Solbakken gets first Cup win
Norway’s Bjarne Solbakken could have been excused for feeling a little deja vu at Sunday’s World Cup super-G at the Birds of Prey.
In Friday’s downhill, Solbakken went out fourth, posted the time to beat and then survived challenge after challenge, only to be passed by Daron Rahlves and tied by Austria’s Stephan Eberharter.
At Sunday’s race, Solbakken played the waiting game again – and, this time, he won.
On a snowy day, the 26-year-old got another early draw in the ninth spot, posted a time of 1 minute, 13.05 seconds and staved off challenges from Austria’s Hermann Maier (second, 1:13.44) and Hans Knauss (third, 1:13.50) to win the first World Cup race of his career.
“It’s a great feeling when you know you have made a good run and just watch the others try to beat you,” Solbakken said. “… I’ve always been dreaming about winning a World Cup race. So it’s a dream come true.”
The dream became reality when Solbakken hopped onto the top step of the podium like a veteran, pumped his right fist and gave a little kick with his right leg.
“It feels perfect,” Solbakken said. “I’ve always been hoping or training for this day. So, today, I’m on the top. It’s perfect.”
Breakout weekend for Solbakken
Before this weekend of racing at Beaver Creek, Solbakken’s best World Cup finish had been eighth. Having endured a crash at Kvitfjell, Norway, at the tail end of the 2001-02 campaign and a virus for most of 2002-03, he described last season as “a fiasco.”
But this year seems to be a turnaround for Solbakken.
“I just had a good feeling when we came from Lake Louise,” he said. “I did some good skiing there and I came here with confidence and I just could let it go.”
Solbakken served notice early this week, by finishing second in training Thursday, nine-hundredths of a second behind Maier, who is always the favorite at races on the Birds of Prey. Three races later, Solbakken has gold and silver medals in his pocket and has jumped up to fourth in the overall World Cup standings as the circuit heads back to Europe.
“Hopefully, I will get a boost from this and just continue to be up there, maybe not win every race, of course,” he said. “But I will for sure be more competitive this year.”
Teammate Lasse Kjus, who knows quite a bit about winning at the Birds of Prey, not to mention just about anywhere else, is a believer.
“It’s fun to watch him right now,” said Kjus, who finished sixth with a time of 1:13.76. “He’s skiing with a lot of confidence and looks confident also. So, it’s great to watch him. It’s very good for our team. He has great potential.”
“It was so fast on the top’
Solbakken flashed that potential all the way down the hill. He negotiated the steep start and The Pumphouse, which claimed their fair share of victims, in 19.72 seconds, the third-fastest time for the first interval.
“It was so fast on the top. The speed, it felt almost like the downhill, but with a tighter turning,” Solbakken said. “It was hard to get a good feeling up there. But, on the lower part, I started to get things together. I came to the finish and I was in the lead. That felt good, but there were still a lot of good racers to come.”
Not to worry. Solbakken was consistent through the middle portions of his run and then blitzed the end of the course – The Abyss, Harrier Jump and Red Tail.
That sequence clinched it for him. He had the best final interval time at 19.71 seconds, exactly one-half second ahead of Maier’s performance on that stretch of the course. Solbakken’s margin of victory over the Herminator was 0.39 seconds.
The weather moves in
Solbakken likely got some help from an early draw. The light snow at the start of the race grew heaver as the competition progressed. After two days of beautiful racing conditions, it was dark and racers had to deal with flat light.
That still did not stop Maier, starting 28th, from making a spirited charge. The Herminator screamed through Russi’s Ride and Golden Eagle Jump, and had the crowd believing that it was going to see Maier’s ninth triumph on the Birds of Prey. He held the lead through the third interval, before slowing on the final two jumps.
“It was a great performance today,” Maier said. “For sure, it was much (more) difficult with the higher number today. So, the lower numbers had a big advantage because not only of the snow, but also the visibility. It’s getting darker and darker now. For me and others with the (later) starting numbers, we lost a second of our runs or more. So, it was a great race for me.”
The weather and the speedy setup claimed big names, who where running later in the order, like Austria’s Michael Walchhofer and Hannes Trinkl and slowed the likes of Switzerland’s Didier Cuche (fifth), Liechtenstein’s Marco Buechel (14th), Austria’s Andreas Shifferer (seventh), Josef Strobl (15th) and Eberharter (19th).
Meanwhile, Italy’s Peter Fill, running fifth, had a career-high fourth-place finish. It was a similar tale for Sweden’s Patrik Jaerbyn, who started seventh and finished eighth.
“The visibility was not so good because there was very flat light,” Knauss said. “You couldn’t see the bumps. I mean, the course is so specially prepared, so there is no problem with the light. It’s a really tough course, the super-G. It’s so rough. It’s really one of the best courses, the Birds of Prey.”
Knauss should be fond of the Birds of Prey. After a disappointing DNF, when he missed a gate late in Friday’s downhill, Knauss added bronze in Sunday’s super-G to add to his silver in Saturday’s downhill.
“The first day in downhill, it was hard for me,” Knauss said. “But the good thing on this day is that I showed I can be the fastest down here. I had a good second downhill. I mean, it was perfect for me with the (final two) races.”
News and notes
Maier turned 31 Sunday and was presented with a birthday cake on the podium. The crowd serenaded him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” … The Italian coaching staff set the course Sunday and it was fast. Solbakken won with a time of 1:13.05. By comparison, last year’s super-G winner, Cuche, won in 1:18.83. … This weekend’s races were indirectly a part of Vail’s and Beaver Creek’s efforts to land the 2009 World Championships. The Vail Valley Foundation, Beaver Creek, Vail Resorts and a myriad of local organizations are trying to land an unprecedented triple – holding the Worlds for alpine and freestyle skiing, as well as snowboarding simultaneously. Schladming, Austria, Garmisch, Germany, and Val d’Isere, France are also bidding for the Worlds. According to Beaver Creek’s Chief Operating Officer John Garnsey, it’s going to be a tough fight to land the Worlds, especially given that Garmisch and Val d’Isere have been passed over for the Worlds numerous times. But Garnsey remains optimistic.
“I think that we are expected to run great races in the Vail Valley. So, I really don’t know whether it’s that much of an impact or not, he said. “… Just for the the fact that we showed we were flexible in picking up an additional race. (Friday’s downhill was moved from Val d’Isere to Beaver Creek because of a lack of snow in France.) All those things, plus a perfect race course and good organization, it never hurts.” The International Skiing Federation will meet in Miami this spring to determine the venue. … The men’s World Cup moves to Europe with the Val d’Isere giant slalom moving to Alta Badia, Italy, Sunday.
Chris Freud is the sports editor for the Vail Daily. Contact him at (970) 949-0555, ext. 614 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.