In the shadow of the Tofana is the tale of two very different downhill trails. On the one side you find the iconic track, Olympia Della Tofane, which has hosted more women’s World Cup races – 94 – than any other venue. It is an enduring love affair for all who have skied it. Just adjacent is the men’s Vertigine, which due to a confluence of Covid and weather, has felt more like a case of speed dating. And not everyone has made a love connection.
“I don’t like it. I’m at the start and I’m not happy to be there,” Italy’s Christof Innerhofer told NBC after the first training run. “The top is okay, but after the middle passage, I hate it.”
So let’s start with the men, who are scheduled to race Sunday.
Innerhofer ranks among the four Italians who are the only skiers at worlds to have raced this track previously at their national championships in the spring of 2019. There, Innerhofer injured his knee and has been fighting his way back to form ever since. He admitted, he’s not yet made peace with Vertigine.
He was not alone in his criticism that, above all, the course setting lacked harmony with the terrain. But it’s hard to judge too harshly. The test event, a norm for all modern Olympic and World Championship speed venues, was canceled last year due to coronavirus. According to Tom Johnson, the US Team alpine technical advisor, who’s had a hand in building just about every championship venue since Salt Lake 2002, he can’t recall a race going off with so little testing. The closest was the men’s Olympic downhill in 2002, where there was a prior NorAm event, and one World Cup training run in 2001 before the race had to be canceled.
But he knows one that will go off with less testing: The Olympic track in Yanqing for the 2022 Beijing Games that he’s building. All test events have been canceled and, to date, it’s not been possible to get even a few retired or elite-level racers into the country to test it. Last winter he spent 38 days there “and I still couldn’t figure out a way to (set) down it.”
Until elite skiers ski down at world-class speeds, you just don’t know what to expect. So after watching bib 1 nearly bottom out the landing on the first jump during the men’s super G, course-setter Hannes Trinkl was very conservative for training Run 1. After seeing it run now, the course set will change rather dramatically for the second and final training run. But like in the super G, the ability to improvise will be a golden asset. Expect some surprises. When you mix the notion that only medals count and that the risk-consequence ratio is always more disparate skiing unfamiliar terrain — odds of at least one relative outsider hitting it right are pretty good.
Of the guys that can turn up the heat on race day without testing a course’s limits in training, there is no one better than Switzlerland’s Beat Feuz. The more the course opens up and the speeds escalate in training Run 2, the more dangerous he becomes.
The same can be said of 40-year-old Johan Clarey, who despite being the test pilot with bib 1, had one of the fastest training times. He’s never won a race during his two decades on the World Cup, but he’s been close this season. Italian favorite Dom Paris is a tougher read. He has been highly critical of the venue, and though he posted the fastest training time today, he missed gates, and grumbled his way out of the finish. Of these three favorites, he can best handle what sharp, speed control turns remain after Day 2’s reset — if he’s in the mood.
Dark-ish horses: Austria’s Max Franz has shown – and was showing in the super G – deadly speed along with his former teammate Romed Baumann who now skis for Germany. Baumann fought from disadvantageous bib 20 to finish on the podium in super G. That’s not luck, that’s momentum.
American Travis Ganong topped the short list of skiers who, rather than complain about the course setting, relished the “awkward and weird turns” that he says suit his style.
“I like the challenge of having really long turns into really technical turns that kill the speed that you look to somehow manage,” he told NBC. “Someone is going to be able to separate themselves from the field there.” Solving those fringe elements are right in his wheelhouse, he says. “But if they open everything up, then it’s just easier for everybody.”
The establishment in women’s speed has been pretty clear this year. In the absence of the injured, Sofia Goggia, who had emerged as the dominant downhiller, all eyes will be on American Breezy Johnson, Switzerland’s Corinne Suter, and, of late, Lara Gut-Behrami. And, yet, for reasons quite the opposite of the men’s all-new downhill, this race could be rife with marauders. This is a track that is so loved, so well prepared, so well known, and somewhat simpler in its set this year, that it lowers the fear factor and the challenge. In such a scenario, one could say – heavy is the head that wears the crown.
In the words of someone who has won the Cortina downhill more than anyone, Lindsey Vonn, who will join our NBC broadcast team for both downhill races, this one is “really going be about minimizing any mistakes.” That can be tougher to do under pressure.
Gut-Behrami is a veteran of pressure and has so far lived up to it, but she also prefers a more pointed challenge. Breezy Johnson has been absolutely the most consistent downhiller this year, but is so new to this stratospheric level that the external expectations might not have caught up with her entirely. She has an almost oxymoronic blend of brazen attacker and meticulous minder of detail. Tomorrow is a perfect day for such a dual personality. Corinne Suter has looked more of a wildcard related to pressure as of late.
What’s clear after training is that there are multiple players to keep our attention throughout the top 20. Austrians Miriam Puchner and Tamara Tippler looked exceedingly fast. Tippler dominated the high-speed turns through the middle, Puchner scorched the flat. When it’s been chippy this year, they’ve been less reliable.
That is especially true for Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin, who has been open about the nerves she has suffered in speed ever since the horrific downhill crash her brother took two years ago in Val Gardena. However, she looks to have regained her nerve in Cortina.
Add to that list Marie Michelle Gagnon, who has been nowhere near the top ranks the last few years, but in just the last week, has shown medal speed. Medal speed and zero expectations is a dangerous combination. Finally, at the risk of repeating myself, Ester Ledecka remains must-watch TV.