The return of the king
Last year, Hermann Maier sat at a bar in Obertauern, Austria, home of the Austrian team’s training center, and watched the Birds of Prey downhill on the television.
“My friend opened the bar, and I watched the race, and drank some beer. I thought, maybe, it will never be possible to ski again on this level,” said Maier, who came very close to losing his right leg in a 2001 motorcycle accident which put his skiing future in jeopardy.
Just one year later though, Maier exchanged the beer steins for a bottle of Champagne at Beaver Creek on Saturday as he celebrated his eighth Birds of Prey win, by clocking a winning time of 1 minute, 39.76 seconds.
“Just one year later, I have won this race,” said a smiling Maier, the current overall leader after his huge win. “It’s a big dream for me. It’s changed a lot from last year to this year.”
The Austrians swept the three top spots on the podium and did one better than their Friday performance of six finishers in the top nine with seven on Saturday.
Hans Knauss, who bowed out of Friday’s race after missing a late gate, finished nearly one full second behind Maier with a time of 1:40.71 and Andreas Schifferer came in third at 1:40.95.
American Daron Rahlves, winner of Friday’s downhill finished fourth at 1:41.01, and Marco Buechel, of Liechtenstein, the early leader, finished seventh at 1:41.17.
Otherwise, it was all Austria with Klaus Kroell in fifth (1:41:08), Michael Walchoffer in sixth (1:41.12), Johann Grugger in eighth (1:41.26) and Fritz Strobl in ninth (1:41.37).
Stephan Eberharter, of Austria, winner of last year’s Birds of Prey downhill, who tied for second-place on Friday, finished twelfth.
As the fourth racer of the day, Buechel felt pretty good about his chances as he watched the next nine racers fail to eclipse his time from the bottom, but then was forced to stand idle as first Knauss and then the rest of the Austrians began to push his name farther down the leader board.
“It’s fun to wait down here and watch everybody come down, especially when they ski slower. Then it’s really fun,” said Buechel. “When I came down and had the best time, I was waiting there, and to see all the guys coming slower, and the camera is on you, then you think “I did it.’ Today, I had a good run. I really tried my best to attack and not be afraid of anything. I think this is what I need for tomorrow.”
Knauss held the lead for just long enough to take off his skis and put his coat on before Maier, wearing the No. 16 bib, crossed the finish line in first place, a position he would not relinquish.
After a disappointing DNF on Friday, though, second-place was good enough.
“The most important thing for me today was that I come to the finish with a good result because it pushes me into super-G tomorrow,” said Knauss. “I didn’t take as much risk as (Friday), because if I fall out again, then maybe I have no chance to start with a fixed place. Hermann can win the race, so for the press, everything is OK. The press, they just want an Austrian downhill win.”
The top is the key
Maier admitted on Saturday that the first key to the race was being faster on The Flyway, the flat, top section of the course where he lost time in Friday’s race. On Saturday, he clocked the second fastest start interval at 24.14 seconds, in comparison to 37 the day before.
“Yesterday, I lost the race at the top section, and if you are very slow there, it’s very difficult to catch some time,” said Maier. “Today was great up there. I made a good run and had very good equipment. It was a pretty technically good race for me.”
Instead of trying to make up time like in Friday’s run, Maier took his quick start and never looked back, holding on to the lead after the second interval all the way down to the bottom.
It was a run much like Rahlves’ gold-medal run on Friday – both racers glided well through The Flyway, and then skied near-flawless runs to the finish.
“If you are losing time on the top, it’s only 25 seconds,” said Maier. “But, if you lost the time on every gate, then it’s getting more. Today I was faster, gate by gate.”
The sweetest of gifts
The Herminator turns 31 today, and would like nothing more than to notch a super-G win to go along with his downhill title.
Still, he said Saturday’s race was extra special, being that it was his first downhill win since his 2001 accident.
“This one is the best present because I won super-G’s, but I didn’t win a downhill after my accident, and now it’s perfect,” said Maier. “I’m sure it will be great tomorrow too, but today it’s wonderful.”
The former bricklayer, who now has 44 career wins, first won the super-G in Kitzbuhel, Austria, last season after making his return to skiing, before taking the super-G in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend.
Now, with two wins in the 2003-04 season, Maier looks to be the favorite in the race for the overall competition, after taking over the No. 1 spot on Saturday.
Maier doesn’t want to talk about the overall hunt, though. He’s just content to be back to doing what he used to do best – winning ski races.
“I said before, I’m looking race by race,” said Maier. “If (the season’s) over tomorrow, it looks good. But I have to turn it up in giant slalom too, and it’s not so easy. I lost a lot of training, nearly two seasons. I have to train for sure to find the right feeling. Every race I ski 100 percent. Before, maybe it was easier, but now I know you have to work, how much you have to do to win a race.”
Today’s super-G is the final day of World Cup competition on the Birds of Prey course, before the World Cup circuit heads back to Europe. Super-G, like downhill, is considered a speed event, although the start gate is farther down the mountain than in downhill.
Unlike downhill runs, where racers are supposed to get two training runs, super-G is a first-time-out, first-time-counts format, where racers will be skiing the new course for the first time.
In today’s race, again look for the Austrians, who in two days on the Birds of Prey have taken 13 of the top 18 positions. But also look for Buechel, of Leichtenstein, who began racing super-G on a bet during the 1999 World Alpine Skiing Championships at the Birds of Prey and was runner-up in last year’s super-G standings.
Don’t count out the United State’s Bode Miller either, who after posting DNFs the last two days, will try to climb back up the overall standings leaderboard. Miller is currently ranked fifth in the overall, after coming into Friday’s race as the leader.
Nate Peterson is a sports writer for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 608 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.