As we approach the opening speed races of the season — a pair of women’s super G at St. Moritz — weather is likely to be a factor with 30 to 70 centimeters of snowfall expected throughout the weekend. Frankly, it could wind up thwarting the whole event, but assuming organizers can pull this one off, here’s what has my attention:
St. Moritz is arguably the most terrain-filled super G the women will face. It’s a complex course any day of the week, but when the light is flat, St. Moritz is downright nausea-inducing. I don’t think there’s a tree within a 100 miles, which presents an obvious lack of contrast and definition on an already-undulating rollercoaster ride.
In the inimitable words of Christin Cooper, “It’s like skiing into a bowl of milk.”
Back-to-back super G always offer a chance to take in terrain. By day two, you may have skiers perform better who are up to the technical task but don’t quite have the experience loaded into their personal GPS. The likely low-light conditions could benefit skiers who want to throw a Hail Mary, who have a fearless attitude on that particular day, otherwise it leans heavily on people who know the venue well.
To that point, it’s hard to not look to Corinne Suter as a favorite because the Swiss have spent more time at this venue over the years and she closed out last season looking extremely strong.
Federica Brignone is a more interesting case — and I’m told Marta Bassino is also skiing very good super G — they haven’t had an opportunity to stay home and get that speed training block, which is so hard to come by right now. Normally, they would have been coming from Copper Mountain and Lake Louise, but that didn’t happen this year. Rather they were prepping and traveling to Levi, Finland for the recent slalom races. Suter on the other hand doesn’t race slalom nor did she race the parallel, and other contenders, such as Sophia Goggia, don’t ski slalom or, like Michele Gisin, skipped the parallel to prep for the super G. I wonder, then, about the challenge for those who haven’t missed a race.
I’m also super interested in Lara Gut-Behrami. If you look at her history at the venue, at age 17 she defied all the odds — on a tough course for the inexperienced — when she came crashing across the finish line with one ski and finished third place. That was the emergence of Lara Gut. Then, we saw her demise in 2017 when she blew out her ACL at World Championships. She’s just starting to eke her way back, and she has said the linchpin of all her skiing is giant slalom. Based on what we saw at the parallel in Lech, she has found the key — or at least is starting to pick the lock. I think she could be dangerous.
Mikaela Shiffrin, had she had a lick of speed training, which she hasn’t, would have been an incredible threat on this course where she’s won before. But, not-so-surprisingly she will sit this one out and likely won’t race speed before 2020 expires. Along with that and her decision to skip the parallel last week, it’s easy to see how her pursuit of another overall crystal globe will have to wait another year.
Speaking of the overall, let’s not forget about Petra Vlhova who is coming off three-straight World Cup victories and has been tracking toward the super G podium, albeit on simpler courses. She was sharply focused on her speed training over the summer and fall, and despite racing every event, found some exclusive training in Val Gardena that included Italian speed star Dominic Paris. While she no doubt has the frame for speed and has quickly acquired many of the requisite skills, she’s never raced this super G. I think a top five would be a huge result and would make her the skier to beat in the overall … but her stated goal is top 20.
Important note: We have a couple of times now overlooked Ester Ledecka. Let’s not do that again. She’s been training with the Italians and been more than competitive, I’m told.
Fool me once, Ester …
For the Americans, there’s reason to be optimistic, as they are coming off a block of exclusive (courtesy of COVID) speed training at Copper Mountain, which is about as good as November speed training gets anywhere in the world. But this is still a team that’s been riddled by recent injuries and trying to make its way back. I’ve heard great things about the skiing of Jackie Wiles, Alice McKennis and Breezy Johnson, each of them benefiting greatly from a steady diet of technical training this prep period. Fortunately, much of their training was spent in poor light conditions, which has been a weakness for many of them, and further, can also be the kiss of death for any athlete returning from injury. Let the force be with them, because these super G are being run where the sun won’t shine.
Men move over to Santa Caterina
The men were bounced out of Val d’Isere due to a lack of snow and will contest a pair of giant slaloms at Santa Caterina Valfurva, Italy, which, along with Bormio, co-hosted the World Championships in 1985 and 2005. The latter was the site of a double bronze medal-winning performance by Julia Mancuso, which also likely lit a fire under a young Lindsey Vonn, who was fourth in those races, launching both of their careers.
This venue change has surely been music to Ted Ligety’s ears. You will not find a European men’s giant slalom that is closer to the profile of Beaver Creek (where, of course, Ligety has claimed multiple wins) than Santa Caterina. Expect a moderate, rolling and bendy course with a similar snow quality to the Beav’. On paper, that looks great for the Americans. However, Ligety’s nemesis right now could be a soft surface, and like St. Moritz, weather is expected this weekend. Tommy Ford continues to battle injuries and it could be some time before we see him return to his full self.
The fastest U.S. GS skier right now is probably Ryan Cochran-Siegle. We saw that in the Soelden opener, and it continues to be the case. RCS skipped Lech because he hadn’t had much speed training and needed to test some skis. He’s since been training GS in Reiteralm, Austria with the likes of Alexis Pinturault and Henrick Kristoffersen — having no trouble keeping pace, I’m told.
Of course, the most dangerous guys at these giant slaloms are Pinturault and Kristoffersen, who battled it out in the finals of the parallel GS last week. But then we have the return of the Swiss — Marco Odermatt, Loic Meillard, Justin Murisier, Thomas Tumler, Mauro Caviezel — all those skiers are capable of reaching the podium. Due to COVID, however, many of these racers had to sit on their ass for 14 days. What kind of condition are they going to be in?
Let’s also keep our eye on River Radamus, who I think has turned the corner and just won second run of a Europa Cup GS. It has been a long, hard transition from one of the best juniors in the world to making a mark at the World Cup level. Let’s not underestimate how difficult it is to make that jump. Maybe now, at a venue that looks a lot like his backyard in Beaver Creek, it is his time.