Things move fast on the World Cup. You might want to strap in before you decide whether or not to follow along for all of this. Also, it might not be a bad idea to grab some sustenance, because it was a long season. Even longer than usual. There were 84 World Cup races between Oct. 24 and March 20. The lead in the battles for the overall titles among both genders flip-flopped on a regular basis for quite some time. It was tough enough most of the winter to even hold a race never mind tell who was the favorite.
In the end, Marcel Hirscher won the overall title for the fifth straight time, matching him with Marc Girardelli, the best ever among men.
For the last four years, Hirscher’s closest competitor has been Norwegian; three different Norwegians, to be precise. Essentially he’s single-handedly chewed up the entire Norwegian program. But those Vikings have fighting in their heritage. They keep coming back.
On the women’s side, the preseason look saw that the top two skiers from 2015, Anna Veith (née Fenninger) and Tina Maze, would miss the season in favor of rehab and relaxation. Third and fourth on the 2015 overall list were Americans Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn. Hopes were, logically enough, high for U.S. fans. But injuries ultimately cost both of them a shot at the overall. Vonn was injured late and still won the downhill crown, but did not have enough cushion to stay ahead of Lara Gut (the Swiss wunderkind of 2009) for the big globe. Shiffrin, on the other hand, missed too much of the season to regain a lead. She just went about setting records that may never be reached again.
All in all it was an exciting and fascinating season. By design, the leaders of the World Cup standings tend to leapfrog one another all season as the schedule shifts from technical events on any given weekend to speed events the next. If everything goes according to plan, final decision on the titles is meant to linger into the last week of the season.
Things rarely go according to plan in life. It was a tough snow year with the races from Levi, Ofterschwang, Adelboden, Zagreb, St. Anton, Maribor and Crans Montana all getting shuffled off to other venues at different times. All of this means parts of the schedule didn’t fit together as well as originally intended, and it made for some exhausted athletes and support staffs by the time the season finally puttered to a close.
We’ll tackle the tech side of things first. The 49th season of World Cup ski racing got underway on the glacier above Soelden, Austria, as it has every year since 2000 (save for its cancellation in 2006 and the men’s race being scratched in 2010) with a GS for each gender. Federica Brignone claimed the ladies’ race, the first Italian woman to win since Denise Karbon in 2007. Mikaela Shiffrin strutted some newly-polished GS skills, skiing to second and igniting a maelstrom of American interest in the new season.
Ted Ligety consolidated that interest by claiming the men’s race, his 24th GS victory and fourth at Soelden. Moreover, Frenchman Thomas Fanara was second, pushing perennial GS challenger Marcel Hirscher to third. It was, however, Hirscher’s 73rd career World Cup podium. In the technical events he has scored a podium placing a “holy cow” 65 percent of the time.
With the Levi races above the Arctic Circle canceled due to lack of snow, Aspen kicked off the regular season for the women. GS stars of the past were spectators as Shiffrin took the first run lead. But she couldn’t hold on in the second run and slid out on her hip with the finish line in sight. Swiss Miss Lara Gut – with her own separate team of coaches and management – stepped up to claim her second career GS win. Brignone made the podium in third to solidify the lead in the standings, while Austrian Eva Maria Brem, brimming with confidence since her only career win had come at Aspen, pushed for second.
The second men’s GS was at Beaver creek at the tail end of a weekend of speed races. Hirscher surprised even himself by winning the super-G (yes super-G!) on a shortened course then followed up with the tech victory to match Alberto Tomba’s all-time GS win mark. Ligety failed to finish a World Cup GS race for the first time in 11 months and for just his third time in six seasons. It was a harbinger of events to come.
Victor Muffat-Jeandet tallied a career-best placing and moved to second in the GS standings.
In the Aspen back-to-back slaloms, Shiffrin unleashed the dragon, pounding the field in the first race for a record margin of victory and following that with nearly as big a margin on day two.
Four races into the season, Shiffrin led the World Cup overall standings by 85 points.
But things don’t stay the same for long on the World Cup. Ligety’s DNF at Beaver Creek marked the beginning of a nasty slide. He went 0-for-7 in January, registering nothing but results beginning with the letter D. After struggling with a sore back in the early season, he said he came to Beaver Creek with “just four days of training,” and due to a general lack of snow, had no chance to work out the kinks before Val d’Isere. That’s a significant problem for a guy who’s standard modus operandi had been to out prepare his competition. He is again rehabbing, this time for his knee injured in GS training in Oberjoch on Jan. 27, but indicates no concerns about his future in the sport.
