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Mikaela Shiffrin rules World Cup downhill in Bulgaria for her first win in 2020

Mikaela Shiffrin had gone nearly a whole month — insert overly-dramatic sound effects here — without winning on the World Cup tour, so, naturally, she burst back into the win column on Friday with a downhill victory by winning the Val d’Isere, France, downhill in Bansko, Bulgaria.

Shiffrin finished in 1 minute, 29.79 seconds, 0.18 seconds ahead of Itay’s Federica Brignone and Switzerland’s Joana Haehlen (0.23 seconds) in a downhill rescheduled from Val d’Isere last month.

Ironically, Shiffrin withdrew from the original Val d’Isere downhill because that came on the heels of a 17th-place finish in giant slalom in Courchevel, France, to hit the pause button on her season. Said downhill ended up getting snowed out twice in France.

While fans are used to Shiffrin winning World Cups — this is her 65th career win and fifth in 2019-20 — it’s only the second time she’s won in downhill (Lake Louise, Alberta, on Dec. 1, 2017).

“I was really excited about this track and the challenges in it,” Shiffrin told The Associated Press. “It’s not easy. It’s a little bit scary. At the start, I was like, ‘OK, you got to get tough now.’ It’s for sure a nice track for me.”

Big points

What originally seemed like a trip to Bulgaria to pad her overall lead in her quest for a fourth consecutive World Cup championships by participating in speed events this weekend became a bit more serious when Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova also entered training on Thursday.

Shiffrin led Vlhova in the overall, 925-726, going into Friday’s race. Vlhova, who had only competed in one World Cup downhill in her career (17th, Are, Sweden, in 2018), finished sixth on Friday, an excellent result for the Slovakian better known for her tech skills.

Nonetheless, Shiffrin gained 60 points on Vlhova and 20 on Brignone, who surged past the Slovakian into second. For the statistically inclined, Shiffrin now leads the table with 1,075 points, followed by Brignone (795) and Vlhova (766).

One sleeps better, we assume, on what is nearly a three-race lead.

While the overall championship is doubtless the goal, Shiffrin also pulled into second place in the downhill standings with 206 points behind Switzerland’s Corinne Sutter (243). It sounds a little silly — Shiffrin competing for a downhill globe — but the ladies are racing in another downhill in Bansko on Saturday.

Post-race breakdown

Via FIS SoundCloud, Shiffrin busted up the post-race news conference, when the Bulgarian host asked her about Saturday’s downhill.

“I thought tomorrow was slalom,” Shiffrin deadpanned. “Just kidding.”

On a serious note, it’s been quite an adjustment for Shiffrin from technical skiing back to downhill. Consider that she last raced the discipline on Dec. 6-7.

“The last time I was on my downhill skis was in Lake Louise, so it felt like a really long time ago. I felt a little bit strange on my skis yesterday (during training),” she said. “It’s hard to make the turns so long. I’m normally doing slalom and GS turns … It’s a little bit strange only to have now just two runs of downhill since early December. I wasn’t expecting this today and I’m not expecting it tomorrow.”

That said, Bansko seems like a fit for Shiffrin. As she has slowly expanded into speed events, she’s been meticulous in selecting the sites for her forays. Lake Louise is a mellow track and also conveniently scheduled early in the season.

St. Moritz and Crans-Montana in Switzerland have slowly been added through the years as has Cortina, Italy. By the way, this spring’s World Cup finals and next year’s FIS Alpine World Ski Championships are in Cortina. (Doubtless, Cortina making Shiffrin’s cut in not a coincidence.)

Bansko, though not an annual stop on the tour, also may get added to that list. The Bulgarian resort has hosted the women’s World Cup in 2009, 2012 and 2015 — Lindsey Vonn won super-Gs there the first two years — and has a reputation as a technical track.

Technical is ski-speak for a speed course with more turns — which just happens to be a Shiffrin specialty — and was targetted by Shiffrin’s coaching staff.

