Well, that certainly lived up to expectations.
With the unfortunate cancellation of last month’s season opener in Soelden, Austria, for the second straight year, Levi, Finland, played host to the first men’s race of the 2018-19 World Cup season. High winds that forced the delay and shortening of the women’s race on Saturday were nowhere to be found as the men took to the rock-hard Levi Black slope under clear, twilight skies on Sunday.
Austrian mega-star, Marcel Hirscher, didn’t skip a beat and wasted no time opening his 2019 campaign with a win, the 59th of his career and 28th in slalom, barely edging out Norwegian arch-rival, Henrik Kristoffersen, by only 0.09 seconds. Hirscher and Kristoffersen were in a league of their own on Sunday as third-place finisher, PyeongChang 2018 slalom gold medalist Andre Myhrer of Sweden, could only come as close as 1.41 seconds to Hirscher’s winning pace.
Comparing the Hirscher of today to the Hirscher of one year ago, who could only muster a meager 17th-place finish in his first race since fracturing his ankle that August, is night and day. Now married and a father to a young son, the 29-year-old Austrian is ready to fight for his eighth Overall title with renewed vigor.
“Last year, injured, a cast,” Hirscher reflected on his summer after the race. “And this year, carrying our little son through the living room.”
The icy conditions on Sunday were made no easier by two very technical sets in both runs that tripped up their fair share of top-seeded racers. Hirscher himself had a couple of moments where he looked to be on the edge of disaster but was able to recompose and continue to charge to the finish after each brief on-course hiccup.
“I think the feeling I get during the race, ‘race mode,’ I call it, is really amazing to be able to do something on such a high level,” Hirscher added. “The only thing I can do at such a high level is ski racing so for sure it is good to be able to race some more races because with this new situation [of being a father], every race is like a picture.”
When asked if we can expect another record-breaking season like years past, Hirscher downplayed expectations and noted that his new role as a family man has now taken over the driver’s seat in his life.
“The priorities definitely changed so ski racing is not the most important thing in my life,” he said. “I think it can’t be a season like all the other years.”
Hirscher also added a third Levi winner’s reindeer to his stable with “Mr. Snow” joining his two hoofed pals “Ferdinand” from 2013 and “Leo” from 2016.
Kristoffersen, who managed to land on every single World Cup slalom podium last season, looked as if he might unseat Hirscher after a blistering second run that saw the Austrian’s lead slowly dwindle as he approached the finish. Although Hirscher was able to find the decisive hundredths in the final few gates, Kristoffersen expressed his pleasure with opening his season on another podium.
“I’m happy to start where we are,” he explained. “I’d be more nervous and disappointed if I was a second behind because I think we’re both skiing pretty good. When you see that kind of gap to Andre, who is a good skier, you know you’re there. I didn’t [think it would be enough for the win]. It sounds stupid, but you know when there’s somebody left on the top who’s won 59 World Cups now, you should wait for him to finish.”
Always one to nitpick and analyze his performance, the 24-year-old Norwegian pointed out several places where those pesky hundredths of a second could have slipped away.
“I didn’t hit the first small roller 100 percent properly, so that was a little bit disappointing,” he said after the race. “The steep was good, it was quite a bit rougher than in the first run but there was more grip for sure. I got a little bit late on the entrance to the pitch on the first few gates, but I knew you just have to let it go and keep going so the pitch was okay but not perfect.”
For Myhrer, who is now the oldest podium finisher on the slalom circuit at 35-years-old, it was a big confidence boost to start the year after his Olympic gold medal with a podium.
“It felt good,” Myhrer shared. “I think I’ve been in shape all preseason and it felt nice to come here and finally start racing. It’s a tough hill, you need to ski really fast and try to change when you come into the steep part on the bottom and try to increase your speed again. It felt good other than a mistake in the first run but a good second run and still a second or more behind the top two guys. I’m happy and felt like I was a little lucky today as well with the French guys going out and a few others tight behind.”
Speaking of the misfortunes of the French, star Alexis Pinturault went out early in the first run while 21-year-old phenom Clement Noel and Victor Muffat-Jeandet sat in third and fourth after the first run, respectively, before both falling victim to the second run set just gates from the finish. Noel had an 0.80-second advantage at the final split over Myhrer and was well on his way to the first podium of his young career before his DNF.
It was a tough day for the American contingent as Robby Kelley was the lone finisher in the first run, not qualifying for the second after a costly mistake on the finishing pitch, while Mark Engel, Hig Roberts, Luke Winters, and River Radamus all did not finish their first runs.
The men’s tour now heads to Lake Louise, Canada, for the first downhill and super-G races of the season on Nov. 21-25.
- Marcel Hirscher (AUT) – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
- Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Andre Myhrer (SWE) – Head/Head/Head
- Ramon Zenhaeusern (SUI) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Jean-Baptiste Grange (FRA) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Daniel Yule (SUI) – Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
- Michael Matt (AUT) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Christian Hirschbuehl (AUT) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Manuel Feller (AUT) – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
- Marco Schwarz (AUT) – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
For complete FIS results, please click here.