Hirscher became the leader among Austrian men for GS wins by claiming his second of the season at Val d’Isere. The win pushed him past Svindal for the tour lead. (Rest assured, we’ll return to the speed circuit in a follow-up bit).
Are, Sweden, was a two-edged sword for American viewers. Vonn won her first GS in four years, but Shiffrin crashed while free skiing before the race and was sent home with a knee injury, her season apparently over. Brem added her third podium in three GSs.
In mid-December the men finally skied the first slalom of the season with Henrik Kristoffersen blasting the field for the win by 1.09 seconds. Second and third were as advertised – Hirscher and Felix Neureuther, respectively. But fourth went to David Chodounsky, signaling an up-and-coming star for the American squad.
The women raced their third slalom on the same date without the favored Shiffrin on site. Petra Vlhova got her first career win to become just the second Slovakian to reach the top of a World Cup podium. Hansdotter, in second, moved past Shiffrin to lead the slalom standings 220-200 points. She also moved to second in the overall behind Vonn, who skipped the slalom as per routine.
The men stopped by Alta Badia for the traditional post-Gardena GS and a decidedly non-traditional parallel GS. Hirscher had recently owned Alta Badia with three wins and a second place in the four previous races. He prevailed in the traditional race but only narrowly over Kristoffersen who showed he had more than just slalom prowess.
The experimental parallel GS was set fast and open – like there’s any other choice – which got the Norwegian speed skiers salivating. Jansrud got the win and Svindal was second. It cracked open the GS door for them. After the race Jansrud was ninth in the GS standings and Svindal 16th. Neither would see a better ranking.
Brem claimed the Courchevel GS for her second career win and second of the season for the discipline lead. Gut rolled into second in a tie with Nina Loeseth to maintain control of the overall standings.
The men continued the Italian pre-Christmas swing at Madonna di Campiglio (for the fifth straight day of races, eek) where a crashing television drone which narrowly missed hitting Hirscher took the headlines that should have belonged to slalom winner Kristoffersen, his second victory of the month. Hirscher survived for his seventh podium in eight races and Austrian Marco Schwarz landed on the podium in just his third scoring race. His previous best had been 18th. Chodounsky slid into the top 10.
Gut claimed a narrow (0.12 second) GS win to open Lienz after the Christmas break with Tina Weirather, Viktoria Rebensburg and Brem behind her.
A new era of slalom seemed ready to solidify its hold at Lienz as Hansdotter got her third career win by 0.07 over Wendy Holdener (her third career podium) and Vlhova snagged her second career podium in third. Marie-Michelle Gagnon contributed the 10th Canadian top 10 of the season. Despite her absense, Shiffrin still held third in the slalom standings, 120 points adrift of Hansdotter and 20 behind Vlhova.
The men and the women moved on to Santa Caterina to pick up the slaloms which Zagreb had no snow to hold. Loeseth got her first career win, and the first women’s win of nine Norwegian victories on the season, while the veterans picked up their pace. Sarka Strachova claimed second and Veronika Velez-Zuzulova third. Gagnon got her best finish of the season to date in seventh and Resi Stiegler notched her fifth top-15 finish of the season. At the mid station, Hansdotter had a solid 94 point grip on the slalom standings.
Hirscher came from behind for the men’s win ahead of Kristoffersen in second and Alexander Khoroshilov, the first run leader, in third. Hirscher took the lead of the overall standing from the absent Svindal. (You’ll find out where he went in the next installment. Hold me to it.)
The men moved into Adelboden for a single slalom. The race initially set up as a duplicate of Santa Caterina. The Russian, Khoroshilov, won the first run, Hirscher was in second and Kristoffersen third, all within half a second. Fritz Dopfer, in fourth, was eight-tenths out.
This time, though, it was Kristoffersen who pulled out the winning run, squeaking past Hirscher by 0.06 and Khoroshilov again found himself third, six-tenths out.
At Flachau, Velez-Zuzulova notched a pair of slalom wins as a race moved from Ofterschwang was added to the venue which serves as a favorite for many female slalom aces. She topped Strachova in the first test, under the lights, and Hansdotter in the second. Two Americans, Lila Lapanja and Paula Moltzan, scored their first World Cup points in the night race by surviving a rut-filled ride to qualify for the second run.
Rebensburg collected her third career win in the Flachau GS with Ana Drev earning her first career podium in second and Brignone third.
It was déjà vu when Rebensburg won her second GS of the season at Maribor and Drev collected her second career podium in second. Rebensburg closed within 32 points of standings leader Brem.
Race officials fought hard to get the Maribor slalom in, eventually succumbing to nature and canceling after 25 skiers. The race was later reset for Crans Montana.
