Friday, December 30, 2016

Kraft and Stoch in their own league in Oberstdorf

The 65th Four Hills Tournament started with Stefan Kraft's close victory over Kamil Stoch while leaving the third-placed Michael Hayböck over 11 points behind.

Like in his winning 2015 campaign, Kraft started the Four Hills Tournament with a victory in Oberstdorf. His first jump of 139.0 meters was the longest of the competition and he could win even with a third-best second jump.

Kamil Stoch was in second place already after the first round, 4.3 points behind Kraft. Importantly for the tournament standings, he reduced the gap to Kraft by 1.5 points in the second round. 2.8 points is a very small gap with six competition rounds remaining at the Four Hills.

The World Cup leader Domen Prevc lost his Four Hills title chances already in Oberstdorf. With his first jump of 124.5 meters, he was already 29.8 points behind Kraft. In the second round the gap increased to 53.3 points which is way too much to make up in the remaining three competitions.

Although his Four Hills title chances have gone, Domen Prevc remains as an interesting man to watch. Despite the 26th place in Oberstdorf, he still leads the World Cup overall standings by 113 points to Daniel-André Tande. The 17-year-old sensation needs to get back to his top form quickly to retain the yellow bib.

Daniel-André Tande topped the qualification but was another favorite who was a disappointment in the first round. With a jump of 130.5 meters, Tande was only ninth in the first round, 14.8 points behind Kraft. Yet with the best second jump of 138.5 meters, he was able to recover into fourth place and reduce the gap to Kraft by 2.2 points. 12.6 points, equivalent to seven meters, is still a gap possible to overcome in the six remaining competition rounds.

Michael Hayböck was third in Oberstdorf and is trailing Kraft by 11.2 points. While that is not an impossible gap to overcome in six rounds, Hayböck, unlike Tande, wasn't able to match Kraft's and Stoch's jumps in the competition rounds nor in the qualification in Oberstdorf. Hayböck needs at least to match the leaders in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, otherwise the gap will become too big for the last two competitions.

The Austrians' strong performances in Oberstdorf were completed by Manuel Fettner in fifth place, 13.1 points behind Kraft. Although Fettner is having a career-best season, a 31-year-old with only two World Cup podiums still seems like an outsider in the title battle.

Markus Eisenbichler did well in almost all his jumps in Oberstdorf. After the first round he was fourth, 1.7 points from the podium, yet he had to settle for a sixth place after the second round. Eisenbichler is in a tight pack of jumpers behind the third-placed Hayböck, 14.9 points from the leader Kraft. A familiar hill may have helped the German Eisenbichler in Oberstdorf and that may be the case also in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. If he can take the same form to the Austrian hills, he can finish even in the top three of the tournament standings.

The seventh jumper within 20 points from Kraft was Piotr Żyła. Although he lost only 4.3 points to the third-placed Hayböck, it would be a surprise if the World Cup 17th-placed Żyła was a podium contender throughout the tournament.

The defending Four Hills champion Peter Prevc couldn't get back into a winning form for this season's tournament. Prevc was 10th in Oberstdorf and 26.2 points to lead is very much of an impossible gap to make up in the three remaining competitions.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Tande and Stoch favorites a day before the Four Hills

The 65th Four Hills Tournament has started with the qualification of the opening competition in Oberstdorf. Daniel-André Tande topped the qualification ahead of Kamil Stoch who had impressed already in the two training rounds. My long Four Hills preview written right after the Engelberg weekend can be found earlier in the blog.

Fourth in the World Cup standings, Kamil Stoch had a solid qualification day in Oberstdorf. After the third place of the first training round, he topped the second training round. In the qualification round he had a jump of 137.5 meters for the second place.

A World Cup champion and Olympic and World gold medalist, Stoch has won almost everything in ski jumping except for the Four Hills Tournament. Now after some worse seasons, he's back in a winning form and seems like a strong title contender.

Stoch's biggest rival seems to be  Daniel-André Tande, currently second in the World Cup standings. Tande couldn't quite match Stoch's training jumps; however he had the longest qualification jump of 139.0 meters, despite having started a gate lower to Stoch.

Although Tande's only World Cup victory is from over a year ago, he has been consistently in the front in this season's competitions. As his consistently strong performances continued in the Oberstdorf qualification, one can expect a strong Four Hills campaign from him.

The World Cup leader Domen Prevc had shown dominant form in the competitions before Christmas; however he didn't show that form on the qualification day in Oberstdorf. He achieved 12 points less with a jump five meters shorter to Tande's, qualifying in eighth place. Prevc didn't impress in the training rounds either; he was only 47th in the first training round and ninth in the second round.

Prevc has shown this season that he can beat Tande and Stoch. If he can perform like earlier this season, he will be a victory contender in Oberstdorf and at the entire tournament. But if he can't improve from the qualification day, his title chances will become slim already after the first of the four hills.

