Sunday under the lights in Zagreb, Croatia, Clement Noel crowned himself the new Snow King in the absence of slalom legend Marcel Hirscher. Perfect snow conditions and an open, easy set, seemed to be the ideal recipe for the taller men competing on the slalom circuit. Lead by Noel, Switzerland’s Ramon Zenhaeusern and Italy’s Alex Vinatzer followed, making the average height of Sunday’s podium 6′ 3.5″ inches.
Coming into 2020, the race for the slalom crystal globe is still up for grabs. The month of January has a lot in store for the men competing on the circuit. The new year kicks off in Zagreb, followed by another night race in Madonna di Campiglio on the way to Adelboden, Switzerland the second weekend of January. From Adelboden, the men head to Wengen, then to Kitzbuehel before closing out the month in Schladming on January 28th. The athletes then have a weekend off before regrouping in Chamonix in February.
Although Zagreb is considered to be one of the easier stops on this stretch of slalom races, for a young guy like Noel, starting off the series with a win is a strong indicator that he has what it takes to make a play for the podium at each upcoming venue. In the absence of Hirscher, the top step of the podium in the slalom is now up for grabs. So far in the 2019/20 season, there have been three different slalom winners in three separate races for the first time since 2015. And Noel has already proved that he has what it takes to compete at the classics. In 2019, he won both the Wengen and Kitzbuehel slalom. He also took second in Adelboden.
“It’s always a long one but its really cool because if you’re in shape at the beginning of January, you can surf from that and be consistent but it’s not so easy,” said Noel. “In Zagreb, Marchel Hirscrher used to win this race every year and now he’s not here, so we can try to win. I’m really happy and proud of my win today.”
Noel is not the only athlete that has noticed Hirscher’s absence. Podium regulars such as Henrik Kristoffersen and Alexis Pinturault have enjoyed his absence on the top step of the podium a few times already this season. Both Kristoffersen and Pinturault are currently on the path to winning the slalom crystal globe but have not been able to ski consistently enough to dominate the field as Hirscher did before them. In Zagreb, Pinturault was almost disqualified after a controversial turn in the first run. Despite the drama, he ended the day in ninth. Kristoffersen had a more upsetting result, closing out the day tied for 19th with Slovenia’s Zan Kranjec.
Poor performances from the Norwegian and the Frenchman were contested by the likes of Zenhaeusern, who barely fell behind Noel by 0.07 seconds. If Zenhaeusern had been able to hang on, he would have been the first Swissman to have ever won in Zagreb. For the Swiss, this is a big deal. The men’s team is known for their prowess in speed events, but slalom has never been their strong suit. In fact, Zenhaeusern believes the Swiss only have 12 or 13 slalom podiums to their name. With so many men competing on the circuit that are capable of punching into the top three, a podium for Zenhaeusern means the world to him and his team. He says he has been skiing fast in training, it’s just taken a bit longer for him to show his speed in a race.
“For me, the slalom level is really high for the moment,” he said after Sunday’s race. “There are so many men who can ski on the podium and you have to push full on. I managed to ski full on from the first gate to the finish, so today I ended up on the podium. The Swiss team was never so strong in slalom. We are a really young group and team, and everybody pushing each other and we have a great staff and that’s the reason why we are good for the moment.”
Italy’s Vinatzer rounded out the podium in third, 0.29 seconds behind Noel. Vinatzer is just 20 years of age and has never been on the World Cup podium in his career, yet another signal that in the slalom, it’s anybody’s game. After awards, Vinatzer concluded that when it comes to this season’s crystal globe winner, Kristoffersen or Pinturault are most likely to come out on top, but based on Zagreb’s final top ten, there seems to be an oncoming changing of the guard.
Belgium’s Arman Marchant (22) skied the fastest second run of the day, jumping from 20th position into fifth after his second run. Norway’s Lucas Braathen (19) broke into sixth after starting the race in bib 48. Germany’s Linus Strasser (27) made a play for the podium after returning from a hand injury, skiing into third after the first run, and finishing the day in seventh.
In the slalom, no man is guaranteed a top position in the discipline. As Zenhauesuern said, there are so many men capable of breaking onto the podium at any given moment. In training, they have the speed, but success about showing that speed in a race.
Take the American Luke Winters for example. In Val d’Isere, he was second after the first run. On Sunday in Zagreb, Winter’s conservativeness set him back to 27th in the first run. In his second run, the 22-year-old showed more willingness to lay it out there, but a mistake in the bottom section course that prevented him from breaking into the top ten (as he had been on pace to do so for a majority of his run). But a finish for Winter’s is a win for the U.S. Ski Team as the men look to rebuild their slalom program and open up more nation spots for Winters teammates to join him on the road.
“This was kind of our goal for the season,” said Winters. “My goal for the season was to just be in the mix, be in the top 30 as much as I can and I’m happy with where I’m at right now. I mean, you can’t always be top five. And for my team now it’s awesome. There are a couple of other guys coming over for the January races in Kitzbuehel and Schladming. I think we’ll have two, three, four guys in those races which is going to be fun.”
Looking ahead, the slalom men reconvene in Madonna di Campiglio on Wednesday, January 8th.
- Clement Noel (FRA): 1:57.14
- Ramon Zenhaeusern (SUI): +0.07
- Alex Vinatzer (ITA): +0.29
- Andre Myhrer (SWE): +0.39
- Armand Marchant (BEL): +0.49
- Lucas Braathen (NOR): +0.63
- Linus Strasser (GER): +0.71
- Manfred Moelgg (ITA): +0.77
- Alexis Pinturault (FRA): +0.97
- Simon Maurberger (ITA): +0.99
For full results, click here.