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TORINO: Alpine: Daron Rahlves wins first downhill training run

TORINO: Alpine: Daron Rahlves wins first downhill training runSESTRIERE, Italy – Daron Rahlves won the first training run for the Olympic men’s downhill Thursday, leading at every interval and crossing the finish line with a 1.21-second lead on Michael Walchhofer, the man who spoiled his day at Kitzbuehel.

Mostly finished with his final season of competitive racing, Rahlves is hoping to become the third American man to win the Olympic downhill.

“I like this hill,” said Rahlves, who won here at Finals in 2004. “It’s a really active downhill. I like how it starts off with two challenging jumps. It’s a deceptive course because your speed’s not that fast, but it feels like you’re going fast.”

Read here how Rahlves was nominated by teammates to carry the U.S. flag at Opening Ceremony.

Klaus Kroell of Austria, who is dueling with his roommate Andreas Buder for the final Austrian start position, had the fastest recorded speed of the day, zipping through the first speed trap at 78 miles per hour.

Kroell finished fourth, and Buder 30th, although their showdown doesn’t actually come until Friday.

Bode Miller finished 16th, but as usual he was the fastest man through the morning’s course-inspection period, blasting through the Kandahar Banchetta course and retreating to the athletes’ lounge to read a book.

Among Americans, Steve Nyman finished 14th, Scott Macartney 22nd and Marco Sullivan 29th. Over the next two days, those three will battle for the final unfilled American start position.

Ted Ligety, who is in the training run to prepare for the combined downhill next week, finished 50th.

Hermann Maier said he still feels a little ill (earlier this week he came down with flu-like symtoms). Erik Guay of Canada did not race because of a calf injury. Bruno Kernen of Switzerland said he’s still feeling pain in his knee after an injury last week at Chamonix.

Kernen won the 1997 World Championships downhill on this slope. Click here if you don’t believe it.

This course is solid
This Olympic downhill course will not be remembered for big jumps or perilously steep pitches. Instead, the Sestriere downhill will be famous for its constant terrain. At no point on the course can racers relax: There is just too much shifting ground beneath their feet.

Racers came out of the first training run amazed by the relentlessness of the sidehills, sharp fallaways and dozens of knolls. Twice they drop down into a gully right during the apex of their turn, meaning that just when they are applying the most pressure to their ski, they have the least amount of help from the mountain.

“It definitely surprised me a bit,” said Sullivan, who after two years of injury returned to the World Cup in November. “The speeds were pretty high, and every little roller we were catching air and getting that light feeling that throws you off your line. There’s a lot to think about.”

At one point, skiers tuck along a narrow ridge that runs right down the middle of the slope. The ridge is not quite parallel to the race line, so skiers drift up and over it in their tuck, getting rattled by small waves that were built into the surface.

In a November interview, U.S. men’s speed coach John McBride predicted that the rugged terrain would play into Miller’s abilities.

‘Skiing through big terrain, Bode’s phenomenal’ said McBride, describing how Miller has longer legs than most athletes. ‘With his long levers … his ability to move through bumps and terrain softly without putting hard pressure on his ski is among the best.’

The snow is hard too. The upper 20 seconds of the course, which are the steepest and include a sizable jump, are injected with water. It is also plunged in shade for most of the morning (Sunday’s downhill, like the training runs, starts at noon).

Below that the snow gets a little grippier, but it’s still aggressive. U.S. Ski Team servicemen testing the snow as they considered their wax applications said the snow temp drops from minus-15 Celsius at the top to minus-13 in the middle.

Austrians gunning for Olympic bibs
The Austrian ski team named 13 men to its Olympic team, and 10 of them were on the start list for Thursday’s training run. The only skiers missing were slalom specialists Manfred Pranger and Reinfried Herbst, and super G specialist Stephan Goergl.

Three Austrian men have guaranteed start positions in Sunday’s downhill: Maier, Walchhofer and Fritz Strobl. The final start position is up for grabs based on performances in these training runs, and two men have been tapped as the frontrunners: Buder and Kroell.

Buder and Kroell, who are roommates, get special consideration because of their recent World Cup downhill performances. Buder was third at Garmisch (Jan. 28) and eighth at Kitzbuehel (Jan. 21). Kroell was eighth at Lake Louise (Nov. 27), fifth at Val d’Isere (Dec. 10) and second at Garmisch (Jan. 28).

Buder is 26 years old, and before this season had only four World Cup top-20 results; Kroell is 25, and before this season had 25 World Cup top 20s.

Buder and Kroell became roommates on the World Cup when their regular roommates got injured; Kroell typically stays with Norbert Holzknecht, who is out with a knee injury, and Buder regularly bunks with Hans Grugger – who would be a top contender here if it weren’t for a nasty injury at Bormio.

”Only tomorrow will count,” Kroell said after Thursday’s training. ”I met my goals quite well this season but the coaches will only make their decision tomorrow.”

”Klaus was very good today so it looks very good for him,” Buder said. ”Tomorrow is a big race for me. I’m not nervous but it would be really nice to be on the Olympic team.”

For Raich, who has locked up spots in the slalom, giant slalom and combined event, there was only one logical strategy for Friday’s crucial training run.

”I will put the throttle down,” he said.

Rahlves will skip Friday’s training run in order to rest.

“I’m very happy with my result today,” said Rahlves in a USSA release. “I felt really comfortable on the course and the weather is looking to be the same, so I’m just going to rest and come back for Saturday.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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