Racing north of the Arctic Circle in Levi, Finland, presents its own set of challenges with reduced daylight hours and altered schedules, forcing athletes to adapt to conditions they normally aren’t subjected to on the World Cup.
“The race is an hour to two hours later than a normal World Cup,” noted American Robby Kelley. “This race starts at 11:00 a.m. when most of the other races start at 9:00 or 10:00. We get to sleep in a little and most of our training sessions have been at 10:00 or so, so it’s definitely a little more relaxed wakeup because it’s so dark; the sun doesn’t come up until 9:00.”
“Growing up, we used to train at night kind of like Buck Hill-style where we train under the lights,” added Levi native and former NCAA athlete Joonas Rasanen. “For the races here, it’s the same. It’s super dark so it can be tough to get acclimated and get used to the darkness. 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.”
In addition to the challenging weather in Levi, the Black slope itself, although not the most challenging on the World Cup, can definitely trip up racers by lulling them into a false sense of security before throwing a curve ball after breaking onto the final, steep pitch.
“It’s just full gas out of the start house,” Rasanen said. “It’s almost like running all the way to pitch and then you have to turn on your brain when it breaks over so you can nail the first four or five gates. For sure, it’s one of the easier hills, but I think it’s for sure one of the most fair ones on tour; it’s always perfect snow and the course crew does a great job.”
With Marcel Hirscher’s surprise announcement that he would make the start list for the World Cup opener in Levi, it was understandable that most of the talk surrounding Sunday’s race revolved around the Austrian star’s return from injury. Amidst the swirl of speculation about Hirscher’s race-readiness, Germany’s Felix Neureuther, riding high after the birth of his daughter in October, capitalized on the situation and took his 11th career World Cup slalom victory under the lights.
A fast and furious first run set through the Levi fog separated the top-30 skiers by only 1.56 seconds. Great Britain’s Dave Ryding set the pace after the opening run, setting himself up for a possible first World Cup win for the British.
A more complicated second run set required dynamic and tactical skiing over the Levi Black’s abrupt terrain, and Ryding fell victim to the finishing pitch after Neureuther’s masterful second run, handing the victory and traditional reindeer prize to the German.
“It’s amazing, seriously,” an elated Neureuther said in the finish. “I never thought I could win here. I’m 33-years-old, first race as a father, so winning here is unreal, seriously. It means a lot to me.”
“I think you just had to push really, really hard,” he continued. “You had to take your chances and ski smart and it worked out perfectly for me.”
When asked if he had any names picked out yet for his new reindeer, the proud new dad announced he would be naming the prize after his daughter, Matilda.
Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen joined Neureuther on the podium, showing that he has been able to shake off the distractions he dealt with over the summer and is ready to contend for another slalom title.
“I’m really happy,” Kristoffersen said. “Great skiing from Felix. It’s really cool to watch great skiing; it doesn’t matter if it’s me or anybody else so that was really cool to watch. I didn’t feel that great for the second run but managed to finish second so I’m really happy about that.”
Mattias Hargin of Sweden also returned to the slalom podium for the first time since 2015, a welcome start to the 32-year-old’s Olympic campaign.
“It’s great to start the season this way,” he said. “I was a little bit surprised with it but that makes me even happier. My skiing wasn’t so good in the last month so it feels good to get some confidence.”
Hirscher, on the other hand, showed his lack of training in the second run, sliding back 13 places to finish a disappointing 17th overall in his comeback race. Although strong in the first run that required a more straightforward and aggressive approach, the Austrian showed some rust in the second run when things got more challenging. Needless to say, look for a hungry Hirscher to push for the win in Beaver Creek come December.
The Swiss men were also particularly impressive, landing four skiers in the top 10 with Luca Aerni, Daniel Yule, Loic Meillard, and Reto Schmitiger all getting their seasons started on the right foot.
Top American on the day was veteran David Chodoundsky in 23rd with Canada’s Erik Read finishing just ahead of him in 21st.
The men’s tour next heads to North America for the opening speed races of the season in Lake Louise, Canada, on Nov. 25-26 before moving on to Beaver Creek, Colo., for the Birds of Prey series Dec. 1-3.
1. Felix Neureuther (GER) – Nordica/Nordica/Marker
2. Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
3. Mattias Hargin (SWE) – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
4. Luca Aerni (SUI) – Salomon/Salomon/Salomon
4. Daniel Yule (SUI) – Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
6. Loic Meillard (SUI) – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
7. Sebastian Foss-Solevaag (NOR) – Voelkl/Dalbello/Marker
8. Alexis Pinturault (FRA) – Head/Head/Head
9. Manfred Moelgg (ITA) – Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
10. Reto Schmidiger (SUI) – Nordica/Nordica/Marker
|Rank||Bib||FIS Code||Name||Year||Nation||Run 1||Run 2||Total Time||Diff.||FIS Points||WC Points|
|15||21||421669||NESTVOLD-HAUGEN Leif Kristian||1987||NOR||50.99||53.14||1:44.13||+1.30||9.10||16.00|
|Did not finish 2nd run|
|Did not qualify for 2nd run|
|Did not finish 1st run|
|91||54106||BREITFUSS KAMMERLANDER Simon||1992||BOL|
|Disqualified 1st run|