For those who felt the 2021 season has taken forever to liftoff, prepare for whiplash. This next rip of races will pack in an Olympic-level program before some of us will have finished our Christmas shopping. In addition to the three speed races the women will contest in Val d’Isere, men will compete in all the disciplines (save parallel and AC) in three different Dolomite resorts while managing to double up on GS. With so much ground to cover, I’ll just stick to the gifts that have yet to be unwrapped this year — women’s speed and men’s slalom.
I know better — we all do — but it was pretty tempting for U.S. fans to feel ambitious about what might happen in Val d’Isere. The women put three in the top 11 the first day of downhill training on Wednesday. Alice Mckennis Duran and Breezy Johnson notably finished 1-2 with Jackie Wiles, previously suspected to be the fastest of the bunch, not far back in 11th. Thursday, Johnson was fastest, Wiles 9th, McKennis 11th. To put that notion in perspective, I got this text from Breezy Johnson after Day 1, which I might turn into a bumper sticker:
“I thought Jackie was going to come down and crush us. Been feeling good, not totally surprised. But winning (or being second) in a training run is fool’s gold. Shiny, but it ain’t worth shit.”
Jackie has consistently been the fastest among the U.S. women in their Copper Speed Center training. In a larger context, she and Alice have dealt with such catastrophic injuries in recent years (or over the years for Alice) that both exited 2020 not looking whole. For that reason, I was a little more pessimistic on the American women prior to St. Mortiz (which was ultimately canceled) because the impending poor weather and light conditions were the kind that unhinge the recently injured. But for them to open up with these results in training, Breezy’s tempering comments notwithstanding, there is good reason to be optimistic.
The race will be held on the same hill as the men last week (different set). The OK course, however, is a regular stop for the women. It is worth revisiting my previous story about St. Moritz. While Gut-Berhamin has been very good in her in the past, those were pre-injury results. Corinne Suter just demonstrated she’s a world-class GS skier in giant slalom, and her skiing continues to elevate in my book. Sofia Goggia, who’s been quite fast in training, and has had plenty of it, is always a good bet. It’s errors of aggression only that keep her from the podium. We shant forget Ester Ledecka, who has fooled us before. I’ve made a commitment to not turn my head when she is in the start, despite a 44th-place result in training on Wednesday. She trained quite a bit with the Italians in the fall and was the fastest.
Also still very much on my radar is Michelle Gisin. If she can get off on the right foot in speed this weekend, she is not a dark horse for the overall, she’s a serious threat. The numbers are on her side. With Shiffrin back in the mix, and her focus on tech events for the foreseeable future, Mikaela is more likely to cut into Brignone and Vlhova’s bread-and-butter disciplines than Gisin’s.
It’ll be interesting to watch overall contenders Vlhova and Brignone on this course because they’re incredible technical skiers. This is more of a gliders’ course, for sure, and that should cater to the more classic speed skiers. In years past, gliding has been the death knell for Brignone in particular, but her training times have been promising.
As for the other remaining Christmas present, check back in a day or two when we unwrap men’s slalom.
Steve Nyman not entirely absent from Val Gardena
Here comes a major rip of races, the Dolomite Olympics, if you will. We’ll take a crack at GS and slalom in the days to come. For now, let’s focus on the Saslong.
Quick programming note: Steven Nyman, three time downhill champ on this course, who’s still on the mend from an achilles tear, will be joining me for the NBC broadcast on Saturday live from my garage. And, no, you didn’t misread that: I’m indeed calling all the races from my garage right now. (It’s awesome: short commute and venue-like temps to get me in the right headspace.) There may be no other person in the world who knows the nuances of this course better.
Men’s speed: I’m not sure we got a great sense of what the future holds by watching Val d’Isere, but we’ve got a classic coming up, so we should have a much better idea soon. The obvious names that come to mind are the ones who have done well there, and that is the Norwegians, Beat Feuz and, in super G, Vincent Kriechmayr.
Like the women, be encouraged by the 1-2 punch of Goldberg and Bennett in training on Wednesday, followed by those two and Ryan Cochran-Siegle all arriving in the top seven. This course is well-suited to Bennett, and other big men. Racers of their stature can run through the Ciaslat, with its Volkswagen Bug-sized roller … like a monster truck. Whereas a guy like Feuz will find himself skipping across the top of the bumps like a stone on water. Feuz, a past winner, has much less room for error but always finds a way. Bennett, a Tahoe boy through and through, will rely not only on his height, but also on his skill to finesse his way through this minefield of terrain. Like Nyman says, it’s for “terrain” skiers, active on the ground, happy in the air, which can run near 200 feet over the camel jumps.
For Jared Goldberg, impressive to see his about face after a rough go of racing in France last week. That’s a good sign and indicative of the form I was hearing about in the off-season.
The Italians have not won the downhill in Gardena in a long time. In fact, Christian Ghedina in 2002 was the last. Dominik Paris, despite all his accomplishments, has never really made friends with this place. If he can be within the top five, I think that’ll be a huge step in his return to action.
But you know who has won here? Norwegians, they own this hill like no other team going back to the 70s. They’ve swept the podium and, though they’re without retired stalwart Axel Lund Svindal, they’ve already added another podium skier — Adrien Smiseth Sjersted — to go along with heavies Alexander Aamodt Kilde and Kjetil Jansrud. Keep a close eye on them in the finish or the Americans. The two teams work together at speed races and share info freely to those still in the start.
Let the Dolomite Games begin.