I will always remember Flachau, Austria for the time I beat Bode Miller in 2004. It was night race, and I got quick start. It was a mass start actually that included the entire U.S. men’s tech team, and I’d clearly snagged the fastest rodel of the group. I might have lost my wallet and rental car keys on the way down, and it might have been a holiday weekend rendering the car undriveable for three days. But what matters here is that it was a win.
It harkens back to a different time when Flachau was just getting its footing as a regular stop on the World Cup calendar. For much the same reason there are races in Zagreb, Croatia – because it was home to stars Janica and Ivica Kostelic – Flachau’s early races paid homage to local legend Hermann Maier. Right at the base you’ll find the Hermann Maier ski school. He not only taught tourists, but also himself. In his free time, he set his own courses, trained on his own — all for the wild long-shot of getting the Austrian team just to notice this late bloomer.
The day came on Jan. 9, 1996, at the age of 23. He was given the opportunity to forerun the first men’s World Cup ever held in Flachau. Unofficial timing showed him 12th in the GS. They noticed, and in what was his second year with a FIS license, they gave him a World Cup start. He scored 26th. The next year, in his second World Cup super G, he finished second. The next day, the ski instructor from Flachau wins. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In the last decade, the home of Maier has gone from one of the biggest parties and celebrations of alpine racing on the men’s circuit to the most raucous and celebrated night-slalom on the women’s. Of course, this year, the rodeling, cavorting and fanfare will all give way to this unusual feeling of skiing in relative solitude under the lights, where athletes can hear their own thoughts.
Just today, Mikaela Shiffrin shared hers. In recent years, Flachau has represented the time on the calendar when her gas tank flashes empty. In 2019, when she won a record 17 races, after near ceaseless racing across all disciplines, she was unable to hold off then-tech specialist Petra Vlhova. It happened much the same way last year.
The tables are turned this year. Vhlova, who has raced in every race this season, is coming straight from the speed events in Austria, where she pulled out one of the more impressive recoveries and super G turns I have seen in a long time. Stands to reason that her lead in the overall standings has come at the price of fatigue and lack of specific slalom training. It’s much the same story for Michelle Gisin (SUI), who is second in the slalom standings and overall standings. Wendy Holdener, ditto. They’re all coming straight from the speed races in St. Anton, whereas Shiffrin has been logging GS and slalom miles as she continues to recapture missed training from her summer schedule. If anything, she’s getting a little impatient.
“I hate waiting,” she admitted in Monday’s press conference, referring to the challenge of a night slalom. The self-proclaimed sleep addict is typically in bed at the time she usually starts the second run of slalom, which is some 45 minutes after the run begins at 8:45 p.m. “Training has been going really well,” she added. The trick has been, more than in years past, finding that combination of looseness and laser focus in those 60 seconds when she needs it, and not draining herself thinking about it during the remaining 86,280 seconds of the day. The people who can summon that on demand she joked, “THAT is the secret to the universe.”
On the fresh and fast list, Austria will look to Katharina Liensberger to snap their winless streak in slalom that goes back to March of 2014. If you totaled all the slalom runs together this season, more than 7 minutes’ worth, the young Austrian comes out on top.
|1||Katharina Liensberger AUT||7’21.52||0.00|
|2||Petra Vlhova SVK||7’21.65||-0.13|
|3||Michelle Gisin SUI||7’22.23||-0.71|
|4||Mikaela Shiffrin USA||7’22.24||-0.72|
As for the remainder of the U.S. team, their momentum continues to build — most significantly Paula Moltzan, who hadn’t fully found her footing in slalom until we got a glimpse of it in Zagreb, where she was second in the second run. Denver University skier and Romark grad Katie Hensien is skiing like she’s been on the World Cup for a decade. She and Moltzan were the lone skiers to jump from the 40s to the top 20 in Zagreb. Moltzan now will start 29 followed closely by compatriots Nina O’Brien and Lila Lapanja in the 30s. Both skiers have scored this year, O’Brien with a ninth.
Snow report is a perfect compact surface ripe for an attack outside the top 30. Of note, Zoe Zimmerman will get her first World Cup start, giving Burke Mountain Academy a third reason, after grads Shiffrin and O’Brien, to delay training tomorrow until about 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Just a thought, Willy Booker.