Amid ebbs and flows in men’s Alpine skiing, a constant endured the last four seasons — Marcel Hirscher atop the World Cup overall standings.
This season, the Austrian can extend his record for consecutive titles to five and match the record for non-consecutive titles, the five set by Luxembourg’s Marc Girardelli in 1993.
Hirscher begins his quest Sunday, at home in the traditional season-opening giant slalom in Soelden. Hirscher notched his first career win on the Rettenbach glacier last year, the first of his eight total World Cup victories for the season.
The knock on Hirscher used to be his relative lack of success at the Olympics and World Championships, but gold medals in the slalom in 2013 and super combined in February bolstered his résumé.
The Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games are a little more than two years away. Hirscher, 26, reportedly said he didn’t see himself staying in the sport that long after he was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom, settling for silver. Reinvigorated, he said at the World Championships in Colorado in February that he may compete into 2019.
There are no World Championships or Olympics this season, so the World Cup overall title is the biggest prize.
Hirscher, the leading active men’s skier with 31 World Cup race wins, could be a heavy title favorite given he’s still at a peak age and that his top rivals the last two seasons, in their 30s, may cancel each other out in the overall standings.
Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, who won the 2007 and 2009 World Cup overall titles plus medals of every color at the 2010 Olympics, returns after missing most of last season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon from playing soccer.
Svindal was second to Hirscher in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, but his form, at age 32, is unknown.
Another veteran Norwegian, Kjetil Jansrud, filled Svindal’s role last season, winning seven races, all downhills and super-Gs, to finish 160 points behind Hirscher in the overall standings.
Hirscher, who specializes in giant slalom and slalom, could sit back and watch Svindal and Jansrud split wins in the downhills and super-Gs and fail to gain enough ground separately to overthrow him in the overall race.
That’s not to say Hirscher won’t have his hands full in his technical events.
Start with his longtime giant slalom rival coming back from his worst World Cup campaign since 2006-07.
American Ted Ligety struggled last season while skiing with four screws in his left hand following a November training injury.
Though the two-time Olympic champion won an unprecedented third straight World Championship in the giant slalom in February, he had his least successful World Cup campaign in eight years — one victory, 11th place in the overall standings and third in the giant slalom standings.
No U.S. man finished in the top 10 of the World Cup overall standings last season — hadn’t happened since 2001 — and Ligety will shoulder most of the hopes this year with Bode Miller not racing. Travis Ganong and Steven Nyman will look to build after notching one downhill victory apiece last year.
If Hirscher’s status as the overall favorite is solid, his footing in his most familiar discipline is shaky.
Seven different men won the final seven slaloms last season (including France’s Jean-Baptiste Grange‘s shocker at Worlds). Hirscher eked out his third straight season slalom title by 23 points.
Jansrud, Svindal, Ligety and the rest will hope the overall chase is the one that tightens this year.
MORE ALPINE SKIING: Watch Marcel Hirscher ski with exploding colors