“This hill is pretty challenging and it’s prepared amazing,” Shiffrin said. “It’s for sure the most technical hill on the speed circuit. I was looking forward to coming here because that maybe suits me a bit better than some of the other typical speed tracks.”

Shiffrin will compete in Saturday’s, ahem, downhill, followed by Sunday’s super-G.

Shiffrin fourth in World Cup downhill training

It appears to be “game on” for the women’s World Cup in Bansko, Bulgaria.

Mikaela Shiffrin finished in fourth during Thursday’s training run behind Switzerland’s Joana Haehlen, Italy’s Federica Brignone and Austria’s Tamara Tippler.

Thursday was the only dress rehearsal the ladies have. In addition to your regularly scheduled downhill and super-G in Bulgaria on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, the women also have the “Val d’Isere” downhill today in Bansko, rescheduled from France on Dec. 21.

Training results do not necessarily translate to results on race day, but Shiffrin has to feel pretty good about getting down the hill in fourth in her maiden voyage on this slope.

Shiffrin will start in the No. 16 bib today.

Petra?

Looking over Thursday’s training results, it’s nice to see Shiffrin’s teammate Breezy Johnson in sixth. Johnson has had a hellish run of injuries and it would bee great to see her get an opportunity to display her talent.

Further down the results was a bit of a shocker — Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova finished 10th. If that sounds a bit surprising, well, it is. Shiffrin’s chief rival for the overall and slalom has competed in only one World Cup downhill in her career — finishing 17th in Are, Sweden, back in 2018.

Yes, it’s a surprise guest to this weekend’s speed events in Bansko, Bulgaria. Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova appears to be racing in her first downhill since 2018. (AP Photo/Marco Tacca)
Bulgaria Alpine Skiing World Cup

Shiffrin leads Vlhova, 975-726, in the points. With speed events taking up five of the next six weekends on the women’s World Cup tour, the Slovakian appears to be rolling the dice to see if she can gain ground on Shiffrin.

Since we focus more on the tech side of things, let’s take a look at the downhill this season Your DH winners have been the Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecka (Lake Louise, Alberta, first race), Austria’s Nicole Schmidhofer (Lake Louise, second) and Switzerland’s Corinne Suter in Altenmarkt, Austria.

Suter leads the downhill points with 225, followed by Ledecka (182) and Schmidhofer (154). Shiffrin is actually seventh in the downhill points with 106 by finishing 10th and second in Lake Louise in December.

Shiffrin enters Bulgarian World Cup events

Welcome to Bulgaria, Mikaela.

Mikaela Shiffrin apparently will be racing in speed events in Bansko for the first time in her career, she announced on Twitter.

“Hey everybody, It’s Mikaela Shiffrin. I’m so excited to be in Bansko. It’s my first time here, first time racing here. So I’m super excited for these races and I hope you are too and I hope you enjoy the show.”

Presumably, the three-time defending World Cup champion will compete in both Saturday’s downhill and Sunday’s super-G. Downhill training runs are scheduled for today and Friday. Shiffrin is wearing the No. 20 bib for today’s training run.

Sestriere strangeness

Shiffrin is coming off a bizarre weekend of giant slalom and parallel GS in Sestriere, Italy. In Saturday’s GS, She finished 1-hundredth of a second off the pace — and finished third. Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Italy’s Federica Brignone shared the win.

Shiffrin is pretty familiar with a photo finish in World Cup races. She’s tied twice for a win in her career on the World Cup.  She and Vlhova were deadlocked on the top step during last year’s Maribor, Slovenia, giant slalom on Feb. 1. The previous occasion before that was Soelden on Oct. 24, 2015, also a GS, and it was Shiffrin and Anna (nee Fenninger), Veith.

The parallel GS on Sunday was the headscratcher. Shiffrin was the fastest in qualification but got knocked out during the Round of 16, officially finishing ninth.

Shiffrin is the model of avoiding all controversy in the press and in social media. Her statement via the U.S. Ski Team on Twitter was “I don’t like to talk about luck playing a role-even yesterday, .01 out, I feel like that was in my control. Today I’d say it’s a day where luck plays a role … it IS fun and people like to watch it. it’s just a work in progress to make it the best it can be.”

