When eight-time Overall World Cup champion Marcel Hirscher announced his retirement from ski racing early last summer, an immediate power vacuum was created on the men’s side of the sport. Hirscher had been so dominant for so long when it came to the race for the coveted big globe that who would take his place atop the World Cup immediately became the biggest storyline for the men heading into this season.
Understandably, much of the early attention was paid to the likes of Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen and France’s Alexis Pinturault. Both had put up serious challenges to Hirscher’s dominance of the technical disciplines in the past and both had stood on the Overall podium at season’s end several times throughout Hirscher’s record-setting career. Largely absent from serious conversation surrounding the Overall title, however, were the likes of athletes primarily found on the speed side of the sport.
Looking purely at the numbers, a speed-focused athlete should have little to no chance at winning an Overall title in 2020. Of the 44 scheduled men’s races this season, 18 of them are downhill or super-G, 21 are slalom or giant slalom, three are combined events, and two are parallels. By comparison, the last skier to race exclusively downhill and super-G en route to an Overall globe was French legend Luc Alphand in 1997 when the number of speed and tech events were split evenly at 17 apiece plus two combined races, both of which Alphand did not compete in.
With a three race difference between speed and tech this season, plus five additional parallel and combined races that traditionally favor tech-savvy skiers, the math looks near insurmountable for a speed skier to hoist ski racing’s most coveted trophy at World Cup Finals this spring.
Is a tech skier winning this season’s men’s Overall a forgone conclusion or should we be taking a more serious look at the likes of Italy’s Dominik Paris, Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, or Austria’s Matthias Mayer making a real play for the title? In my opinion, yes, yes we should.
The Hirscher Hangover
What makes Hirscher’s run so incredible is the the fact that he won all eight of his Overall globes racing almost exclusively slalom and GS. We rarely ever saw the Austrian at the start of a super-G, downhill, or combined event simply because he did not need to race additional disciplines to win the Overall given his dominance of the tech events throughout his career.
The first mistake people make when thinking a technical skier like Pinturault or Kristoffersen will be the obvious winner of this season’s Overall title is assuming that one of them will be just as dominant as Hirscher was in both slalom and GS.
There is no doubt that Hirscher will be remembered as one of, if not the best men’s technical skier of all time. His mastery of slalom and GS had not been seen since the days of the great Ingemar Stenmark and Alberto Tomba. It goes without saying that those are mighty big shoes to fill. Near un-fillable if I’m being totally honest.
Yes, Kristoffersen has finished second to Hirscher in slalom and GS almost more times than you could count over the past few years, but new stars like France’s Clement Noel have been lighting up slalom and much of the GS top 15 has the speed to podium, if not win this season. Not to mention Pinturault, who has also won in both tech events so far this winter. I have to believe that competition this season in tech will simply be too stiff for one racer to dominate the field the way Hirscher was able to over the last eight years.
All of that stiff competition on the tech side could open the door for someone new.
Can a Speed Skier get it Done?
Short answer? Yes, but it’s a long shot.
So far this season, things have been shaping up a bit different than many experts’ early-season predictions. Pinturault has been oddly inconsistent in GS and slalom and Kristoffersen has yet to venture outside of his bread and butter tech events. With the first 14 races of the season already behind us, it is speed skiers that sit atop the Overall standings.
Kilde currently leads the Overall standings with 474 points, 20 points ahead of Paris and 73 points ahead of early-season favorite Pinturault. It is also worth adding that Kilde has yet to win a race this season but has started in downhill, super-G, GS, parallel, and combined and has only missed the points once, recording a DNF in the Beaver Creek GS earlier this month.
“Of course, leading the overall is unbelievable,” Kilde said after the alpine combined in Bormio. “Taking the big globe has always been a dream since I was young. That’s my biggest goal. There are a lot of races left and we have really good guys at the start every race so for sure it’s not going to be a walk in the park like Marcel Hirscher would say, but for the races coming up I’m just going to take it race by race and have a good time enjoying good skiing and nice weather, hopefully.”
With 16 tech races, 11 speed, two combined, and one parallel race left this season, an ultra-consistent speed skier like Kilde who has the talent to podium in downhill, super-G, and combined as well as the ability to compete in GS and parallel could very well surprise us all come World Cup Finals in March, especially if the likes of Pinturault and Kristoffersen cannot get on a roll in tech.
I’ll be the first to admit that the season is still very young and anything can happen, but the opportunity is definitely there for a serious upset to take shape over the next couple of months.
The Case Against a Speed Skier
Like I mentioned before, although the opportunity is there for a speed skier, the window is small and a lot of things will have to go their way if they are to emerge victorious. It’s no secret that ski racing is an outdoor sport and weather plays a significant role in how some races shake out, none more so than downhill and super-G.
Rain, snow, fog, and wind all have an increased impact on racing when you are talking about the speed events. Windy or foggy conditions that a slalom or GS could easily be held in could spell disaster for a downhill where racer safety is at risk when gusting winds or low visibility are combined with high speeds and big jumps. It’s a given that a certain number of events will get cancelled every year due to weather, but speed events are simply at greater risk than their technical counterparts.
Add that to the simple fact that it is becoming harder and harder to find venues willing or able to host World Cup speed events, when a race inevitably does get cancelled, there’s no guarantee that a replacement can be scheduled for later on in the season like a slalom or GS likely can.
“It really comes down to the length of the course,” says Tom Boyd, Chief of Media for the Birds of Prey World Cup races. “Prepping a GS course takes a ton of effort and manpower, then take a GS course and expand that out to a super-G or downhill course. Putting on a World Cup downhill is just many times more effort.”
The tech-heavy schedule combined with the greater risk of speed races being affected by weather make the odds long, but in a sport as unpredictable as ski racing, only a fool wouldn’t take a challenge from the speed side seriously.
“Anything is possible, but it’s tough,” explains Norwegian legend and two-time Overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal. “The actual schedule is one thing, but the risk of one or two speed races being cancelled makes a big difference. There is no time to catch up speed races at the end of the season. Slalom never really gets cancelled. But it’s possible.”
Favorites and expectations aside, there is little doubt that this season has been one of the most exciting seasons of men’s World Cup in recent memory, across all disciplines. So many racers from so many nations have the talent to win. Will it be a technical ace or a speed star hoisting the big one in March? Don’t be surprised if things turn out a lot more competitive than many people thought just a few months ago.