With temperatures dropping across the Northern Hemisphere and fall colors in full swing, ski racing is once again starting to creep into the minds of fans the world over. With the now-traditional opening races of the 2018-19 World Cup season set to take place this weekend on the Rettenbach Glacier in Soelden, Austria, national lineups are being finalized and veterans and newcomers alike are eager to test their mettle and see if their off-season training will be rewarded with strong results on race day.
The women will tear down the glacier on Saturday, October 27, with the men racing on Sunday. Both races are scheduled to kick off at 10am CET with second runs set to begin at 1pm CET.
Can anyone challenge Marcel Hirscher as the new king of GS? Will Ted Ligety return to winning form with a full, healthy prep-period under his belt? Who will supply the surprise attack-from-the-back performance? All of those questions and more will be answered as the 2018-19 men’s World Cup season begins on Sunday.
With winds in excess of 100 km/h forcing the cancellation of last season’s men’s race, the men have not raced down the famous steeps of the Rettenbach since 2016 when Frenchman Alexis Pinturault took the win in commanding fashion over Austrian living legend Marcel Hirscher. The 2016 edition of the race set the tone for a titanic battle for the GS globe between the two superstars that lasted until the waning weeks of that season. Hirscher eventually came out on top and has not relinquished the GS throne since, taking last season’s GS title as well and dominating the rest of the men’s field along the way.
Hirscher has won the last four World Cup GS titles in a row and 11 out of his last 12 GS starts, World Championships and Olympics included. The Austrian superstar began last season on the sidelines with a fractured ankle but quickly regained his form by December en route to his most successful season yet. With a healthy prep-period under his belt and the confidence of marrying his longtime girlfriend over the summer and becoming a father earlier this month, only a fool would count out Hirscher as the odds-on favorite for yet another GS win on Sunday. Oh, and he’s only 29 so don’t count on him going anywhere anytime soon.
Ask the rest of the men’s field, however, and you’re likely to hear a different story. In particular, Norwegian wunderkind Henrik Kristoffersen has been vocal about his desire to regularly challenge Hirscher in the races for slalom, GS, and Overall globes in the coming years.
Kristoffersen has been one of the only racers to regularly beat Hirscher in slalom, even capturing the 2016 World Cup slalom title ahead of the Austrian. The Norwegian dedicated much of his training last season to stepping up his game in GS and it showed to the tune of 15 podiums across three disciplines, yet still finishing second to Hirscher in the slalom, GS, and Overall standings.
“I want to improve everything,” Kristoffersen told sponsor Red Bull earlier this year. “Last year I was really close to Marcel at most of the races, with lots of second places and podiums. It was the best season I have ever had. At the moment, Marcel is the guy to beat. It is hard to really pinpoint something particular I need to change. I hope this year I can give Marcel another good run for his money.”
With Kristoffersen’s eagerness to take the next step in his career, Pinturault looking to find the speed to keep up, and the rest of the Word Cup’s top seed inching ever closer, Hirscher is likely to have a tough challenge on his hands from the best GS skiers in the world come Sunday.
“My plan this season? I have at heart to return to my best level in giant slalom.” Pinturault told France’s Le Dauphine. “That was already clear at the end of last season. We were able to work well before training in Ushuaia (Argentina) so it’s going in the right direction. Is that enough? We will see on the first races.”
Soelden is a little bit of an anomaly on the men’s calendar given how early it takes place in the year and how much time elapses before the men race GS again in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in early December. In the grand scheme of things, Soelden doesn’t really factor into the season for a lot of racers unless you are keen on climbing the GS rankings and challenging for a crystal globe at World Cup finals in March. What Soelden does offer, however, is a fantastic opportunity to set the tone for the year and carry valuable confidence into the rest of the season. Enter Mr. GS himself, America’s Ted Ligety.
After nearly three years of either skiing through or recovering from injuries, Ligety finally has a healthy prep-period under his belt and is chomping at the bit for the opportunity to show Hirscher and the rest of the world the form that had everyone’s heads spinning just a few short years ago.
“Last year was somewhat frustrating,” he told Ski Racing Media in an exclusive interview. “It was still a comeback season, I had back surgery the year before, and it’s hard to get the full miles in while doing the rehab and still not 100 percent during the prep period, but I felt like I was prepped for having a better season than I had, for sure. It was definitely not a season that I was in any way, shape, or form satisfied with but that’s a good motivator for this year and hopefully, I can try and make that next step back. At times I showed speed but I wasn’t really able to do it on a consistent basis.”
Looking for a dark-horse pick? Switzerland might have your answer with the likes of youngsters Loic Meillard and Marco Odermatt showing some crazy-fast skiing last season. For Meillard, calming his nerves and finding the consistency to put two runs together while minimizing costly mistakes will be the key while Odermatt will have to deal with the added pressure of a nation after a season that saw him take home five World Junior Championship gold medals — every event he entered at the 2018 WJCs.
“This is incredible to me,” Odermatt said after his fifth gold in Davos. “We have celebrated every medal so far and they just kept coming. I am extremely happy with my results here at Junior Worlds. It is still a big step to World Cup level, so there is lots of work ahead of me.”
German star Felix Neureuther, who finished third in the 2016 edition of Soelden and won last season’s opening men’s World Cup in Levi, Finland, before sitting out the rest of the season with a torn ACL, has announced that he will decide whether or not he will race as close as possible to race day as he continues his return from injury.
Who are your podium picks for this weekend’s races in Soelden? Let us know in the comments below.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for a full women’s race preview in the coming days. Also, many national teams have not yet announced official starters for Sunday at the time of publication, we apologize if your favorite racer was not mentioned!