The ellipses are important here because what she said in between those sentences, according to Yahoo! Sports was, “But these two courses are not the same at all. I’m a little bitter.”

Shiffrin was referring to the blue and red courses used in the knockout stage of Sunday’s race. By the results in the single-elimination — 17 winners emerged from the blue course, while just three came from the red one — it appeared that the blue gates were just a faster path. Shiffrin raced on the red course and was eliminated by the eventual winner, France’s Claire Direz, on the blue.

Need for speed

Tactfully put, Shiffrin didn’t get the breaks last weekend, which is somewhat a theme for the season. Coming off a ridiculous 2018-19 campaign, where just about everything did go right — 19 wins in 29 starts between the World Cup and the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships and go down the list — not everything is so smooth this year.

Anyone expecting Shiffrin to win 17 World Cups — a new record — again and win the super-G, GS and slalom globes once more was clearly expecting too much.

It’s hard to repeat a performance, whatever the sport. In fairness, Shiffrin isn’t like an NFL team that won the Super Bowl and is now 7-9 and out of the playoffs.

Shiffrin leads the overall over Vlhova, 975-726, holds the slalom points advantage, is second in GS and a surprising sixth in super-G. But back to the overall, 192 of the 249-point lead Shiffrin maintains come from speed events.

While she hasn’t popped off a win in speed events this season, her participation has been valuable in her quest to four-peat as the World Cup champion. Finish in the top 30, which presumably means just getting down the hill in one piece for Shiffrin, gain points and build on her lead. That’s the goal for the weekend. Everything else is gravy.

So welcome to Bulgaria, Mikaela.

X Games Aspen 2020 preview: Scotty James, Mark McMorris back for more in men’s snowboarding

The waiting game is about over. Back for the 19th consecutive year at Aspen’s Buttermilk Ski Area, ESPN’s annual Winter X Games will get underway next week with the best skiers and snowboarders set to strut their stuff.

Even without legend Shaun White and rising Japanese sensation Ayumu Hirano, the contests should be a smorgasbord of raw talent. Here’s what to look for in the men’s snowboarding competitions at X Games Aspen 2020:

SUPERPIPE

Finals: Thursday, 8 p.m.

2019 podium: Scotty James (gold), Yuto Totsuka (silver), Danny Davis (bronze)

The 15-man field will be about one guy, who is the unquestioned favorite coming in: Scotty James. The likeable Australian is dominating the sport like few have. The last time he lost a meaningful competition? Go back to the 2018 Winter Olympics, won by White with Hirano finishing second and James third. James has won everything under the sun since then, from the U.S. Open to the world championship to, yes, X Games.

He’s the reigning champ here in Aspen, that gold going with the one he won here in 2017. Hirano won X Games Aspen gold in 2018, when James finished second. White, as expected, is not here in 2020, nor is Hirano, who hasn’t competed in Aspen since winning gold two years ago. Quite frankly, James might not have much competition to keep him from a third Aspen gold medal on Thursday night.

His closest challenger is likely to be Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, the rising 18-year-old star who won silver last year behind James. With wins last spring at the Mammoth Grand Prix and a World Cup in Calgary — James didn’t compete in either — Totsuka has firmly established himself as the second-best halfpipe snowboarder over the past two years. Certainly if and when Hirano, who at 21 already has a pair of Olympic silver medals, and White decide to show up again, the hierarchy will be reset.

Steamboat’s Taylor Gold, who won X Games bronze in 2017, and two-time gold medalist Danny Davis are back, as is White’s protégé, the 19-year-old Toby Miller out of California. But in reality, it’ll be a showdown between James and Totsuka this week in Aspen for that gold medal. Everyone else is competing for bronze.

SLOPESTYLE

Finals: Saturday, Jan. 25, 1:45 p.m.

