World Cup ski races hitting homestretch | VailDaily.com

World Cup ski races hitting homestretch

Matthias Mayer, of Austria,despite a little air time,wings his way to the second of two World Cup wins last weekend in Saalbach, Austria. He helped the Alpine Republic recover from its possibly over-dramatic "historic disaster," at Beaver Creek earlier this month,
AP file photo | AP

We can all sleep better at night now.

The Austrian Ski Team has recovered its honor. Now, of course, it wasn’t like the Alpine Republic fared poorly at the recent FIS Alpine World Ski Championships here earlier this month, anything but. The red, white and red won the medal count handily with five golds, three silvers and one bronze.

But there was the little matter of the men’s downhill. The podium was Switzerland’s Patrick Kueng, Travis Ganong and Switzerland’s Beat Feuz.

As local race fans, our general reaction was “Huzzah for Travis,” and then we continued to live a life of fulfillment. Austria? Not so much.

Austria had nobody on the podium — and two Swiss and an American didn’t help matters, since the former are archrivals and the latter is simply gauche. The Austrians also didn’t have anyone in the top 10.

Insert music of great horror here.

You cannot make this stuff up.

“We had a historic disaster in Beaver Creek,” Peter Schroecksnadel, the president of the Austrian winter sports federation, said.

Do melodrama much?

Historic disasters for Austria in the past 100 years would be the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Anschluss of 1938. Yes, Austria takes its ski racing seriously, and, yes, this was the first time in the history of the Championships that there were no Austrians in the top 10 of a men’s Worlds downhill, but come now.

Everyone in the Land of Mountains lived happily every after as Matthias Mayer, Max Franz and Hannes Reichelt swept the podium in Saturday’s downhill in Saalbach, Austria.

A look back at the weekend that was and the upcoming slate on the World Cup tour:

Mikaela in Maribor

Eagle-Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin had a very good weekend in Maribor, Slovenia, winning the slalom on Sunday and finishing fifth in the giant slalom the previous day.

With the slalom win, Shiffrin took over the lead in the discipline from Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter (479-449) with Slovenia’s Tina Maze (374) and Austria’s Kathrin Zettel (316) in tow. (A reminder, Shiffrin’s gold in slalom at Worlds has no bearing on the points race for the globe, which she is trying to win for a third straight year.)

The Maribor slalom was a huge win as two slaloms remain on the schedule — Are, Sweden, on March 14; and the World Cup Finals in Meribel, France, one week later.

This is now essentially a two-person race for the slalom title, as 200 points is the maximum gain for anyone, making Maze’s and Zettel’s chances remote. Either one would have to sweep in Are and Meribel, while Shiffrin and Hansdotter would have to DNF in both, an improbable course of events.

Shiffrin’s worst finish this season in slalom was 11th in the opener at Levi, Finland, and while she was fuming with that result, she still picked up 24 World Cup points for that finish. (The top-30 racers in every World Cup race get points on a sliding scale.)

In a weird quirk of scheduling, this will be the ladies’ second visit to Are this winter — their stop in France was moved to Sweden because of snow conditions in December. During the first Are slalom this year, Hansdotter was third and Shiffrin fourth. As much as Shiffrin doubtless wants to win every race, she’ll take this result again with regard to the slalom points race as Hansdotter would only gain 10 points on her, closing Shiffrin’s lead to 20 points, going into World Cup Finals.

As for the GS side of the equation, Shiffrin will have a hard time winning the globe. She’s third (271 points) behind Austrians Anna Fenninger (342) and Eva-Maria Brem (296). As with slalom, there are only two GS races left, and things would have to break right for Shiffrin.

That said, she has made great strides, branching out more into GS this season. Not only did she get a win, a tie with Fenninger in Soelden, Austria, but Shiffrin finished seventh in the discipline with 257 points in 2013-14. She already has 271 this winter with two races to go.

This is a good time to remember she’s still just 19, turning 20 on March 13, the day of a giant-slalom race in Are. She is progressing wonderfully, though a win on her birthday would be a helluva gift.

Speed time

Since we don’t have tech events for the ladies until March 13, that means speed the next two weekends. Lindsey Vonn should be back in her element after a DNF in the Maribor GS. Vonn has two super-Gs Friday and Saturday in Bansko, Bulgaria, and then downhill and another super-G in Garmisch, Germany, the next week before the finale in Meribel.

Vonn leads Fenninger in both the downhill (366-287) and the super-G (280-272), so there are a lot of points on the table, especially in super-G (300) during the next two weeks.

Looking more broadly, the women’s overall race is tightening. As much as a brouhaha as the Austrians’ failure at the men’s Worlds downhill caused, how about Maze DNF-ing at both of her home races in Maribor?

Fenninger won the Maribor GS and gained 100 points on Maze last weekend. Maze leads Fenninger, 985-901, with 11 races to go. That’s anybody’s ball game, especially with six speed events, two GS races and a combined left — Fenninger does not compete in slalom.

Maze seemed understandably gassed toward the end of the Championships, due to elevation and five events in less than two weeks. Maybe that carried over to Maribor. There’s certainly a lot of pressure for her to perform on home snow. But two DNFs is an eye-opener and could be a turning point.

Your turn, gents

Mayer not only led the Austrian sweep to save his country’s honor, but he won the super-G last weekend as well. While it’s not likely to help in the overall chase this year, this is what everybody’s been waiting for from Mayer.

In the men’s overall, Austria’s Marcel Hirscher leads Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, 1,028-912. Jansrud’s running out of time because there are only 10 races left, and just five are speed. The Norwegian has a downhill Saturday in Garmisch and home races in Kvitfjell (downhill and super-G) the weekend after next.

The pressure is on because Hirscher still has three GS races and two slaloms left on the slate. Yes, anything can happen, and Hirscher hadn’t DNF’ed in a slalom for three years before doing it twice in a month this year, including Worlds. Jansrud can’t count on lightning striking three times. Hirscher’s going to be in contention in those five races and picking up a lot of points.

In GS, the window is closing for Ted Ligety, fresh off his win here. Hirscher leads Shred, 460-322, with three to go. Ted has to get moving starting with Sunday’s race in Garmisch.

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, cfreud@vaildaily.com and follow him on Tiwtter @cfreud.