Any predictions for the men’s Alpine skiing season were torn to shreds along with Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal‘s Achilles tendon last week.
The revised picture is that of an Austrian seeking history, two veterans and a rising speed racer leading the U.S. men and a jumble of international threats across all disciplines.
Five storylines to watch as the campaign unfolds, beginning with a giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Sunday:
1. Marcel Hirscher can stand alone
It’s pretty remarkable that a man with one career individual Olympic or World Championships gold medal has been the world’s best overall skier three years running.
But so it is for the Austrian Hirscher, who last year likened the pressure he skis under to trying to survive a pack of “a hundred crazy dogs who want to eat you up.”
Hirscher is a clear favorite to win the World Cup overall title for a fourth straight campaign this year, given the now-sidelined Svindal was runner-up the last two seasons.
No man has ever won four straight World Cup overall titles. Only one woman has done it, another Austrian of course. Annemarie Moser-Proell took five straight from 1971 through 1975.
Hirscher can take comfort that this is a non-Olympic season. He was a heavy favorite to win Olympic slalom gold in Sochi but was relegated to silver by countryman Mario Matt. Hirscher finished fourth, fourth and fifth in his other three career Olympic races.
Hirscher has proven more formidable over the course of a season. He ousted Ted Ligety for the giant slalom season title in 2011-12, then took the slalom crowns the last two seasons. He is so strong in those technical events that he wins World Cup overall titles racing few super-Gs, even fewer super combineds and no downhills.
His battle with Ligety in giant slaloms, beginning in Soelden, ought to be compelling.
2. Ted Ligety wants to be a ‘true champion’
Ligety finally won his coveted Olympic giant slalom gold medal in February, but he has said there is a trophy he would rather have — the crystal globe that goes to the World Cup overall champion.
“Because it’s a compilation of a season’s work,” Ligety said last year. “It’s really the mark of a true ski champion. Winning an Olympic gold medal is awesome. It shows you can really get yourself on the top level that day and push yourself. There’s a lot different things that can go into that, maybe the best guy doesn’t always win. The overall title, the best guy always wins that.”
Ligety is on the cusp. He improved from ninth in the overall standings in 2010-11 and 2011-12 to third in 2012-13 and fourth last year. He may be Hirscher’s biggest threat with Svindal out of the picture.
Ligety will go for his sixth career season title in the giant slalom, but he’ll need to capitalize in the faster super-G and slower slalom to close the points gap on Hirscher. He is the reigning World champion in the super-G, but Ligety has made the podium just once in a World Cup super-G race, five years ago.
No U.S. man has won a World Cup overall title since Bode Miller in 2007-08.
3. Bode Miller’s last season?
Miller had his best World Cup season since 2007-08 last year and capped it with his sixth career Olympic medal in Sochi. He said two months after Sochi that the 2014-15 season would likely be his last, but he has also not completely ruled out a run for a sixth Olympics in 2018.
Miller still has World Cup goals. Specifically, he would like to win the circuit’s famed downhill race, the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel, Austria.
Miller has won two races in Kitzbuehel, but both were combined events rather than downhills. In the Hahnenkamm, he owns two seconds and a third over his decorated career that began before GPS navigations were available for driving through Europe.
“For any racer, Kitzbuehel is pretty much the pinnacle. It’s the top of downhill,” he told an Austrian media outlet in 2012. “I’ve never won the downhill here, and it is one of those things that I do feel is missing from my career and my downhill record book.”
This year’s Hahnenkamm is Jan. 24, very likely before the World Cup downhill champion Svindal returns from injury.
4. The next U.S. star?
Ligety is 30 years old. Miller is 37. They carried U.S. men’s skiing the last two Olympic cycles. The next man up may be Travis Ganong, a 26-year-old from California.
Ganong entered his first Olympics in February with zero career top-five finishes on the World Cup circuit. Then he finished fifth in the Sochi Olympic downhill. Then he finished third and fourth in the first two World Cup races after the Olympics last winter.
Ganong is a speed-event racer — he won’t ski the technical giant slalom in Soelden on Sunday — and could be a big beneficiary to Svindal’s absence this year. He’ll likely debut at the season’s first speed races in Lake Louise, Alberta, on Thanksgiving weekend.
5. Best of the rest
In the speed races, Olympic downhill champion Matthias Mayer of Austria is a promising talent at 24 years old, but he suffered a knee injury last week and hopes to debut in Lake Louise.
This could be the year that Kjetil Jansrud, the Olympic super-G champion, takes Svindal’s crown as Norway’s best overall skier and runs with it. He won two World Cup races after the Sochi Olympics last season and is fully recovered from blowing out his knee at the 2013 World Championships.
Veterans Alexis Pinturault (France) and Felix Neureuther (Germany) will look to unseat Ligety and Hirscher in the technical events, though Neureuther is out this weekend due to back problems. They all may be surpassed by Norway’s 20-year-old phenom Henrik Kristoffersen, the Olympic slalom bronze medalist.