2019 podium: Mark McMorris (gold), Rene Rinnekangas (silver), Mons Roisland (bronze)

Unlike the superpipe, this is a competition that has a handful of potential winners. At the top of the list has to be Canadian superstar Mark McMorris, whose 17 combined Winter X Games medals are tied for second behind only White’s 18. McMorris has won X gold eight times, including slopestyle gold in 2019.

His toughest competition might be fellow Canadian Max Parrot, a 10-time X Games medalist (six gold) who overcame a bout with cancer last year to return to Aspen. Also competing is reigning Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard. The Summit County teen seems to be the future of the sport, although he’s yet to snag an X Games medal in three tries. His best finish in Aspen was fourth in 2018.

Norway’s Marcus Kleveland is a contender as well. He’s twice won X Games Aspen gold in slopestyle (2017, 2018) before sitting out last year after shattering his kneecap. He’s back, healthy and obviously knows how to win here.

There are plenty of other household names competing, like Rene Rinnekangas (silver in 2019), Mons Roisland, Stale Sandbech and Sebastien Toutant. And don’t forget about Silverthorne’s Chris Corning, a former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete. More of a big air specialist, this will be Corning’s third trip to X Games Aspen.

BIG AIR

Finals: Saturday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m.

2019 podium: Takeru Otsuka (gold), Mark McMorris (silver), Sven Thorgren (bronze)

Like in slopestyle, McMorris and Parrot have to be the favorites. They’ve dominated this event far too long not to be. Not to mention, last year’s champ, Japan’s Takeru Otsuka, isn’t competing. Toutant, Kleveland, Rinnekangas, Thorgren and Roisland all are, however, so it should be a good show.

All eyes should be on Corning, though. Health issues derailed his first two X Games Aspen competitions, so maybe his luck will change this year. He also struggled at the 2018 Olympics, but has otherwise dominated big air competitions everywhere else. His quad cork 1800 has become his staple, and if he lands that here at X Games he’ll likely win gold. Only 20, Corning will have has day in the sun soon enough.

BONUS EVENTS

On top of bringing back knuckle huck (Sunday, Jan. 26, 6:30 p.m.) for a second year, X Games has added two new snowboarding events for 2020 in superpipe best trick and a rail jam. Knuckle huck, which is where the riders toss themselves off the “knuckle,” or rounded part, of the big air jump, was a big hit last year. It was won by Fridtjof “Fridge” Tischendorf. He’s back, as is Kleveland, who will compete in the event he inspired for the first time.

The superpipe session (Friday, 9:30 p.m.) currently has eight riders, including James, Davis and Totsuka, so it should be stellar. The competition will be a 20-minute jam session with the riders getting to throw down their best single trick.

The rail jam (Sunday, Jan. 26, 1:30 p.m.) isn’t quite as star-studded, but does currently include Thorgren, Rinnekangas and Craig McMorris, Mark’s older brother and current X Games TV personality. Another jam session, riders will take to the rails on the slopestyle course and skip the jumps.

Of course, X Games wouldn’t be complete without the Special Olympics Unified snowboarding and skiing races Thursday morning that get everything started. Aspen’s own Chris Klug, an Olympic bronze medalist in alpine snowboarding, is always a contender.

acolbert@aspentimes.com


Colorado artist Lisa Issenberg embraces the opportunity to make X Games Aspen medals

When Ridgway’s Lisa Issenberg first got into metal work, it was mostly jewelry and small sculptures. Then she was asked to make awards for Telluride’s Mountainfilm, and she’s been hooked ever since.

“It’s the most rewarding. There is something about being a part of recognitions,” Issenberg said. “Awards are like gifts with great honor, and you are part of that gratitude. Even if you are the unknown person behind the gift, it still feels good.”

Issenberg, who operates through her company, Kiitella — Finnish for “to thank, applaud, praise” — has had plenty of clients over the years, hand-making awards for The North Face, American Alpine Club, the Birds of Prey World Cup ski races at Beaver Creek and even Aspen Skiing Co. Since 2013, she’s designed the Aspen Power of Four medals and will make her biggest medal contribution to Aspen athletics this week with X Games.

