German crashed in the final downhill of the season, in Lenzerheide.
At the age of 25, Fenninger become the first Austrian woman to win the World Cup since 2007, when Nicole Hosp succeded, and seems to have the tools to repeat the feat. A complete skier, capable of accumulating points in downhill, super-G and giant slalom races, the Salzburg native boosted her confidence after leaving the 2014 Olympic Games with two medals, a gold in the super G and a silver in the giant slalom, and finished the season on a high note, taking the victory in the last three giant slaloms of the season to claim the discipline title along with the overall classification.
Meanwhile, Hoefl-Riesch, the 2011 World Cup Champion, announced her retirement at the end of last season, and won’t revive the long-time battles with her friend and rival Lindsey Vonn, another veteran of the circuit who, at the age of 30, will be back after recovering from a knee injury suffered in the downhill race of Val d’Isère last December. The American, a four-time World Cup champion (2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012) should make his first appearance of the year at Lake Louise, and expects to add some victories to her World Cup total of 59, just three shy of the record of 62 set by Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell.
The 2013 champion, the Slovenian Tina Maze, also returns for what could be his final season on the tour. The 31-year-old enjoyed a record-breaking season in 2012-13, setting the highest point total in World Cup history, with 2414 points, but failed to be at his best in 2014, winning his first event in January, and only after going through a coaching change. With four Olympic medals on her résumé, including two Golds from the Sochi Games, the Slovenian’s motivation is being questioned and she has already announced her plans to take a season off in 2015-16. However, Maze is, along with Vonn, the only active skier to have won a World Cup event in all five disciplines, and, as such, her all-around ability makes her a treat in every race and a contender for the overall classification.
So, with the veterans on the downswing, a new generation seems ready to take the lead for real. Beyond Fenninger, all eyes will be on the Swiss Lara Gut, who started and finished last season on great shape but failed to keep the consistency throughout the year. Despite this, the 23-year-old managed to win the super-G title and a total of seven World Tour events, the most among all skiers, finishing in third on the overall classification. Tina Weirather, a 25-year-old from tiny Liechtenstein, was another strong competitor for the overall title last season, with her final classification, the fifth, failing to reflect the performance of a skier who was in second place until a fall during the pre-race trainings for the downhill event in Sochi led to the end of her season.
The wildcard in the competition for the big crystal globe is the American prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin. The 19-year-old already dominates with ease the slalom events, holding the last two World Cup titles on the discipline, along with the Olympic and World Championship titles, but still has to improve her speed skills to challenge for the overall crown. With that in mind, Shiffrin’s progresses on the giant slalom are noticeable and the expectations are for her to start racing the super-G too, making the American an even bigger candidate for the overall title, following the sixth placement of 2014. Moreover, the 2015 World Championships will be held in Shiffrin’s hometown, something will certainly increase her motivation.
Tessa Worley, the giant slalom World Champion, is back after a crash in Courchevel, on December 2013, ended her season, while Viktoria Rebensburg is, after Riesch’s retirement, Germany’s best bet for a good place on the overall classification. Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter, Maria Pietilla-Holmner and Jessica Lindell-Vikarby usually excel in the technical races, while the end of Marlies Schild’s career, the most successful in World Cup slalom history, leaves her sister, Bernardette Schild, and Kathrin Zettel as the best Austrians in the discipline.
Hirscher and the rest
On the men’s side, Marcel Hirscher won his third World Cup title in 2014, and, at the age of 25, is looking towards matching Marc Girardelli’s record of five championships, while hoping to accumulate more discipline titles to join the two already won in the slalom, and the 2011-12 triumph in the giant slalom. However, the 2013-14 season of the Austrian had his disappointing moments too, with Hirscher leaving the Sochi Olympics with a single silver medal, the first of his career.
Aksel Lund Svindal, Hirscher’s biggest rival and the runner-up in the last two seasons, looked ready to challenge again for his third World Cup title, but teared his Achilles tendon last week during a friendly football match in Innsbruck, and will miss most of the season. The 31-year-old Norwegian is the current super-G and downhill champion and his presence will be missed, leaving Hirscher as the overwhelming favourite to collect the crystal globe and reach an unparalleled men’s fourth consecutive title.
Without Svindal, Ted Ligety, the 30-year-old American, looks eager to try to challenge for the overall title. A five-time giant slalom World Cup champion and the current super-G World Champion, Ligety needs to be more consistent in the slalom and super-G events if he hopes to improve on last year’s 4th overall place. Alexis Pinturault, of France, third overall last year and bronze medallist in the giant slalom of the 2014 Winter Games, also needs to step up his performance, since, like Hirscher, the 23-year-old excels in the technical disciplines. Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, the Super-G Olympic champion, was sixth in the overall classification in 2013 and has the responsibility to carry his country’s hopes while Svindal is out, with 20-year-old phenomenon Henrik Kristoffersen, third on the Olympic slalom, slotted as a nice backup plan.
Outside of the overall contenders, emphasis on the 37 year-old Bode Miller, the last American to win the overall title, in 2007-08, and a man with 33 World Cup victories to his name. Probably on his last season in the circuit, Miller expects to challenge for the win on the historical downhill race of Hahnenkamm, Kitzbuhel, whilst he helps to develop the 26-year-old Travis Ganong, the new speed promise of American skiing. Another talent to watch is Austrian Matthias Mayer, the downhill Olympic Champion, who, at the age of 24, looked ready to take the discipline title from Svindal. However, Mayer recently suffered a knee injury that will keep him out until the races at the Canadian resort of Lake Louise.
Felix Neureuther, of Germany, lost the slalom title to Hirscher in the last race of the season and is always a treat in the technical competitions, with the same being true for Austrian slalom specialist Mario Matt, the man who broke Hirscher’s heart in Sochi, taking the Olympic title in the slalom on the last second. In the speed events, look also for Hannes Reichelt, of Austria, a former super-G World Cup champion, and Erik Guay, a Canadian skier who is a former winner of the World Cup in the disciplines of downhill and super-G.