As promised, we have one more Christmas present still to unwrap: men’s slalom, which kicks its season off at Alta Badia on Monday, followed by the Night Race of Madonna di Campiglio on Tuesday.
Cultural tip I picked up from an Italian colleague: Just say, “Campiglio.” “Madonna” is a term of aristocratic shock (My Lady!), which is the quickest way to announce you’re from away.
The slalom debut will follow four giant slalom races already held. You may have caught a glimpse of the slalom elite, such as Clement Noel and Daniel Yule, trying their hands at GS. They were surprisingly good, nearly qualifying for second runs. This tells us precisely nothing about their slalom skiing apart from feeling the tension of World Cup racing again. Slalom has become such a specialty and so disparate from the other disciplines that nearly two-thirds of the top 30 are specialists. They may dabble in parallel or GS, but their primary focus is singular, which means many have been sitting on their hands since February.
The U.S. men’s slalom team, which was nearly absent at the World Cup two years ago, is re-emerging. Luke Winters, who grabbed attention last season with a couple top-three runs, will be joined by Ben Ritchie and Jett Seymour. Last year, Luke and coach Ryan Wilson were locked down during the early COVID days with the Kristoffersen camp. The relationship has carried over into this season, and they’ve had a chance to square off against last year’s slalom globe winner in training at Reiteralm. It’s fair to say, the Americans’ pace is world class. Replicating that with a high bib number and the tension of race day is another matter altogether. But they might have an edge this go around. The Kristoffersen camp will be setting first run in Madonna, likely with a lot of swing and grind expected, just what they’ve spent time training. If a guy like Ritchie and (to a lesser degree) the sophomore, Winters, can ski anywhere close to the level they’re showing in training, that’ll be a huge victory.
Beyond that, I have every reason to think Clement Noel is the gold standard for slalom speed. He didn’t win the title, but when he was on his feet and on his game last year, he was unbeatable. At 23, he’s one year further into filling out his 6’ 3” frame.
The Swiss, with their embarrassment of slalom riches, have the closest guarantee of world-class pace on any given training day. Yule, Ramon Zenhauesen, Luc Meillard, Marc Rochat, Tanguy Nef … and on and on. As a team, I expect them to be as strong as ever, but I would think, if Clement can get to the finish line without a major error, he will be the man to beat. He has modernized slalom to a place where even Marcel Hirchsher has murmured about how he would keep up had he not retired.
Young Italian Alex Vinatzer has a similar style. Though less reliable a skier to watch in the long run. In the short term, he’s less than a month from appendicitis surgery. It’s a big ask for a youngster to be at his best on opening day on the hallowed home snow of Campiglio. But Oh Madonna, they will ask.
Back to GS
Come back to the future with me for a moment as we look briefly at the men’s giant slalom at Alta Badia, which will happen prior to the aforementioned slalom but taking place tomorrow (Sunday).
We are going into what most revere as the most technically challenging giant slalom on the World Cup. Notably, I have decided to change my tune on Tommy Ford’s preparedness for the season. The Santa Caterina podium underscored how adaptable this guy is, and he is very good at skiing across a multitude of conditions and terrain types … with or without much training it appears. Whether it’s boilerplate ice or manmade — which are really the two options when it comes to Alta Badia — Tommy should be a player.
In Alta Badia in 2015, before we knew he would go on to become a World Cup winner in GS, he won the second run by three-quarters of second, at a time when Hirscher was at the top of his game. Ford had an early start, and all the caveats that go along with that, but he destroyed the field … so he’s got it in him.
For a long time, giant slalom was a three-headed dragon of Hirscher, Pinturault and Ligety. Now, it looks a lot more like the women’s side, where you’ve got veterans who can still win and youth trying to make names for themselves. Do I need to list all the names? No. Suffice it to say, Pinturault and Kristoffersen are not just going to inherit the throne.
Pinturault is a tough case. He lived through one of the most dominant eras of giant slalom in Hirscher and Ligety and has never been able to win the GS title. Now with that door supposedly opening, in arcs a new generation of skiers again ready to thwart his long-standing dream. Currently, the primary obstacle is Swiss skier Marco Odermatt, who sat out the downhill today for a bit of rest and refinement before Sunday’s contest. Seems he’s not interested in the Frenchman’s ambitions.