Domen's oldest brother Peter Prevc is defending the Four Hills title. Only 12th in the World Cup standings after a difficult early season, Peter showed some improved form with the ninth place of the qualification. Still, he scored 12.7 points less than Tande, showing how far he still is from the form needed to repeat his triumph at the Four Hills.

Severin Freund, runner-up to Prevc in the last year's tournament, is in an even more difficult position. While many other Germans performed over their usual level on the familiar hill, last year's winner Freund was only 19th in the qualification. His training jumps weren't great either; 18th in the first round and 25th in the second round.

Tande and Stoch's biggest threats seem to be Austrian. Although his training jumps weren't so great, the 2015 Four Hills champion Stefan Kraft was third in the qualification with a jump of 136,0 meters from the same gate as Stoch. Manuel Fettner in fourth place also achieved 136.0 meters, though starting a gate higher to Kraft. Michael Hayböck was ninth in the qualification; however he had solid training jumps with fifth places in both rounds.

The German crowd's biggest hope in Oberstdorf seems to be Markus Eisenbichler. Seventh in the World Cup standings, the 25-year-old has made his breakthrough this season and achieved his first World Cup podium. Eisenbichler was the top German in the qualification in sixth place with a jump of 137.0 meters, though from two gates higher than the longest jump of Tande. In the training, he was first in the first round and second in the second round.

Like Kamil Stoch, Simon Ammann is a World Cup champion and Olympic and World gold medalist aiming for the missing title at the Four Hills, yet he comes to the tournament only in 28th place of the World Cup standings. Thursday didn't see a much-needed improvement in Ammann's form; he was 29th in the qualification as well as in both training rounds.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Hirscher pulling away from overall World Cup rivals

The five-time defending World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher has been as great as ever in pre-Christmas races of the 2016-17 season. Yet to miss a podium in a regular giant slalom or slalom, Hirscher leads the overall standings by 251 points to last two seasons' runners-up Kjetil Jansrud and Henrik Kristoffersen in tied second place. Besides that, Hirscher is leading the discipline standings in both slalom and giant slalom.

Hirscher claimed the giant slalom standings' lead from Alexis Pinturault as he won the season's fourth GS in Alta Badia, making it 33 consecutive top-six finishes in World Cup GS races. Despite a first-round loss in the following day's parallel giant slalom, he retained the red bib as his closest rivals Alexis Pinturault and Mathieu Faivre weren't classified higher than ninth and eighth, respectively.

After winning at Levi, Hirscher had an advantage of 100 points over the defending slalom champion Kristoffersen who was aside due to sponsorship conflicts. Yet in the following two slalom races, Kristoffersen has proved he's the man to beat in slalom also this season. With two victories, Kristoffersen has reduced the gap to 60 points. Yet to Hirscher's credit, he has been the only man to get even close to the reigning champion in slalom.

Given the consistency Hirscher is showing, Kjetil Jansrud's overall title campaign seems like an impossible task. Two super-G victories plus a victory and a 12th place in downhill by Jansrud is a great record in this season's speed races, yet speed disciplines are in minority to technical disciplines in the World Cup schedule. Jansrud competes also in giant slalom, yet he is still to score points in regular GS races this season. To make the overall title campaign even harder for Jansrud, Hirscher occasionally races in super-G, being even a podium contender at best.

This seems like the 2014-15 season for Jansrud again. He won't be able to beat Hirscher for the overall title but the discipline titles in super-G and downhill are the best he can achieve. After two victories, he already has 108 points of advantage over Dominik Paris in second place. Yet he lost the downhill leader's red bib to Aksel Lund Svindal by 18 points in the last race in Val Gardena as he was only 12th, ending his winning streak in this season's speed races.

Svindal was the dominant speed skier before his injuries in the past two seasons. Last season he was leading the downhill, super-G, and overall standings before sustaining a knee injury in a downhill crash in Kitzbühel. Although the recovery took time and limited Svindal's pre-season training, he is already in a great form. With third and second places in this season's downhill races, he is leading the discipline standings and one can expect him to get even better after the injury as the season progresses. The only time he has missed the podium in this season's speed races was in the Val Gardena super-G where he was in podium contention in split times but then missed a gate. He is 120 points behind the leader Jansrud in the super-G standings, which is a big gap with four races remaining.

Sharing the overall standings' second place is Jansrud's fellow Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen, last year's slalom champion and overall runner-up. While he is showing great form in slalom, giant slalom and a sponsorship dispute are hurting his overall campaign.

Missing the season's first slalom at Levi due to a sponsorship dispute, Kristoffersen had put himself in a difficult position, 100 points behind Hirscher in the slalom standings. Although he has beaten Hirscher for the victory in the following two slalom races, he is still 60 points down. For comparison, his winning margin over Hirscher last season was 31 points.

