I saw this quote in a friend’s kitchen the other day and thought immediately of this weekend in Adelboden, Switzerland and the hallowed track called the Chuenisbärgli:
“Praise none too much, for all are fickle.”
That goes for the calendar, the venue, and the field. For the first time in its history, the most celebrated stop on the giant slalom calendar will host a doubleheader. That’s back-to-back giant slaloms, followed by a slalom on Sunday. As go giant slalom weekends, this might be the biggest weekend since the dawn of the World Cup. Don’t get used it; it’s just a best effort by the FIS to stack weekends with either tech or speed races to limit the mixing of these largely exclusive groups and, thus, mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Get your giant slalom fix because the next men’s World Cup GS on the calendar is six weeks off.
Then there is the track itself. With its high speeds, ever-undulating terrain, cliff-like finish across a surface that is often pocked like the moon, it’s all but impossible to fully tame. Just when you think you know its habits, it bucks to the right and you’re on the floor. No one in the field has won this giant slalom more than once. Ted Ligety did back in 2013 with a bit of help from Marcel Hirscher, who lost the lead with a spectacular save just before the finish. Alexis Pinturault won in 2017. Apart from a few select greats, such as Hischer, Stenmark, Pirmin Zubriggen and Hermann Maier, other champions win it once, and that’s all the Chuenisbargli grants.
There is the matter of a guard change. For years, three names dominated the giant slalom podium: Ted Ligety, Marcel Hirscher, Alexis Pinturault and more recently Kristoffersen. But over the last 10 giant slaloms dating back to Beaver Creek 2019, there have been seven different winners and 14 different skiers on the podium. Now add Jan Kranjec, Marco Odermatt and his Swiss teammates, Lucas Braathen and his Norwegian teammates, along with a rising tide of Germans. They’ll go without Stefan Luitz, who reported a hamstring pull yesterday and will sit out the weekend. In short, men’s GS is as competitive and open as it’s been in more than decade.
The mercury can offer a good barometer of things to come. Currently temps call for well below freezing and the surface is 80cm of very dense artificial snow, but if they go above freezing and the track gets springlike and chewed up, Croatia’s Filip Zubcic has shown to be a beast in those conditions. They also make for something of home court for the Norwegians, who grew up in wet, salted-snow conditions. Henrik Kristoffersen, Lief Kristian Haugen, Alex Kilde and, of course, Alte Lie McGrath, who recently finished second in Alta Badia, all can factor.
Though the GS standings leader Marco Odermatt has plenty of range across conditions, like his teammates, the harder it is, the better they go. To parse it further, the non-slalom skiers have been able to train exclusively for this weekend, whereas Pinturault, Kristoffersen, McGrath, and Zubcic, to name a few, had to divide their training time while also making the trip from Austria to Zagreb and back to Switzerland. Skiers such as Tommy Ford, Ted Ligety and other GS specialists have been able to drill down on one discipline.
According to U.S. coach Forest Carey, Ligety found some of the form that’s been missing this year, and Ford — something of an equipment tinkerer — has found a setup that works in the conditions they anticipate. If so, he’ll be ready to exact his revenge. It was last year when Ford, third in the GS standings and in peak form, crashed just a few gates into the race with an uncharacteristic moment of inattention. Those first gates happen to be the fastest acceleration in all of GS.
That can be a lot to manage when you know that there are better than a dozen skiers who can beat you on any given day in this fickle game of today’s giant slalom.
Sidebar: If you like the finer details, have look at the manufacturer’s rankings below. Some GS skis have a reputation for performing is spring-like conditions, like Atomic/Salomon, others on water-injected/ice, such as Rossi/Dynastar/Fischer. And on the artificial and grippy conditions, like in Alta Badia, Head was front and center.
Full stats here.