“It’s a big one. I was pretty excited to get the call,” Issenberg said.

Working with ESPN’s Brian Kerr, the associate director of competition for X Games, Issenberg was commissioned to make this year’s medals for X Games Aspen. The first-, second- and third-place finishers in each of the contests will receive one of the roughly 90 medals Issenberg handcrafted out of her Ridgway studio.

This is the second year in a row ESPN has sought out an external artist to make its medals, with Portland-based artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham having had the honors in 2019.

“Lisa and I talked through a couple of different concepts of what we wanted to see and she came up with a spectacular piece for us,” Kerr said. “As we thought through it, it’s not just another award for these action sports phenoms — our podium athletes are actually getting a piece of X Games artwork around their necks. And that’s really cool.”

Ski racing stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety have all taken home awards made by Issenberg, and beginning Thursday she’ll be able to add some of the world’s best snowboarders and freeskiers to the list, not to mention the motorsport athletes.

Issenberg’s X Games medals are relatively simple. Round like a coin and meant to be worn around the neck, they feature a large X Games logo with a space at the top cut out in the shape of a mountain range. Issenberg said the mountain design is meant to represent the Maroon Bells, using her own artistic license.

The simplicity, typography and angles all draw inspiration from Herbert Bayer’s Bauhaus design. Bayer lived in Aspen from 1946 until 1975 and his influence can still be found around the city.

The metal comes from at least 90% to sometimes 100% recycled content, and all waste is recycled as well.

“He wanted these to feel like they were made by a human, and that’s wonderful,” Issenberg said of Kerr. “These top athletes, the top athletes in the world, they’ve worked really hard to get on the podium and they deserve a medal that has heft and depth and heart. And I like to say a little blood, sweat and tears, too.”

Issenberg, who came from the East Coast before moving to Telluride after college, shares the building her Ridgway studio is located in with friend John Billings, who has handcrafted the Grammy awards for the past four decades. When ESPN was looking for a Colorado artist to make its X Games medals, it first talked to Billings, who recommended Issenberg for the job.

“His workshop is in the basement. I can hear the polisher going. It buzzes at my feet all day,” Issenberg said. “Someone reached out to him — they were looking for someone more local, an artist to do the X Games awards, and he said, ‘You have to call Lisa.’”

Issenberg said the whole process from design to finished award took a few months. She made the medals at the same time, cutting them out at once, polishing them at once, and so on. Every aspect of the medals’ creation was done by her there in Ridgway.

And, in a move that is rare for Issenberg, she’ll be on hand this weekend to see some of her work meet its new owner for the first time. She’s never been to X Games before.

“That’s pretty cool to a normal human that is pursuing her passion,” Issenberg said of seeing her medals go home with superstar athletes. “Each one is different. You won’t find two that are the same.”

Goalie Analysis: Colorado Avalanche could look into acquiring “King” Henrik Lundqvist

Jared Bednar expects goalie Philipp Grubauer to turn it around — just like he did last season. The Avalanche coach believes his No. 1 goalie to begin the season will bounce back from a mid-season funk and re-establish himself as a strength for a playoff-bound team.

But if that doesn’t happen, and the Avs aren’t convinced backup Pavel Francouz can carry the load, they might have a trade option in acquiring future Hall of Fame goalie Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers in a short-term marriage.

Lundqvist, 37, who has yet to hoist the Stanley Cup, is under contract through 2020-21, with an $8.5 million annual cap hit but just a $5.5 million salary next season. His contract would expire when Colorado begins paying big money to Gabe Landeskog and Cale Makar, whose current deals also end next season.

Currently, the Avs have the cap space and prospects/draft picks to entice “King Henrik” to waive his no-trade clause to a Cup contender in a move similar to when legendary defenseman Ray Bourque came to the Avs late in the 1999-2000 season. In search of the Cup heading into his 40th birthday, Bourque helped Colorado win it in 2001.