Skipping Levi was also a missed opportunity to score up to 100 points for his overall campaign. Kristoffersen's giant slalom also hasn't been good enough to challenge Hirscher; he is fourth in the GS standings, already 171 points behind Hirscher.

Hirscher's closest rival in the GS standings is Alexis Pinturault. After two victories and a third place in first three races, he was leading Hirscher by 20 points before costly crashing out in Alta Badia. With a victory, Hirscher took the lead by 80 points. In the Alta Badia parallel GS, Pinturault was classified ninth while Hirscher was only 18th, yet Hirscher still leads the GS standings by 64 points.

Although Pinturault has the potential for good results also in slalom and super-G, he is already 284 points behind Hirscher in the overall standings. He has had some good slalom runs this season but hasn't been able to have two great runs in the same race. At Levi, he was fourth-quickest in the second run, in Val d'Isère he was leading after the first run before going out in the second run, and in Madonna di Campiglio only Kristoffersen and Hirscher had quicker second runs. Still, seventh in Madonna was his best slalom result of the season and he is 12th in the slalom standings.

While the five-time World Cup giant slalom champion Ted Ligety is suffering from back problems, the usual GS frontrunners Hirscher and Pinturault have a new title rival. Mathieu Faivre achieved his maiden World Cup victory in the first giant slalom of Val d'Isère. He made the podium again two weeks later in Alta Badia where he was second to Hirscher. Yet two ninth places in regular GS races and the parallel GS's eighth place mean that he is trailing Hirscher by 73 points with four GS races remaining.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Four ladies pulling away in Ski World Cup

Mikaela Shiffrin leads the Alpine Skiing World Cup overall standings when going into the Christmas break, yet Lara Gut, Ilka Štuhec, and Sofia Goggia are within only 31 points from her. Tina Weirather in fifth place is already trailing by 171 points.

Shiffrin and Gut were the overall title favorites in the absence of Anna Veith and Lindsey Vonn. Gut is a frontrunner in downhill, super-G, and giant slalom, as well as in alpine combined. Shiffrin is a frontrunner only in slalom and giant slalom, yet her consistently great slalom performances and a tech-favoring schedule help to compensate her lack of more strong disciplines. Besides she is expanding her repertoire into speed disciplines and she can be dangerous in alpine combined.

Like in previous season, Mikaela Shiffrin is dominating slalom and has won all three slalom races of this season. In giant slalom, she started the season well with a second place in Sölden, yet since then her GS results have been a fifth and a sixth place. What's worrying for Shiffrin's campaign is that she is losing to her overall title rivals Gut and Goggia in GS.

Apart from one start in slalom, Lara Gut has always been in the top four when she has finished a race this season and she is trailing Shiffrin only by five points. Yet four times in this season's 10 starts, she has not finished the race. Importantly, she is showing better form than Shiffrin in giant slalom, yet she can't afford too many DNFs, especially as Goggia has proved to be a true contender in the disciplines where Gut is racing.

Besides, not finishing races is costly for the discipline standings. Despite not finishing the last downhill in Val d'Isère, Gut is third in the downhill standings but trailing the leader Štuhec by already 170 points. In the Val d'Isère combined, she had a chance for a top-10 result, yet she went out in the slalom leg and she is trailing the Val d'Isère winner Štuhec by 100 points. Importantly, she has finished both super-G races and won them, leading Tina Weirather in super-G standings by 40 points.

Sofia Goggia and Ilka Štuhec have been the sensations of this season. Not many people expected Goggia to consistently make the podium in four disciplines and Štuhec to dominate downhill.

Goggia achieved her first career World Cup podium only in late November in the Killington giant slalom. Yet after that, she has missed the podium only twice in her starts; in the second Lake Louise downhill she had her worst finish of the season in 12th place and in the last super-G in Val d'Isère she didn't finish the race. In the Val d'Isère super-G she even had a chance for the overall standings' lead; she was going below Gut's lead time before missing a gate.

Goggia in fourth place, 31 points down, is starting to look like a real contender for the overall title. She finishes consistently on the podium, doesn't have DNFs as often as Gut, and is doing better than Shiffrin in giant slalom. It seems like she has better chances for the big overall globe than for a small discipline globe. She is second in the downhill and giant slalom standings, yet in GS, her gap to the leader Tessa Worley is 55 points, and in downhill the gap to the leader Štuhec is as big as 138 points. Alpine combined might be Goggia's best chance for a discipline title, she is trailing the leader Štuhec by 40 points with two combined races remaining.

Ilka Štuhec made her first World Cup podium appearances in Lake Louise where she won both downhill races. In the next downhill race in Val d'Isère, she showed she can do well also on other slopes by winning again. Besides dominating the downhill races, she won the season's first alpine combined race in Val d'Isère.

