The biggest news for the coming weekend of women’s races in Crans Montana, Switzerland, is that the greatest speed skier of all time will be joining our NBC group to call the races alongside Dan Hicks. It should mark the only time this year I’ll get to sleep in past 1 a.m. But if you think I’m going to miss an opportunity to hear Lindsey Vonn call a race (and to steal mercilessly from her sage insights), well, you overestimate my need to sleep.
Crans Montana has not been a regular stop on the women’s tour. Just 13 downhill races have been held there since 1977, five of them in the last decade. Of those, Vonn won two and knows better than anyone where to suss out its speed.
The cascading drops and compressions are its defining features, and when the speed is not properly controlled, it can be dangerous track. Downhill title winner Ilka Stuhec met her demise here in 2019 and hasn’t been herself since.
Organizers shut down the first training run after just one racer, Lara Gut-Behrami, to reset a few gates. After the restart, Nina Ortlieb, of Austria, crashed lower down the course in the “fox hole,” tearing her right ACL, meniscus and patellar tendon. Her season is over.
That section was also reset before second training, but not before some harsh criticism from Gut-Behrami, the only other two-time winner of the Mont Lachaux track, who called the soft conditions “a disaster.” In response, the live announcers did not speak during her second training run and muted the music for further effect. The Swiss skier, whose career had languished since her 2015 injury, returned to form on this track with her double victory before COVID abruptly ended last season. Her form has continued on that trajectory this year with a super G win and promising GS results, but now, she will not only fight the track but perhaps some ill will from the fans.
As for the favorites, little has changed. Switzerland will look to its darling of downhill, Corinne Suter; Italy will look to the irrepressible aggression of Sofia Goggia. One skis with feel and finesse; the other on the very edge of disaster. So far, both methods have gotten them to the finish around the same time.
This year, American Breezy Johnson has time and again proved that her technical skills have improved dramatically. The first 40 seconds of this track should push those limits as much or more than any other downhill she’s faced this year. If she passes, there’s no telling how far Johnson will ascend this season.
Yet those very characteristics open the door to GS phenoms Marta Bassino and Fede Brignone, who were quite competitive in training. They’ll need an early lead to hold off the pure downhillers on the back half of the course.
Both Italians could add to the intrigue of the overall title race that currently features leader Petra Vlhova, followed by Michele Gisin. Over the course of time, Gisin has been the superior speed skier; Vlhova leads her in tech. With five speed races and just one GS on the calendar before worlds, history suggests this should be, or could be, Gisin’s time to apply pressure — or perhaps the Italians.
That is something Vlhova’s coach, Livio Magoni, is acutely aware of. As the former coach of overall winner and World Cup points record-holder Tina Maze, he understands the psychological benefit of a lead.
“So the plan is to keep racing in everything,” he said of Vlhova, who has not skipped a race this season. He did the same with Maze, and while he says the battle against fatigue is real, and the challenge to prepare for all the disciplines is limiting, he chooses it over relenting. He noted with Maze that while rest helped rejuvenate the body, it sullied the more important muscle — the mind.
“We learned it was better to keep pushing and not let down,” he said, adding, “the number one goal this year is to win the overall. Next year, it will be an Olympic medal.”
No Slovakian has won either. To that end, Vlhova will race most of the events at worlds, except the downhill. They will decide on the super G based on her performance in the alpine combined, which features a super G and slalom on the opening day.
Why? An early medal will ease the pressure, while multiple medals will set the tone for the most psychologically demanding last month of the World Cup season.
“Whoever is successful in Cortina,” he said, “it will give the motivation to finish out the season strong.”