Lundqvist could be that guy for the Avs in 2020 or 2021, and the Rangers are undoubtedly looking at trading one of their three goalies. That’s not a typo — New York is carrying three goalies, including two young ones in Alexandar Georgiev, 23, and Igor Shesterkin, 24 — the latter of whom defeated the Avs in his NHL debut Jan. 7 in New York.

Read more via The Denver Post.

Burton US Open in Vail to feature modified superpipe

Continuing the trend of modified man-made snow structures for elite snowboarding and freeski competitions, the Burton U.S. Open at Vail Mountain next month will feature a modified superpipe and a revamped slopestyle course.

Earlier this week, Burton Snowboards announced the changes to this year’s superpipe and slopestyle courses for the annual men’s and women’s snowboard event scheduled for Feb. 24-29. For the superpipe, Burton has opted for a modified design that will split two halfpipes with roller transitions in the middle.

After dropping into the course, snowboarders will be able to get about three hits in a 13-foot mini-pipe featuring six-foot tombstones before transitioning to a standard 22-foot superpipe via a pair of roller transition jumps on skier’s right and left. Once in the 22-foot pipe portion, Burton officials said snowboarders should be able to land three to four more hits.

The course design is similar to last year’s Dew Tour modified superpipe at Breckenridge Ski Resort. U.S. Olympic gold medalist and freeski legend David Wise described that course as “pipestyle” — an homage to the modified superpipe course with transition features more commonly seen in slopestyle.

As for this year’s Burton U.S. Open slopestyle competition, the course is going heavy on flowy, choose-your-line transition jumps over one big booter jump after another. The course also will feature choose-your-line rail sections up top that mimic the kind of urban riding many snowboarders — including Silverthorne resident and Olympic big air silver medalist Kyle Mack — love to spend time on.

The slopestyle course will have two urban features up top, including one that includes a rail next to stairs and a second that includes a wall ride. After those two features, snowboarders will get to the transition portion of the course, where 13-foot and 22-foot radius transition jump features will allow for snowboarders to carve efficiently into and off of angled jumps. These are the kind of transition jumps that Red Gerard mastered to win gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics and at last year’s Burton Open.

Then the course will include a more traditional high-speed rail feature, the kind Summit County’s Chris Corning has mastered with his advanced version of a rodeo flip.

It all leads to the traditional booter jump at the bottom of the course, where riders like Corning, Gerard and Mack will send their biggest tricks as each of their run’s exclamation points, sliding to a stop in the corral where the fans will be in a frenzy.

Mikaela Shiffrin takes third in World Cup giant slalom in Sestriere; Brignone and Vlhova share win

Talk about a photo finish.

Italy’s Federica Brignone and Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova tied — down to the hundredth of a second — during Saturday’s World Cup giant slalom in Sestriere, Italy, with Mikaela Shiffrin 1-hundredth of a second behind in third place.

One would say Brignone and Vlhova beat Shiffrin by a nose, but even the average, non-Pinocchio-like nose might be too much of a difference.

It’s the 16th time that the women’s World Cup has had a tie for first and it’s not an unfamiliar position for Shiffrin. She and Vlhova were deadlocked on the top step during last year’s Maribor, Slovenia, giant slalom on Feb. 1. The previous occasion before that was Soelden on Oct. 24, 2015, also a GS, and it was Shiffrin and Anna (nee Fenninger) Veith.

“I think the level of GS is really high and today it was super cool to see so many girls going just really aggressive, just really good skiing,” Shiffrin said via FIS Soundcloud. “The surface, like Petra said, it was amazing preparation and it was really good for GS, so everyone was really going for it. It was motivating to see, but it was also not an easy race. In the end, it was 1-hundredth and third, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”

As for the third-place finisher being 1-hundredth of a second behind double winners, well, the most obvious example of such zaniness was the 1999 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships men’s super-G at Beaver Creek. Norway’s Lasse Kjus and Austria’s Hermann Maier tied with Austria’s Hans Knauss 0.01 seconds back.