Štuhec is in third place, 17 points down, in the overall standings and leading the downhill and alpine combined standings. Yet she seems too much of a downhill specialist to be a true overall title contender. She hasn't been able to match her downhill results in super-G where she has fifth and seventh places from this season's races. That may also cost her in the alpine combined standings as the remaining two combined races have super-G as the speed leg. In order to earn points for her overall campaign, Štuhec was also going to start in the Courchevel giant slalom that got canceled. Yet it's hard to see her suddenly scoring good points in giant slalom as she has scored GS points only once in her World Cup career.

Yet winning races is what can keep Štuhec's overall title dream alive. The points system rewards winning; one victory is worth two fourth places. But still it will be hard for her to race for the overall title unless she can beat her rivals also in super-G.

Tina Weirather is always one of the pre-season favorites for the overall title as she can succeed in downhill, super-G, and giant slalom. Still, her career-best overall ranking is last season's fourth place. After the early season, Weirather's overall title chances are very much gone as she's 171 points behind Shiffrin. In the past two weeks, she achieved her season-best results in all three disciplines she's doing. Fourth in the Sestriere giant slalom is a good result for her but the gap forward was big; she lost the victory by one second and even the podium by 0.71 seconds. Eighth in Val d'Isère was her season-best downhill result, yet far from what the 2012 World Cup downhill runner-up has potential for. Fortunately for Weirather, her both podium results of the season have come from the same discipline as she repeated the second place of Lake Louise in the Val d'Isère super-G, keeping her 40 points behind Gut in the discipline standings.

Weirather has the skills to be a title contender in both speed disciplines, yet the 221-point gap to Štuhec seems already too big. But her chances for the super-G title are still well alive. She has been at her best in super-G this season and both second places have come with just a minimal loss to Gut. If she can keep up her form in super-G, she can challenge Gut for the discipline title.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Domen Prevc leads the World Cup into the Four Hills

Domen Prevc won the last competition before Christmas in Engelberg and leads the Ski Jumping World Cup standings going into the Christmas break. After Christmas the season will have its first highlight, the 65th Four Hills Tournament in Germany and Austria.

Photo: Ingo Jensen, OK Vierschanzentournee

Defending champion Peter Prevc struggling to find his form

Peter Prevc started his clean sweep of the 2016 major titles at the Four Hills where he became the champion by winning three of the four competitions. Yet he hasn't dominated this season like he did last season.

Prevc looked great in the first competition of the season at Ruka, leading after the first round and finishing third despite a fall that cost him the victory. However, in the five following individual competitions he has made the top 20 only once, finishing ninth in the second Lillehammer competition.

The last weekend in Engelberg was very unfortunate for Prevc; he was as high as sixth after the first round in the first competition but fell in the landing of the second jump, finishing in 26th place. In the second competition, he was totally off form, missing the top 30 and World Cup points.

The first competition of the season showed Prevc has potential to succeed. Yet given how inconsistent he has been, it's hard to see him repeating last year's triumph at the Four Hills.

Severin Freund aims for first German title since 2002

After years of disappointment at the Four Hills, Severin Freund finally celebrated a competition victory in the Four Hills' opening in Oberstdorf last season, giving hope of the first title by a German jumper since Sven Hannawald in 2002. Freund couldn't match the dominant performances of Prevc in the following competitions, yet he had a solid campaign to finish the tournament as the runner-up.

Freund got a strong start for his season with second and first places, and leading the World Cup after the opening weekend of Ruka. Yet after that he didn't make the top 10 again before the last weekend before Christmas in Engelberg where he achieved 10th and ninth places.

Freund is a former World Cup overall champion, World gold medalist in flying and large hills, and has Olympic gold from the team competition. The missing Four Hills title is the biggest hole in his CV. Getting back into the top 10 in Engelberg gave some hope for his Four Hills campaign but there is still a handful of athletes showing better form going into the Four Hills.

Domen Prevc sensationally leading the World Cup

While the defending champion Peter Prevc is struggling, his youngest brother Domen Prevc comes into the Four Hills Tournament as the World Cup leader. Domen achieved his maiden World Cup victory in the season opening at Ruka. Since then he has won three more competitions, been once second, and missed the podium only twice.

Domen Prevc is arguably the best ski jumper at the moment. A question is if the 17-year-old sensation can handle the pressure of the Four Hills. Last year he came into the Four Hills with four top-10 results, including his first World Cup podium. Yet at the Four Hills, he made the top 10 only in the last competition of Bischofshofen where he was sixth.

Given how solid he has been so far this season, I expect that to continue at the Four Hills. And if Domen is at his best at the Four Hills, not many jumpers can challenge him.

In addition to Peter and Domen, the Prevc family may have a third brother at the Four Hills. Following two victories and a second place in the Continental Cup, Cene Prevc participated the last World Cup weekend of Engelberg with 30th and 29th places.

Daniel-André Tande leads the challengers

Daniel-André Tande is in second place of the World Cup standings, although already 158 points behind Domen Prevc. Althoug Tande hasn't won a competition this season, he has three second places and would have been second in the last Engelberg competition had he not fallen the landing of his second jump over the hill record.

