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Kitzbuehel: Even on a powder day, Strobl dusts his teammates

Kitzbuehel: Even on a powder day, Strobl dusts his teammatesKITZBUEHEL, Austria – With heavy flakes falling Wednesday afternoon in the shadow of the Streif, World Cup veteran Fritz Strobl and his downhill teammates looked more like kindergartners frolicking in the fluffy powder.

After a photo shoot on the grounds of the Hotel Kitzhof, the team’s headquarters, Strobl catapulted one of his teammates into a stash of pristine snow. Then another. And another.

Hours after the second Hahnenkamm training session was canceled by Mother Nature, it took three teammates to wipe Strobl off his feet. Strobl, 33, has been the last man standing for the first half of the World Cup downhill season, too.

While American Daron Rahlves has reaped the hardware, Strobl sits atop the downhill standings by a healthy margin, with 415 points to teammate Michael Walchhofer’s 372. Rahlves, with three downhill wins this season, ranks third with 330 points, with the jewel of the tour – the Hahnenkamm downhill – slated for Saturday.

Strobl scorched the Streif downhill course in Tuesday’s first training, besting the field by more than a second and a half to confirm his status as a man to beat Saturday.

‘Yes, it was a good day for me’ the native of Steinfeld said. ‘It is always a special feeling for me when I come here to Kitzbuehel. You’re a little bit nervous – you never know how the Streif is, you never know how the conditions are, so you have to give 100 percent. Visibility was not so good yesterday – it was dark on the slopes – so I tried to ski technically perfect, and I had a good run. I was very fast.’

Strobl completed the run in 1 minute, 56.35 seconds, with Walchhofer second, while Rahlves was fourth. Strobl has earned the reputation of being a fast learner, i.e. very quick on first training runs.

‘It was amazing, his time’ said teammate Klaus Kroell, who is vying for one of the team’s four Olympic start spots in the downhill. ‘That makes it easier for us to look at the video. We know the fast line. Fritz is a specialist for the first training.’

As usual, the infighting among the Austrians for precious start spots is intriguing, even with injuries to top contenders Werner Franz, Mario Scheiber, Hans Grugger and Norbert Holzknecht. Strobl and Walchhofer are locks, and Hermann Maier, eighth in the downhill rankings, is a near certainty. Kroell, Andreas Schifferer, Christoph Gruber and World Cup overall leader Benni Raich are in a heated duel for that last spot.

‘We will wait until Chamonix [Feb. 3-4], then we will have all the results and we’ll compare all the racers, and we’ll look for the strongest team for Austria’ said Austrian men’s head coach Toni Giger. ‘Walchhofer and Strobl are leading the downhill standings, so if they are healthy, they will start, for sure. Next is Hermann. But then we have to look. The most important thing is that they all stay healthy and that they show good results at the next three races.’

Kroell sits 13th in the downhill standings, boosted by a fifth at Val d’Isere and eighth in the Lake Louise season opener. ‘For me, the pressure is not a problem’ Kroell said. ‘Every year our team faces that. Whether it’s World Championships or Olympics, the whole year is pressure. There’s only four starters and there are nine on the team, and all nine can win a race. So the pressure is normal for us.’

Gruber ranks 19th in downhill, Schifferer 21st, Andreas Buder 27th and Raich – considered more of a threat in the tech events – 29th. The Austrians have nine racers in the top 30 of the World Cup downhill rankings, best of any nation. Switzerland is second with five in the top 30.

Strobl need not worry about that intrateam battle. His chief focus? The 2,822 feet of Streif vertical that hangs above the captivating village of Kitzbuehel. He won the Hahnenkamm in 1997 and again in 2000.

‘I have won twice here at Kitzbuehel, and it’s always a great race’ Strobl said. ‘Sometimes good fans, sometimes drunk fans – not always perfect, but the race is so big and it’s so nice to be on the podium in Kitzbuehel. When I took first place in 1997, the celebration was in town and I never will forget it.’

How long did the party last that night? ‘Long.’

Kroell partied here, too, after skiing into eighth in his Kitzbuehel debut in 2002. ‘That was a big moment for me’ Kroell said. ‘My friends were all there, so it was amazing. I hope this year it will be the same.’

Giger is gunning for glory on the coaches’ side of the start house. But that doesn’t make the Hahnenkamm any less enchanting.

‘It was really impressive when I had my first victory [Hans Knauss] with one of my racers’ Giger said. ‘The public here is amazing. They love all the ski racers. For sure there’s a lot of Austrian fans, but they are also cheering for all the racers, so that makes the atmosphere so special.

‘As a coach, I think I have about 170, 180 victories on the World Cup. The Kitzbuehel victories are always a little special. It’s almost like the bigger events, like the World Championships.’

With heavy snow still falling into the evening Wednesday, Thursday’s training run was also in jeopardy, meaning one less day of experience tackling dilemmas that go by the name of the Mausfalle, the Steilhang, the Bruckenschuss and the Zielschuss. And maybe an even bigger obstacle – Rahlves.

‘Daron is amazing’ Kroell said. ‘The last two races were really strong for him. He’s also a big favorite here to win the super G and downhill. I think Fritz and Daron are favored to win.’

Strobl said the ‘favorite’ label doesn’t faze him. He also hinted that Rahlves’ winning form is not something he studies. ‘If I don’t know how to ski, I watch the other guys, and if I know, I don’t watch.’

Giger said he watches. Not just Rahlves, but any racer producing great results.

‘We always look at the fastest guys, no matter whether it’s Bode [Miller] or Daron or [Marco] Buechel or [Kjetil Andre] Aamodt’ Giger said. ‘If they show really promising qualities, we will study these guys. But you have to think like the others. You have to adjust what you see to the possibilities of the racers. Daron right now is in amazing form. Probably if other racers try to do the same in similar situations, they couldn’t do it. You have to trust in your performance and your qualities and work with this.’

Giger said it’s no coincidence that veteran racers such as Rahlves and Strobl are the ones to beat this weekend.

‘We are now skiing on the classic downhills and these guys know these downhills very, very well’ Giger said. ‘They have skied on these downhills for 10 years, and the young racers like Erik Guay or [Aksel Lund] Svindal, they have only been on this downhill for one or two years, so they are less experienced. But if you go to Sestriere … there the experience is not that important, if you compare to Wengen and Kitzbuehel.’

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