A different year

While Shiffrin acknowledged that in the past she’s been on the right side of a 1-hundredths margin, Saturday may have been symbolic of the way the 2019-20 season has been going for her — still spectacular, but not as insanely successful as 2018-19.

Shiffrin still has a sizeable lead in the overall race, 946-713, over Vlhova. In 15 starts, Shiffrin’s won four times, been on the podium 11 times and in the top 10 in 13 of those outings. That is phenomenal by any measure, except when comparing it to last season, which is unrealistic.

“I said this almost every single race last year that it’s not easy,” Shiffrin said on Soundcloud. “It’s not easy to win and you can ask (Federica) and Petra from today. It wasn’t like they skied down and had a Sunday drive and then won the race. They were both skiing hard, really well.”

Brignone appears to be the skier to beat in the giant slalom this year. The Italian leads with 375 points, ahead of Shiffrin (314) and Italy’s Marta Bassino. What’s more, in five giant slaloms this season, five different racers have won GS races this year on the World Cup — New Zealand’s Alice Robinson, Bassino, Brignone, Shiffrin and Vlhova.

Last season, Shiffrin went 4-for-8 in GS races and earned 615 of 800 points possible in the discipline.

“Everybody’s motivated. Everybody wants to win,” Shiffrin said. “The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, ‘Are you unbeatable?’ I feel like we’re all racing and it’s just normal now.”

The World Cup continues today with a parallel slalom in Sestriere.

Red Gerard finishes as runner-up at Laax Open slopestyle competition

Red Gerard will ride into next week’s X Games in Aspen snowboarding at his best.

On Friday in Switzerland, Gerard was the top-scoring American and the runner-up in the men’s snowboard slopestyle final at the Laax Open. Under clear skies and in ideal riding conditions, Gerard laced together the most inventive line through the course.

On his first and highest-scoring run, Gerard earned a score of 85.45 with a run through the course that consisted of a rock n roll, a backside nose-press 270, a cab-on backside 360 melon off of a rail feature, a frontside 1080, a backside 1260 with a melon grab, a switch backside 1440 with a mute grab and a cab-on to backside 720 off the butter knuckle feature.

Gerard tried to up his score on his second run through the course but wasn’t as clean with his line while riding through the softening snow later in the competition. That opened the door for Canadian star Sebastien “Seb Toots” Toutant to best Gerard with a score of 87.45.

Toutant’s run, which he pieced together after a hard crash in training, consisted of a 50/50 stall to a frontside 270 out of a rail feature, a hardway switch backside 270 lipslide, a switch lipslide underflip off of a feature, a frontside double cork 900, a cab 1260 with a nose grab, a backside 1440 with a mute grab and a frontside double cork 1080 with a mute grab.

Other top American finishers at Friday’s slopestyle competition included third-place finisher and rising Californian Judd Henkes (82.33), another rising teen star in Gerard’s close friend and North Carolina native Luke Winkelmann (sixth, 75.00), Ryan Stassel (eighth, 56.13), Dusty Henricksen (ninth, 39.63) Lyon Farrell (11th, 28.56) and Michigan native and Silverthorne resident Kyle Mack (12th, 26.81).

After the competition, the first FIS snowboard slopestyle competition of the World Cup season, Gerard ranks in second place in the 2019-20 men’s snowboard slopestyle season standings, with 800 points, only behind Toutant’s 1,000 points.

As for the overall park-and-pipe season standings — which combine results from slopestyle, halfpipe and big air competitions — Gerard’s 800 points from Friday catapult him to fourth place with 1,880 total points, behind fellow Summit County snowboarder and two-time reigning park-and-pipe season champion Chris Corning (first, 3,250), Canadian teen phenom Nicolas LaFramboise (second, 2,316) and Australian halfpipe juggernaut Scotty James (2,000).

On Thursday, another batch of Summit County residents and locals performed well in the Laax Open halfpipe semifinals. Steamboat Springs native and Breckenridge resident Taylor Gold soared to a third-place qualifying score of 84.00, only behind expected heavy-hitters in the dominant Australian champion James (92.50) and Japanese star Yuto Totsuka (84.50).