In the seven competitions of this season, Tande has always made the second round and missed the top four only twice, the latter of which was because of the fall in Engelberg. If he can keep on performing like that, he will finish high at the Four Hills.

Kamil Stoch back on top

The former World Cup overall champion and Olympic and World gold medalist Kamil Stoch is still aiming for his first Four Hills title. Not having made the podium in the 2015-16 season, Stoch returned to the top spot by winning in Lillehammer after two fourth places. He made the podium again in the last competition in Engelberg where he was second.

The greatest success has always eluded Stoch at the Four Hills. At best he was fourth in the tournament standings in 2013, and he has never won at any of those four hills. In the 2013-14 season he was leading the World Cup standings before the Four Hills, yet still he finished only seventh in the tournament standings. Now he is in a great form to finally enjoy success at the Four Hills; during the last two World Cup weekends only Domen Prevc scored more points.

Maciej Kot is Poland's other hope at the Four Hills. Having won the Grand Prix title last summer in a dominant fashion, he achieved his first World Cup podium in Lillehammer where he was second to Stoch. Kot is fifth in the World Cup standings, yet the 12th and 15th places of the last competitions in Engelberg weren't promising for the Four Hills.

Kraft and Hayböck Austria's leading contenders

Stefan Kraft and Michael Hayböck have been the leading Austrians the past two seasons and are again Austria's strongest contenders for the Four Hills. The 2015 Four Hills champion Kraft has been consistent in the early season, finishing all competitions inside the top 10. With three podium results, he is sitting in third place of the World Cup standings. Kraft surely enjoys competing at the Four Hills; two years ago he achieved his maiden World Cup victory in Oberstdorf and retained the lead throughout the tournament to win the Four Hills title.

Ninth in the World Cup standings, Hayböck has found his form at the right time; he achieved his first season podium by beating Domen Prevc for the win in the first Engelberg competition. That was followed by his second-best result of the season, sixth in the second competition. Hayböck has a good record from the Four Hills, having finished in second and third places last two years. Still, two years ago he seemed like the top Austrian going into the Four Hills, yet he celebrated his first victory only at the tournament finale in Bischofshofen while his countryman Kraft celebrated the tournament title.

The 2010 Four Hills champion Andreas Kofler has started the season better than in years. 10th in the World Cup standings, Kofler achieved his first podium since March 2014 as he was third in the first Engelberg competition. However, he has missed the top 10 three times this season, including the last competition before the Four Hills in Engelberg. His form is probably too inconsistent to fight for the Four Hills title.

Manuel Fettner in eighth place is the fourth Austrian in the World Cup top 10. At the age of 31, he is having his best season, having achieved his second career podium result six years after the first one. Still, it's hard to see him among the favorites for the Four Hills. He has finished three times in the top four and twice outside the top 10 in this season's seven competitions. For comparison, Kraft has finished always in the top 10 and only three times outside the top four. At the Four Hills, you need to be in the front constantly with every jump to win the tournament.

Breakthrough of Markus Eisenbichler this season

Severin Freund isn't Germany's only contender for the Four Hills. Markus Eisenbichler is the second-highest-ranked German in the seventh place of the World Cup standings. Eisenbichler has missed the top 10 only once this season and achieved his first World Cup podium with a third place in the second Lillehammer competition. In the last competition before the Four Hills, Eisenbichler achieved his second-best career result with a fifth place, albeit losing 28 points to the winner Domen Prevc.

Daiki Ito the leading Japanese contender

Daiki Ito is the top Japanese contender for the Four Hills. 17th place in the World Cup standings isn't that impressive, yet fifth in the first competition in Engelberg gives some hope for the Four Hills.

Noriaki Kasai has a brilliant Four Hills record from last three years with fifth, fourth, and seventh places. However, this year's tournament may be more difficult for Kasai; the 44-year-old veteran is only 27th in the World Cup standings and his best result from this season is an 18th place from the opening competition at Ruka.

Simon Ammann facing an impossible task

Like Stoch and Freund, Simon Ammann is a great champion whose career lacks the Four Hills title. The 2010 World Cup overall champion and six-time Olympic and World gold medalist has been the Four Hills runner-up in 2009 and 2011, yet after those he has made the tournament top 10 only in 2014 when he was third.

Ever since his second crashed landing at the 2014-15 Four Hills in Bischofshofen, Ammann has made the World Cup podium only once, in the spring of 2015. Since the crash, his landings have been too careful, leading to poor style marks, and he hasn't been in a form to compensate that with longer jumps.

This season has been very poor for Ammann. He is in 28th place of the World Cup standings with a best result of 21st in Klingenthal. That makes his Four Hills dream seem impossible this season. And at the age of 35, he may be running out of time to win that one elusive title.

