It’s been one of the most unconventional and unpredictable slalom seasons I can ever recall — or maybe the word is sullied? Three out of the four most demanding stops have, by way of COVID, been replaced with gentler slopes. One-time standings leader Mani Feller went as far as calling the recent races in Flachau a “fairytale meadow.” Alta Badia was easier still, and now this weekend there will be two more in Chamonix, which won’t stray too far from this trend. Despite more challenging mainstays Madonna, Adelboden, and Schladming, it’s fair to say this season of men’s slalom has been punctuated by either remedial slopes or spring-like conditions.
Where’s that left us? With a lot of shakeup. For those who haven’t been able to adapt to these conditions, it’s been a struggle. Henrik Kristoffersen has endured one of the biggest falls from slalom dominance I’ve ever seen. The 2020 slalom title winner now ranks eighth. Daniel Yule, not a fan of flat terrain, is having a nightmare of a season. And last season’s runner-up, Clement Noel, seems to have gone to that dark place where slalom skiers sometimes go when they can’t deliver on a first-run lead or blow out in the first run all together.
Conversely, the Austrians have emerged and have shown to be quite good across all conditions. Only one man, Marco Schwarz, has won twice this season. He’s been good in everything. And Sebastian Foss-Solevåg has been as good as anybody on moderate terrain, and that’s what Chamonix is going to be.
Schwarz goes into these races with 489 points, a fairly comfortable 131-point margin over Foss-Solevåg, who’s at 358. But if you compare that to last year at the same point in the season, Kristoffersen had 552, and Daniel Yule had 495 … so two guys had outscored the leader this year, and Clement Noel, at 450, was not far behind. Also worth noting, none of those three skiers are currently in the top five.
My point? I can’t recall a time that a discipline has been so completely reshuffled from one year to the next.
Meanwhile, watching Pinturault unleashed has been one of the novelties I’ve most enjoyed this season. In recent years, he’s always appeared to vacillate between skiing to win and skiing to score for the overall. Now with a nice lead in the overall, we’re getting a glimpse of his top gear.
Americans! This week in Schladming was the first time since Adelboden 2017 that the U.S. has placed three skiers into the second run of a slalom. They did so by way of national team athletes Ben Ritchie and Jett Seymour, aided by independent skier Alex Leever who led the pack in 24th. Damn if Luke Winters wasn’t on his way to making it four had he not blown out.
All three were first-time qualifiers, and none finished second run without either blowing out or, in the case of Leever, digging deep into the magic hat to find the finish. But there is simply no way to get ready for that experience without having had it. Now they have it.
Not only that, but they did it at Schladming, which is no fairytale meadow. It was that aha moment coach Ryan Wilson had been waiting for. He’d seen this speed all fall in training. In fact, the week leading into Schladming he chose for the first time to train in isolation. They didn’t chase pace with other teams; they just turned inward. Or like the Zen master might say, they chopped wood, carried water, and found some enlightenment. So, now it’s time to keep chopping wood and carrying water.