This weekend the men and women of the World Cup circuit will kick off their first slalom event of the season in Levi, Finland. Despite minimal snow coverage, the northernmost stop on the World Cup tour has been cleared by FIS. The ladies race Saturday, November 17, and the men on Sunday, November 18.
Since 2006, Levi has been hosting the opening World Cup slalom, putting pressure on the venue to meet adequate snow conditions early in the season. This year, the course will consist of eighty percent stored snow, gathered from snow-farming over years passed, and twenty percent man-made snow. Levi’s mountain management has also injected the Levi Black slope and closed off training to athletes, so the course will hold for the weekend.
In the hunt for the podium on the women’s side will be Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, who took home first in Levi last year, making her the only other woman (besides Mikaela Shiffrin) to win a slalom race in the 2017-18 season. Levi has treated her well in the past, as it is the only venue where she has recorded multiple World Cup podiums.
But will her history at the venue be enough to take on Shiffrin?
Despite last year’s second-place finish behind Vlhova, Shiffrin’s track record and reputation as “Slalom Queen” make her an obvious favorite for the podium and the win. The five-time slalom crystal globe winner could potentially tie Maria Hofl-Riesch’s record of three wins in Levi this weekend if she skis her best.
“To be honest I don’t have really big expectations. I’ve had some really great results here but I’ve also had some disappointing races so I just want to focus on my skiing, and we’ll see what happens,” Shiffrin told Levi World Cup officials after her first day of training for the week.
Last season, Shiffrin won seven of the nine slalom races on the circuit, her only shortcomings being a second place in Levi, and a DNF in Lenzerheide.
The Swiss tech star Wendy Hoeldner is another favorite for the podium, given her third-place finish in Levi last season, and her second overall finish in the race for the slalom crystal globe. Hoeldner never won a slalom race, despite 17 podiums and a silver medal in PyeongChang. This season, she’s hungry for a win and wants Levi to be her first.
In a recent interview with the Swiss news outlet, Bluewin, when asked what makes her so sure that she could pull off a win this year, she responded, “Nothing. Nothing is safe. I just believe I can do it this year” and that she, and many other women, is on the hunt for Shriffin this season.
Her teammate, Melanie Meillard, who was a top-five finisher in Levi last season, will not be competing in this year’s race (or season overall), as she is currently recovering from her second knee surgery of 2018.
Last but not least, we have Frida Hansdotter of Sweden, who has landed on the podium in each of the last seven women’s slalom events of the World Cup. In 2017/18 she took 3rd in the overall and won gold in PyeongChang. At 32, a win for Hansdotter means she will become the oldest woman to win a slalom race at the World Cup level, breaking the record of Marlies Schild of Austria.
Additional Americans who will start in Levi this weekend are Jackson Hole native, Resi Stiegler, and soon to be 21-year-old, Nina O’Brien. This will be O’Brien’s second World Cup start of the season, whereas it will be Stiegler’s first after coming back from an injury incurred in February. In an interview with Ski Racing earlier this season, the World Cup veteran told us that she’s tired talking about her injuries and that she’s “not here to get top 15s, but medals and podiums”. So there is potential to see a strong showing from the Americans at the back of the pack.
Levi will once again play host to the opening race of the men’s World Cup season after bad weather forced the cancellation of last month’s race in Soelden, Austria. All eyes will be on Austria’s Marcel Hirscher and Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen as the two slalom titans are set to kick off another nail-biting race for the slalom globe.
Levi is a peculiar stop on the men’s Tour in many ways. Racing North of the Arctic Circle doesn’t happen often on the alpine side of the sport and presents athletes with a set of unique challenges, both with the short, dark days and the idiosyncratic nature of the Levi slope.
“It’s super dark so it can be tough to get acclimated and get used to the darkness,” says former NCAA standout and Levi native, Joonas Rasanen. “The sun comes out maybe for four hours a day and if you’re napping at that time you’ll miss it. It’s way different than a place like Colorado that’s always sunny and prime conditions.”
The Black slope itself at Levi is also a distinct challenge for the men. Known as one of the easier venues on the men’s tour, racers must go all out from the get-go on the upper flats before shifting gears and transitioning onto the steeper finishing pitch. Look for a few racers to get tripped up on race day at this critical transition from flat to steep.
After starting his year with a disappointing 17th-place finish in Levi last season in his first race back since fracturing his ankle that August, it wasn’t long before Hirscher found his winning form once again. The Austrian superstar managed to win seven of the next eight World Cup slaloms en route to the crystal globe. He finished second in the other. No big deal. He’s the clear-cut favorite for his third Levi win on race day.
Who was the only athlete that managed to beat a healthy Hirscher last season? None other than Norway’s Kristoffersen. The Norwegian took the prestigious Kitzbuehel slalom by almost a full second in front of the Austrian faithful for his second win at the iconic venue. Kristoffersen’s season was nearly as impressive as his arch rival’s, with the 24-year-old talent finishing no worse than third in every World Cup slalom, ultimately finishing second in the discipline standings. Needless to say, Kristoffersen is eager to improve and will only be satisfied with the top step of the podium on Sunday.
The only other athlete to win a World Cup slalom last season was last year’s Levi winner, Germany’s Felix Neureuther. Riding high after the birth of his daughter the month prior, the German powered his way to his 13th World Cup win before cutting his season short with an ACL tear just days later.
Although now with a healthy knee, Neureuther suffered a broken thumb in training on Friday. At 100%, Neureuther is without a doubt in the same league as Hirscher and Kristoffersen in slalom, but coming back from injury and now with a bum hand, it will be a tall order for the German to stay competitive on Sunday.
After Hirscher and Kristoffersen, it’s really anyone’s race. Levi is known for its good snow surface and the nature of the hill lends itself towards athletes willing to take big risks. Austria’s Michael Matt, Manuel Feller, and Marco Schwarz are all safe bets for a podium, but the young and strong Swiss men’s team of Daniel Yule, Luca Aerni, Ramon Zenhaeusern, and Loic Meillard will likely have something to say about that.
With no pure slalom skiers earning nominations to the U.S. Ski Team this season, rumors swirled this summer over whether there would be an American presence at all this year at World Cup slaloms. Short answer? Yes, Americans will still be racing World Cup slalom this season, support staff and all.
“We’re going to have a coach at the World Cups for any athlete that decides to come whether they are a nominated national team athlete or not,” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard Alpine Director, Jesse Hunt.
The Americans are starting a total of five athletes on Sunday with independent racers Mark Engel, Robby Kelley, and Hig Roberts joined by last season’s NorAm overall champion, River Radamus, and World Junior bronze medalist, Luke Winters.
Who are your picks for race day in Levi? Let us know in the comments below!