In short: Domen Prevc the favorite

With his consistently great performances, Domen Prevc must be the favorite for the Four Hills. The only question is if he can handle the pressure. If Domen failed, then Daniel-André Tande would be the title favorite, yet Kamil Stoch, Michael Hayböck, and Stefan Kraft can also be expected to be strong at the Four Hills. Both of last year's top two, Peter Prevc and Severin Freund, need to improve their performances if they are to be title contenders.

Friday, December 16, 2016

My favorite Alpine Skiing World Cup venues

The men's Alpine Skiing World Cup continues this weekend with its traditional pre-Christmas races of Val Gardena and Alta Badia in South Tyrol, Italy. As those belong to my favorite races in the schedule, I decided to make a list of my top 10 favorite World Cup race venues.

10. Levi, Finland

Being the only Finnish venue surely helped Levi to get into my list, yet wasn't the only reason. The opening weekend in Sölden in late October feels a bit like a false start, in mid-November when the Levi races take place I'm already looking forward to the winter sports season. And although the early calendar slot has caused some cancellations due to lack of snow, the races have usually taken place in perfect conditions even for the late start numbers.

9. Kvitfjell, Norway

The calendar slot as the last men's speed races before the World Cup Finals is a big reason for my inclusion of Kvitfjell. When titles are still open, the last races are the best part of the season. Usually in Kvitfjell races there are not only race wins but also World Cup titles at stake.

8. Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

While I like Kvitfjell because of its late-season date, I like Lake Louise for hosting the first speed races of the season for men and women on consecutive weeks. Besides, what I particularly like about North American races (also in other sports) is their evening time slot for the European viewers. That leaves morning and afternoon free for other activities, and watching ski racing is a great way to spend the evening.

7. Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy

The women's World Cup lacks such classics as the men's World Cup has. Cortina is one of the most traditional women's venues and its speed races are a fixture in January's schedule, just like the Adelboden, Wengen, and Kitzbühel races are on the men's tour.

6. Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

Just like Kvitjfell, Kranjska Gora is another traditional late-season venue, hosting the last men's technical races before the World Cup Finals. Besides that, the challenging Podkoren slope is one of the classics of ski racing.

5. Kitzbühel, Austria

The Hahnenkamm races in Kitzbühel are arguably the biggest event of the World Cup tour and the downhill on the Streif is the most challenging ski race on the planet. But there are things I don't like about the Hahnenkamm races.

Adverse weather conditions have quite often hurt the downhill, yet the organizers have been too stubborn to swap the date with the slalom as the most VIPs are coming there for the downhill on Saturday. Besides it's a pity the most prestigious ski race no longer has alpine combined. That being said, the combined formats of the past years have been too tech-favoring, be it the last format of a super-G and a slalom run or the previous format of a downhill run and two slalom runs.

4. Beaver Creek, Colorado, USA

Just like Lake Louise, Beaver Creek is another North American venue with a nice time zone for European viewers. In case of Beaver Creek, it's nice there are three races there, meaning ski racing action already in Friday evening.

Besides, I enjoyed the previous World Championships in Beaver Creek; the evening time slot was great especially on weekdays when there wouldn't have been time to watch the races in afternoon. For that reason it will also be nice to have this season's World Cup Finals in Aspen, another Colorado resort.

3. Adelboden, Switzerland

Adelboden is one of the biggest classics in ski racing, especially in giant slalom. The Chuenisbärgli slope ends with an extremely steep final section where the skiers come in front of the big crowd at the finish area.

If I traveled to a World Cup event, I'd probably prefer going to Adelboden. It's not as extravagant as Kitzbühel nor as distant as Wengen, yet from TV you can see the crowd is big and the atmosphere great in Adelboden.

2. Val Gardena / Gröden and Alta Badia, Italy

I bundled these two as they share the same weekend and are located in the same region. Also starting from this year these two venues' races will form the Südtirol Ski Trophy with an overall winner of the four races.

I like especially Alta Badia. Gran Risa is possibly the most challenging giant slalom slope on the World Cup tour. And as a Finn I have great memories of the Alta Badia races as Kalle Palander achieved three GS victories there.

The picturesque Saslong course in Val Gardena is one of the most traditional downhills in ski racing, even if not quite as famous as those in Kitzbühel and Wengen. Val Gardena and Alta Badia form together a big weekend of men's World Cup action before Christmas, starting on Friday and nowadays extending to Monday with a parallel giant slalom.

1. Wengen, Switzerland

The Lauberhorn races of Wengen may be considered to be less prestigious than the Hahnenkamm races of Kitzbühel; yet Wengen is still my favorite World Cup venue.

The Hahnenkamm downhill is the greatest challenge in ski racing, yet the Lauberhorn downhill is the longest on the World Cup tour and a different challenge. The Hahnenkamm downhill is technically more challenging whereas the Lauberhorn downhill is more about gliding skills and has the highest top speed. Personally I think Lauberhorn is the ultimate downhill race whereas the Hahnenkamm downhill is the ultimate ski race. Besides, the Lauberhorn downhill offers probably the most breathtaking views of the season with the mountains around and the Hundschopf jump between rocks on both sides of the course.

