As the saying goes, the third time’s the charm. That was certainly the case for the opening men’s race of the 2019-20 World Cup season in Soelden, Austria, as racing finally happened down the Rettenbach Glacier after two straight years of cancellations due to high winds and heavy snowfall.
The aura surrounding Sunday’s men’s opener was decidedly different than in years past not because racing conditions were near perfect with sunshine and hard snow aplenty, but for the simple fact that one racer in particular was absent from the start list. Marcel Hirscher, Austria’s most successful male skier of all time and eight-time reigning Overall World Cup champion, announced his retirement in September. At only 30, many considered Hirscher to still be in the prime of his career. Hirscher had won the last five GS titles in a row and was utterly dominant in the discipline over the past several seasons. Needless to say, the biggest question on race day was who would step up to fill those shoes.
Naturally, most of the pre-race spotlight was focused on France’s Alexis Pinturault and Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, the two skiers who had mounted the most serious challenges to Hirscher’s dominance in recent years.
Pinturault was known as one of, if not the only GS skier in the world with a top speed that could beat Hirscher at his best. During the 2017 season, the Frenchman’s form could very well have stolen the GS globe if it weren’t for two straight DNFs to finish the year, ultimately landing him in third place in the final rankings. Consistency throughout an entire season has always been Pinturault’s biggest weakness.
Kristoffersen has not been shy about his desire to knock Hirscher from his perch atop the rankings in recent years and even took World Championship gold and two World Cup wins in GS last season. With his greatest rival finally out of the picture, could the 25-year-old phenom take advantage of this golden opportunity?
Although we still have months to go before the biggest questions of this season’s men’s World Cup are answered, we definitely got a taste of what is in store for us the rest of the winter on Sunday.
On the shoulders of two powerful performances, Pinturault struck the first blow in the race for the GS and Overall globes, winning in Soelden by 0.54 seconds over his French teammate Mathieu Faivre. Kristoffersen, on the other hand, finished in a disappointing 18th place in an overall tight race, 2.02 seconds back for his worst career finish in Soelden. Slovenia’s Zan Kranjec rounded out the podium in third place, 0.63 seconds behind Pinturault.
“Soelden is always really special,” Pinturault said after the race. “We prepare all summer and every time I come here I have a lot of motivation … Everything is working pretty well, I have a good team around me and good sponsors that help me quite a lot and are always working on my side. That’s something that brings us a lot of confidence.”
Pinturault is pursuing a program separate from the rest of the French team this season, no doubt with the ultimate goal of multiple crystal globes within his grasp come World Cup Finals in March. With his win on Sunday, he has definitely started things off on the right foot.
“The winter is very long and many things can change,” Pinturault added. “One race does not give meaning to the others. Today is a great victory but now there is a month to prepare for the next race. Many athletes can correct themselves. I am thinking in particular of Henrik Kristoffersen, who is a great champion.”
American fans had plenty to cheer about on Sunday as well with Tommy Ford, Ted Ligety, and Ryan Cochran-Siegle finishing in fourth, fifth, and 11th place, respectively. The United States landed more athletes in the top 15 than any other nation and Ford not only scored his career best World Cup finish, but was also only 0.07 seconds shy of climbing his first World Cup podium.
Ford’s performance was made all the more impressive given that before Sunday, the Oregon native had never finished inside of the points in Soelden in his career. Never one to get overly-excited after a good result, Ford was decidedly even-keeled when asked about his career-best performance.
“I’m feeling strong,” Ford shared after the race. “First was just solid skiing, a little safe but I definitely trusted it more and let it go. I stuck with what worked in the second run and I’m just keepin’ on. I’m psyched with this personal best and first points in Soelden as well.”
Ligety’s fifth place was the GS legend’s best World Cup finish since finishing in third place in January of 2018 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. With his focus solely on GS this season, Ligety is primed to only improve on his form as the season progresses.
Fellow Americans Brian McLaughlin, River Radamus, and Nicholas Krause unfortunately did not find the points on Sunday with McLaughlin and Radamus not qualifying for the second run and Krause not finishing the first run.
Canada also landed two skiers in the top 30, led by Erik Read in a solid seventh and Trevor Philp in 26th.
“I’m pretty pleased,” Read said of his performance. “The skiing was absolutely there. I had the right approach both runs. I had a few mistakes on the second run, but this is the first time it has really felt like the podium is within reach and that my skiing is on that level.”
The next men’s GS on the schedule is in Beaver Creek, Colorado, on December 8. With such a long break for GS skiers on the World Cup like Ford and Ligety, the down time allows for some much appreciated time at home before a gradual ramp-up to the next race on home snow.
“We have a little bit of a break now so I’m going to go home and relax a bit and then get back in the gym and keep at it and work on some other events,” said Ford. “When the time comes, I’m psyched for Beaver Creek.”
The men’s Tour will head to Levi, Finland, for the opening slalom race of the season on November 24.
Top 10 Results
- Alexis Pinturault (FRA): 2:14.14 Head/Head/Head
- Mathieu Faivre (FRA): +0.54 Head/Head/Head
- Zan Kranjec (SLO): +0.63 Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Tommy Ford (USA): +0.70 Head/Head/Head
- Ted Ligety (USA): +1.09 Head/Head/Head
- Lucas Braathen (NOR): +1.10 Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
- Erik Read (CAN): +1.29 Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
- Luca De Aliprandini (ITA): +1.31 Salomon/Salomon/Salomon
- Gino Caviezel (SUI): +1.36 Dynastar/Lange/Look
- Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen (NOR): +1.40 Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
For complete results, click here.