Behind Gold, Frisco resident Jason Wolle qualified in fifth place (78.50) and Dillon resident Chase Blackwell qualified through in ninth (74.25).

The fifth-place score was huge for Wolle, who is on the U.S. Rookie Team and working to break into the highest-level of competitors. Wolle did so with a run that included a frontside 900 with a tail grab, a backside double Michalchuk with an Indy grab, a frontside double 1080 with an Indy grab, a cab double 1080 with a switch Indy grab and a crippler double nose grab.

“For qualifiers, making sure I was well-rested was a big one for me, as well as taking training seriously and working closely with my coaches on a good game plan,” Wolle said.

Wolle, Blackwell and Gold will compete in Saturday’s final round, which will take place at 9:30 a.m. mountain time Saturday. To watch the live stream, visit swiss-ski.ch/live/laax-open-2020.

Shiffrin timeout: Men’s World Cup a wild ride

Mikaela, Mikaela, Mikaela.

Yes, the Vail Daily often sounds a lot like Jan Brady.

Shiffrin wins a race.

Shiffrin does not win a race.

Shiffrin has a ham sandwich for lunch.

Taking nothing away from Mikaela Shiffrin, whose greatness does surpass mortal understanding, and we’re not saying that sarcastically, we’re taking a break for a day.

That’s because the men’s World Cup is a donnybrook with all four of the traditional disciplines up for grabs as well as the overall as the gents pull into Wengen, Switzerland, for the storied Lauberhorn downhill, a combined and a slalom.

Life without Hirscher

In the post-Marcel Hirscher-world  — the Austrian retired last summer having won eight straight overall titles  — the expected names have risen to the top.

Just like the women, the men’s World Cup has more tech events than speed, so Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen (611 points) leads France’s Alexis Pinturault (533).

But unlike the ladies, there isn’t a  Shiffrin-Petra Vlhova-like death grip on tech events, slalom in particular. (Shiffrin and Vlhova have won every World Cup slalom dating back to January 2017.)

In five slaloms this season, the gents have had four different winners, France’s Clement Noel (twice), Kristoffersen, Pinturault and Switzerland’s Daniel Yule.

Kristoffersen leads the slalom chase, but all four of the above are within 116 points of each other.

There’ve also been four different winners in GS this year, Pinturault, Tommy Ford in Beaver Creek, Kristoffersen and Slovenia’s Zan Kranjec. The Slovenian leads GS with 270, followed by Kristoffersen (253) and Pinturault (172).

Simplistically put, without Hirscher, there is no dominant force in men’s skiing, and it’s anyone’s game.

Speedsters in the hunt

If the men are going to have their first speedster to win the World Cup since Switzerland’s Carlo Janka in 2010, this could be the year.

Italy’s Dominik Paris won back-to-back downhills on home snow in Bormio in December. That vaulted him not only ahead of Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr in the discipline (304-300), but Paris is sitting fourth in the overall chase.

At 454 points and nearly 200 behind Kristoffersen, it’s a longshot, yet this is the time of year to make a move. It’s Wengen, followed by Kitzbuehel, Austria, and Garmisch, Germany, the next three weekends.

And who’s going to win super-G? You might as well pick names out of a hat. Kriechmayr (196) and teammate Matthias Mayer (184) lead the way, followed by Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (156), Switzerland’s Mauro Caviezel (155), Paris (145) and Switzerland’s Marco Odermatt (143).

Kilde?

We called him a darkhorse back in October at the start of the season and Kilde is definitely filling that role. In third place in the overall (519 points, just 92 behind Kristoffersen), Kilde is competing in everything but the slalom.

He’s the least renowned of the Fighting Vikings with Kristoffersen, Kjetil Jansrud and Aksel Lund Svindal (we miss him), but Kilde is easily on pace to post a career high in points —  his best is 756 in 2015-16. He is getting points from a lot of places and just might be able to overtake the tech specialists.