In Wengen’s weekend-ending slalom, Hirscher struggled enough in the first run to leave himself three-quarters of a second off Kristoffersen. He did not accomplish the feat of making up the time and failed to finish the race while trying. The Norwegian topped the field with two Italians on the podium, Guiliano Razzoli in second and Stefano Gross in third. American Tim Kelly was 12th, his first scoring result.
After waiting out all the speed men’s hoopla at Kitzbuehel, Kristoffersen nailed the slalom, once again ousting Hirscher for the win and piling on the points. Dopfer was third.
The night race at Schladming illustrated how champions deal with adversity. Hirscher was 2.59 seconds out after skiing the first run with completely fogged goggles and Kristoffersen was 1.10 back of run leader Felix Neureuther. Determination defined, Kristoffersen got the win and Hirscher, skiing from the 22nd position after first run, won every interval to wind up in an amazing second place with Khoroshilov again relegated to third.
In Yuzawa Naeba, Japan, the men ran a set of tech races, including the first GS in 42 days. Pinturault got his 11th World Cup win (and third in GS) by a half second over Mathieu Faivre. Max Blardone broke up the French sweep in third. It was his last hurrah. He would retire after the season.
Maybe the snow was that much different in Japan, but whatever the reason the slalom results were not typical of the season. On the top of the podium was Felix Neureuther, his only win of the season, with Andre Myhrer notching his first podium of the winter in second and Marco Schwarz the second podium of his career in third. Kristoffersen was back in seventh and Hirscher tallied a DNF, his second of the season.
The Stockholm city event also played its role in the standings. Hirscher beat Myhrer for the win with Stefano Gross third. It was Holdener over Hansdotter among the women with Maria Pietilae-Holmner third. Holdener lost just a single run all night, during the finals against Hansdotter. It was her first career win. Hirscher overtook Kristoffersen for the overall lead, but still trailed in slalom by 131 points.
Pinturault won his second GS in a row at Hinterstoder in a race moved out of Adelboden by heavy fog and warm weather. He beat Hirscher by a significant 0.71 margin with Fanara in third. Kristoffersen was fourth for the second straight GS. American Tommy Ford got his first points since December.
Two days later Pinturault got another GS win also at Hinterstoder, this time by a strong 1.14 second margin. Hirscher was again second but Kristoffersen moved up to third to stay in touch.
That left only one technical stop before finals, at Kranjska Gora, which had added the Garmisch GS. Pinturault, now seemingly on fire, took his fourth straight win in the discipline. Philip Schoerghofer was second and Hirscher – seventh after the first run – powered up to third, one place in front of Kristoffersen.
Races at finals can and have gotten canceled – creating a scenario in which a title is awarded without a race, something no competitor looking for last-minute points wants to happen. The battle for the men’s GS crown was, for all intents and purposes, on the line with the regularly-scheduled GS at Kranjska Gora. Pinturault had a slim chance to overtake Hirscher’s early-season exploits, and certainly was on a streak that could accomplish that. Hirscher didn’t want to hear it, and grabbed the win by a healthy 0.53 margin, icing his third GS crown. Pinturault was second and Kristoffersen, still fighting for the overall, was third.
Hirscher, despite 17 World Cup slalom wins, had never claimed one at Kranjska Gora. That changed with his 18th slalom victory, his second slalom win of the season. Kristoffersen settled for second and Stefano Gross was third. Chodounsky scored his third top-10 finish of the season.
The end of a brutal season was close enough that not even the inability to hold the first women’s race at Jasna could dampen the spirit. With weather hurling wind and fog at them, the ladies of the World Cup took to a set of viscously long and difficult courses, just stepped the calendar back a day and pushed the weekend to Monday.
Shiffrin, fresh back from recovery, brutalized the slalom field winning by 2.36 over Holdener with Velez-Zuzulova third. Gagnon was sixth. Frida Hansdotter scored 10th, but secured the slalom crown nevertheless.
GS tour leader Brem followed up with the GS win, uncertain if she had skied well or not, but plenty happy to be atop the podium. It was Rebensburg in second and Brignone in third and all seemed satisfied just to have survived. Gut garnished fourth and moved past Vonn to snare the overall lead as Gagnon continued her late-season charge in sixth. But the women’s GS title was still undecided, and it would come down to the busy final week at St. Moritz to name a victor.
This serial retelling of the 2015-16 season will return in a second article that tackles all that went down on the speed side and promises a tidy closure to the globes as well. By now your eyes look weary, dear reader, and there are skis to wax over for the offseason. Check back soon for the riveting continuation and conclusion of this rollercoaster tale.