The 32-gate downhill on the Marc Girardelli slope in Bansko, Bulgaria, last visited by the women’s World Cup in 2012 (when the race was never contested following two training runs), is among the most difficult hills to figure out on the speed tour. Friday’s race, a replacement for the cancelled event from earlier this winter in Val d’Isere, was a tall task for even the very best in the world.
With only one training run on an unfamiliar slope the day before, the women faced down high-speed, swooping turns and bumpy side hills that rattled the strongest to their core. One of every three starters in the top 30 did not make it across the finish line, as 16 of the 50 total racers recorded a DNF on the day.
Of all the skiers on course, Mikaela Shiffrin appeared deceptively at ease in her technically-sound, solid position, running the smoothest skis of everyone. Instead of fighting against the upper turns on the track to gain speed like some early starters attempted with mixed results, she flowed through the turns of Todorka and Yellow Bar, absorbing every bit of terrain under her feet. In the final swings of Tomba and into the last gliding redirections of Vihren Road, she pulled away from the competition, much like she is accustomed to doing in the concluding sections of technical races.
“I felt so much more confident with my skiing today. After the training yesterday, that was my first run on my downhill skis since Lake Louise, so I was really just trying to ski down the hill and just be clean if I could. Today, I felt better with my line, better with my attitude on my skis, and also better with my technique. So all of those things ended up piecing the track together really well. For sure it’s a technical track. It’s really challenging, and I wasn’t sure – like confident – I was maybe a little bit scared even,” Shiffrin admitted. “So it was pretty exciting to come to the finish and see that it was fast.”
Participating in Bansko was a strategic decision for Shiffrin who suspected that the technical course could play to her strengths as she chased the second downhill victory of her career. The run proved to be the fastest of the day at 1:29.79, but it was not without challenge from others who had similar ideas heading into the day. Federica Brignone pushed out of the start with full fight, holding the lead on top, but she drifted a hair more than Shiffrin through the turns on Tomba and ultimately finished 0.18 seconds behind for second place.
“Five years ago I was just starting to do speed races, and actually [Bansko] was my first good result in super-G, in top 15. … I’s a great slope, a really challenging one. It’s well prepared, and it’s a track where it’s really technical. For me it’s perfect because I’m a tech skier and I’m always good on the turny and technical parts and not in the flats or speed parts,” acknowledged Brignone. “I knew that I had to make a good run to be on the podium because I knew after one training a lot of girls were going faster and trying harder today. So it’s really great to be on the podium.”
Joana Haehlen, who celebrated her 28th birthday on Thursday with the fastest training run time, put on a spectacular show to claim her career-first World Cup podium in third. The Swiss speed specialist is in the midst of her second straight season (and her best ever) while competing on an unrepaired torn ACL in her left knee. If not for the brace below her speed suit, one would have no idea she was skiing without a cruciate ligament.
“For me it’s a dream come true, my first podium. After yesterday, I knew I could be fast here on this track and it’s a perfect late birthday gift,” remarked Haehlen. “I was not sure if I would stay on the podium because the other girls were still so fast. So I was more nervous than at the start, but I’m so happy it worked out.”
The surprise of the day was novice downhiller Petra Vlhova with bib 32. In only her second start on the World Cup in the discipline, she threatened Shiffrin’s time all the way through the final intermediate. Leading the race in the last turns, a scratchy left-footer along Vihren Road cost her the podium with the finish line in sight. Still, she was beyond satisfied to cross the line in sixth.
Breezy Johnson looked strong on her way to a 10th-place result as her comeback continues, wagging her index finger in the air and saying, “I’ll take that one,” in the finish area. Unfortunately, her U.S. teammates Alice McKennis, Jackie Wiles, and Alice Merryweather were unable to complete the course, and rookie Isabella Wright just missed out on the points in 31st.
“This course in Bansko is really tough,” said Johnson. “It’s really steep. It’s unforgiving. There’re virtually no flats on it. It can be really easy for a speed skier who’s never raced a World Cup GS to count yourself out, but I’m just trying to ground myself in the fact that I’ve skied well on bumpy courses in the past. … Ok, that’s something I can do. Just do the things that I’m good at. Stay on the outside ski. Stay forward. It’s a return to fundamentals for everybody on this slope.”
The results caused a shake up in the downhill standings. Prior to the race, Corinne Suter, Ester Ledecka, Nicole Schmidhofer, and Sofia Goggia held the top four positions, respectively, with Shiffrin back in seventh. Suter, Ledecka, and Goggia all skied out on Friday with Schmidhofer missing the start due to a case of the flu. Shiffrin’s win catapulted her into second place in the downhill standings with 206 points behind Suter’s 243.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I think it’s a new day, a totally different day. I know that the track is going to be in amazing condition again. But it was a really big fight today, and I think it’s also – with some of the girls who are coming a bit later with the bib numbers when the sun starts to come out – they’re skiing really strong and they have a really good chance to be in a top spot or on the podium. You could see that today, it was getting really, really close,” said Shiffrin.
To help ensure fair and optimal conditions for all athletes, the jury together with the organizing committee decided to move the start time of Saturday’s downhill race to 10:15 a.m. CET.
Top 10, Bansko women’s downhill, Jan. 24
- Mikaela Shiffrin (USA): 1:29.79
- Federica Brignone (ITA): +0.18
- Joana Haehlen (SUI): +0.23
- Elena Curtoni (ITA): +0.32
- Marta Bassino (ITA): +0.36
- Petra Vlhova (SVK): +1.03
- Romane Miradoli (FRA): +1.41
- Kira Weidle (GER): +1.61
- Ramona Siebenhofer (AUT): +1.70
- Breezy Johnson (USA): +1.77
For complete results, click here.