If Kitzbuehel is the Super Bowl of ski racing, then Schladming is the afterparty. Over 40,000 raucous fans of questionable sobriety descended on the finish slope of the Planai, site of the 2013 World Championships, for the 23rd edition of the Night Race on Tuesday. The crowd would miss seeing Marcel Hirscher ski his way onto the podium for the first time since 2015, but the revitalized intensity of the 2019-20 men’s slalom circuit was guaranteed to deliver an epic show nevertheless. A few unexpected side acts could only add to the entertainment.
Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway stood atop the season standings heading into Schladming, but recent winners Daniel Yule of Switzerland and Clement Noel of France completed the trio of pre-race favorites. Qualification times to even make the second run had grown increasingly tight on the men’s tour with a two-second margin to the winner no longer cutting it, though late starters with high bib numbers were still punching into the second run thanks to solid surfaces and quality skiing. The eighth slalom of the season and sixth in the relentless month of January would carve a more unique path.
As temperatures hovered right around freezing and the floodlights glowed through fog and nuking snow to start the first run, first racer Marco Schwarz of Austria skied smooth and snappy on the buffed but swinging course to set the fastest pace in the opening leg. Kristoffersen gave the expected chase but skied the final turns on the hill a fraction rounder than Schwarz and came up 0.14 seconds short by the finish line. Alexis Pinturault rocked onto the tails of his skis in the middle of his assault on the Planai, good enough to hang in for third position.
Noel had either celebrated on the podium (five times) or crashed out (twice) in the previous seven races this season. As early as the third gate, he seemed destined for the DNF list when he leaned inside and slid low below the track. He nearly crashed while trying to recover and had to traverse the hill to make the fifth gate. As the time deficit exceeded two seconds, his effort to salvage the run seemed hopeless. But he miraculously turned out the 30th fastest time at 2.60 seconds back to qualify despite the series of mistakes that would have wiped out nearly any other skier.
There would be few attacks from the higher bibs on the first run as the fog rolled in and out and course conditions deteriorated, rutting up and catching many with later start numbers a bit off guard. Timon Haugan of Norway, from bib 40, was the last athlete to sneak ahead of Noel and qualify in 28th place.
Noel opened the second run like his house was on fire. Under the clear, night sky, he knifed his way down on a revenge mission and nearly landed on the podium. Challenger after challenger failed to match or better his time. The sixth fastest finisher from the first run, Alex Vinatzer of Italy, started with a 1.35-second advantage over Noel and seemed to finally unseat the Frenchman. But just before he crossed the finish line, a woman from the crowd – scantily clad in a bathing suit and carrying an illegible sign – sauntered across the timing beam to provide a false finish. Back-up timing confirmed that Vinatzer had also fallen behind Noel.
Yule was the first of the final four to conserve enough of his 1.86-second advantage as he swung from combination to combination with only a few open gates in between through the Weirather-S and down the 54 percent grade to the glory of the green light. He was rewarded with his fifth podium of the season.
Pinturault threw down like a man intent on winning instead of finishing as runner-up like he had the year before. When Kristoffersen slipped up on the opening hairpin of his run, it looked the door had been opened quite wide. But the Norwegian slammed it shut by turning himself absolutely inside out on the rest of his run to go from hopeless to a 0.34-second lead.
The crowd would have loved to see a new Austrian champion take the top step of the podium, but Schwartz faltered just above the spot that nearly swallowed Kristoffersen, and he missed a gate on his way down the hill much to the dismay of fans. Kristoffersen logged his second slalom victory of the season and fourth win at Schladming to tie Austrian great Benni Raich for the most titles at the venue.
Post-race, he offered some insight into why he has been so successful on the Planai, site of his career-first World Cup win in 2014 at the age of 19.
“This is my home. I lived six months in Ramsau, 10 minutes from here. I live in Salzburg, and I’ve lived in Austria for four years now. It’s where I won my first World Cup race, so this is really like my home race,” said Kristoffersen. “Sorry for Marco. I would like to have a fight all the way to the finish.” Reflecting on his near crash and how he could recover to win, he added, “I don’t know. I honestly thought I was out there. And I think if you look at the video, it’s not that much to do before it’s out. You just have to keep on fighting. That’s how it is. That’s how Marcel [Hirscher] always did it, and that’s how we have to do it.”
Yule ultimately finished third in Schladming for the third time in a row, demonstrating his consistency and joining Pinturault who repeated in second place for the second year running.
Erik Read of Canada was the only North American to qualify for the second run. He continued his quest to put two consistent runs together and sat in a promising 22nd place after the first run. But a costly error high-sided him just a few gates from the finish line, unfortunately ending his night without any points. He assured the crowd he was uninjured, saying, “I’m OK” as he skied through the finish arena.
The men’s tour next visits Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, for an unusual mix of downhill and giant slalom races scheduled February 1-2.
Top-10, Men’s Slalom, Schladming, Austria
- 1. Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR): 1:42.37
- 2. Alexis Pinturault (FRA): +0.34
- 3. Daniel Yule (SUI): +0.83
- 4. Clement Noel (FRA): +0.99
- 5. Simon Maurberger (ITA): +1.07
- 6. Alex Vinatzer (ITA): +1.12
- 7. Kristoffer Jakobsen (SWE): +1.20
- 8. Dave Ryding (GBR): +1.23
- 9. Sebastian Foss-Solevaag (NOR): +1.36
- 9. Ramon Zenhaeusern (SUI): +1.36