I also prefer the weekend format of Wengen over that of Kitzbühel. I like that alpine combined is still alive in Wengen. Wengen was the first to introduce the super combined format, shortening the downhill leg into the duration of a regular downhill run and combining it with only one run of slalom. That has proved to be a good combined format, being neutral between speed and tech specialists. Also, the Lauberhorn organizers have shown the common sense to swap downhill and slalom races if weather conditions threat the downhill.

Close but no cigar: Val-d'Isère, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Schladming, Madonna di Campiglio

Val-d'Isère and Garmisch-Partenkirchen are both some of the most traditional World Cup venues, hosting both men's and women's races. They both have also hosted the World Championships and Olympic races. Yet still for me, those venues don't stand out from the schedule like Adelboden, Wengen, and Kitzbühel do, and the title battles aren't most intense during those races.

Schladming traditionally hosts the night slalom the week after Kitzbühel in front of a huge crowd. Madonna di Campiglio is like an Italian version of it, hosting a night slalom in the Christmas week. Still both are only one-day events as opposed to entire weekends of ski racing. Besides I am more into speed disciplines, explaining the high number of speed venues in my top 10.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Hirscher facing once again a Norwegian overall title challenger

The five-time defending World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher is again leading the standings after the first five races of the 2016-17 season. After the second place of the season-opening Sölden giant slalom, Hirscher claimed the overall lead with a dominant slalom victory at Levi. Kjetil Jansrud dominated the opening speed races of the season by winning both the super-G and the downhill in Val d'Isère, yet Hirscher remained in a tied overall points lead with a 13th place in the super-G. With a second place in the Val d'Isère giant slalom, Hirscher leads Jansrud by 80 points.

Jansrud couldn't defend last winter his 2015 discipline titles in downhill and super-G, yet this season the Norwegian has got a perfect start for his campaign in speed disciplines with two victories. Yet once again his chances to race for the overall title seem slim. Hirscher already has the advantage of a tech-favoring schedule, and besides slalom and giant slalom he can score good points in super-G. Besides the speed disciplines, Jansrud does compete in giant slalom in which he once made his World Cup breakthrough and won the Olympic silver medal in 2010. Yet the past few seasons he's been struggling to make the top 20 in giant slalom and this season he is yet to finish a GS race. That will not be enough for the overall title if Hirscher stays healthy and in form.

Jansrud's countryman Aksel Lund Svindal has been Hirscher's main rival last years, though similarly to Jansrud, giant slalom has been Svindal's weakness. Back in the 00s when he won his two overall titles, he was among the frontrunners in GS before the early 2010s change in GS skis. Last year he was leading the World Cup overall standings before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a downhill crash in Kitzbühel. Svindal was just able to make a comeback in this season's opening speed races in Val d'Isère, impressing with the second place of the super-G and the third place of the downhill. Given he is likely to improve as the season progresses, the good form in the early season keeps him in those disciplines' title contention. He didn't participate in the giant slalom, which is understandable given his poor success in that discipline the past few seasons and his limited training in the offseason, yet that very much excludes him from the overall title battle.

Last winter Alexis Pinturault had a strong second half of the season, especially in giant slalom where he finished the season in second place. This season he's been ready to race for the GS title right from the start, winning the opening race in Sölden. With a third place from Val d'Isère he shares the GS standings' lead with the defending champion Hirscher.

Pinturault has versatility to compete besides giant slalom also in slalom, super-G, and alpine combined, in all of which he is a World Cup race winner. That makes him a potential overall title contender; however in the last couple of seasons his success has come only in GS and combined. He badly needs to beat Hirscher in either super-G or slalom to have a chance for the overall title. So far this season he hasn't succeeded in that; he was 11th in the Levi slalom and didn't finish the super-G in Val d'Isère.

Pinturault isn't the only successful Frenchman in giant slalom. The Frech team claimed four spots from the top five in the Val d'Isère giant slalom. Mathieu Faivre achieved his first World Cup victory and he is sitting in third place of the GS standings, 31 points behind Pinturault and Hirscher. Thomas Fanara finished the race in fourth place, yet suffered a season-ending knee injury. However Val d'Isère's fifth, Victor Muffat-Jeandet can be expected to be one of the frontrunners in giant slalom as well as in alpine combined.

The five-time World Cup giant slalom champion Ted Ligety has struggled the past two seasons and suffered a season-ending knee injury last January. So far Ligety hasn't impressed in his comeback; he sits in sixth in the GS standings with a fifth place from Sölden and an 11th place from Val d'Isère.

Henrik Kristoffersen dominated slalom last season as he ended Hirscher's run of three consecutive World Cup slalom titles. Besides that he was third in the giant slalom standings as he finished the season as the overall runner-up. This season he missed the opening slalom of Levi due to a sponsorship dispute, putting him already 100 points behind Hirscher. In giant slalom he hasn't been able to match his results from the last season, having scored two eighth places this season.

The veteran Italian Peter Fill achieved his second career World Cup victory last January in the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel, over seven years from his maiden victory. At the end of the season he celebrated his first World Cup title in downhill. Fill's downhill title defense got a strong start with a second place in the Val d'Isère downhill. Besides Fill the Italian team has another strong contender in speed disciplines in Dominik Paris. Also Paris made the podium in Val d'Isère as he was third in the super-G.

Boštjan Kline didn't make the podium in Val d'Isère but had solid results of fifth in the super-G and fourth in the downhill. Results like that seem promising for the former junior world champion to achieve his maiden World Cup victory this season after last season's two second places.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Shiffrin in World Cup overall lead after impressive downhill debut

Three-time World Cup slalom champion Mikaela Shiffrin remains in the overall standings' lead after women had their opening speed races in Lake Louise. Following a second place to the defending overall champion Lara Gut, Shiffrin scored a dominant victory in the slalom of Levi. In Killington, Vermont, Shiffrin couldn't make the podium in the giant slalom, yet for the delight of the American crowd she celebrated her second season victory in slalom.

Shiffrin made her World Cup debut in downhill in Lake Louise. With an 18th place she scored points right in her debut downhill and on the following day she improved into 13th place.

The defending World Cup overall champion Lara Gut opened her season by winning the Sölden giant slalom by almost 1.5 seconds to Shiffrin. Yet in the following giant slalom in Killington, she crashed out on the first run, dropping her into fifth place in the GS standings. In Lake Louise Gut had a solid weekend with fourth and second places in the downhill races and a victory in super-G whose discipline title she is defending. As Shiffrin missed the points in the super-G, Gut reduced Shiffrin's lead to 28 points with the super-G victory.

Ilka Štuhec and Sofia Goggia have been the biggest positive surprises in the early season. Štuhec made her first World Cup podium appearances in Lake Louise as she won both downhill races. She was also fifth in the Lake Louise super-G and she is fourth in the overall standings.

Sofia Goggia is sitting in third place in the overall standings with podium finishes in giant slalom, super-G, and downhill. Following a fifth place in the Sölden GS, Goggia achieved her first career podium with a third place in the Killington GS. In Lake Louise she made the podium again as she was second in the first downhill race. She was only 12th in the second downhill race in Lake Louise, yet returned to podium in the super-G with a third place that reduced her gap to the overall leader 91 points.

It will be interesting to see if Štuhec and Goggia can keep up their form throughout the season. Štuhec is too much of a speed specialist to be an overall title contender, yet she could be a strong contender for the downhill title. While the defending downhill champion Lindsey Vonn is currently aside after having broken her arm in a training crash, Gut can be expected to be a contender also for the downhill title. Tina Weirather scored only 14th and ninth places in the Lake Louise downhill races, yet the second place in the super-G lets us to expect her to become a frontrunner in downhill as well. Kajsa Kling might also be a title contender in speed disciplines; she is third in the downhill standings with third and fifth places, and she was also fourth in the Lake Louise super-G.

Goggia seems unlikely for any discipline title, yet with her versatility she can finish high in the overall standings. However, beating Gut in the three disciplines they both compete in is going to be hard for Goggia. And with the speed skills Shiffrin showcased in Lake Louise and the tech-favoring schedule, the tech specialist Shiffrin might top the overall standings in a way reminiscent of Marcel Hirscher on the men's side.

The Austrian team is missing two big names. Two-time World Cup overall champion Anna Veith (née Fenninger) is still recovering from the knee injury that kept her aside last season. While Veith is aiming for a comeback mid-season, the defending giant slalom champion Eva-Maria Brem broke her leg in training and will be aside for the rest of the season.

While Brem is aside, a former giant slalom world champion has returned to top. After the sixth place of Sölden, Tessa Worley dominated the Killington giant slalom, making her first podium appearance since December 2013 when she suffered a knee injury. After two races, she leads the GS standings by 15 points to Shiffrin. Third in the GS standings, 30 points from Worley, is the 20-year-old Italian Marta Bassino who has third and fourth places from the two GS races.

In slalom Shiffrin dominated the two races so far. Besides her, Wendy Holdener made the podium both at Levi and Killington, yet is trailing Shiffrin already by 60 points. The defending slalom champion Frida Hansdotter is only 19th in the standings, already 174 points behind Shiffrin.

Nina Løseth had strong performances in the previous technical races in Killington, finishing second in the giant slalom and fourth in the slalom. While it's hard to see anybody beating Shiffrin for the slalom title, the GS title battle is more open and Løseth could be a contender for it if she keeps on performing like in Killington.