alexis pinturault

Alexis Pinturault
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Alexis Pinturault will remember an Alpine skiing season, and offseason, unlike any other

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Two months before it began, Frenchman Alexis Pinturault knew this past Alpine skiing World Cup season would be like no other in his 10-year career.

Last August, he received a message from Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher‘s team. Hirscher, the record eight-time World Cup overall champion, among the greatest all-time ski racers, was going to announce his retirement.

They wanted Pinturault, who four times finished second or third behind Hirscher in the overall standings, to be one of the skiers to film a message for Hirscher’s live-streamed farewell announcement.

Pinturault was shocked that Hirscher, who at last earned elusive Olympic gold medals in 2018, was walking away at age 30.

Like many who follow the sport, Pinturault knew Hirscher teased retirement for years, saying at the end of seasons that he didn’t know if he would return the following autumn. But Hirscher, who carved snow while carrying the immense weight of Austria’s biggest star in its national sport, had always showed up again.

“That’s the reason why I didn’t really believe it at the beginning [of 2019], when he started to say, yeah, I’m not sure I will continue,” Pinturault said this week by phone from Courchevel. “I didn’t really want to accept it because, as I said, I never expect it. And also, I think, I really like my rivalry with Marcel because he was a really strong opponent, and he was bringing many good things for the sport. But also for me, because to push always the limit is something really valuable also.”

In Hirscher’s exit interview, he was asked to predict a successor as the new king of the sport. He noted Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Pinturault, the latter finishing runner-up to Hirscher the previous season.

Pinturault acknowledged the new expectations going into the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. He won the Rettenbach glacier giant slalom by .54 of a second. Kristoffersen was 18th. The favorite for the biggest annual prize in Alpine skiing became clear.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said that day, according to The Associated Press. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault won five more times that winter. He led the overall standings by a slim 26 points going into the last eight races of the season in March. Then the World Cup Finals in Italy were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a downhill and super-G in Norway and a giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia.

Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde took second in the downhill, as part of an ascendant campaign, to overtake Pinturault by 54 points. Kilde, whose best previous overall finish was seventh, was the latest in his nation’s line of Attacking Vikings, known for prowess in the speed events of downhill and super-G.

Pinturault, better in giant slalom and slalom, remained confident. The last super-G was canceled due to poor weather. He could still outscore Kilde in the giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia to snatch the title.

“Everything was still possible,” said Pinturault, bidding to become the first French man or woman to claim the overall since Luc Alphand in 1997.

Then that Thursday, two days before the season-ending races in Slovenia, Pinturault returned from morning training. He received a text message from the International Ski Federation. The races in Slovenia were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The season was over. Kilde was overall champion.

“It was, I would say, really big disappointment, but also something I was thinking about and expecting a little bit,” Pinturault said. Kilde texted the Frenchman, appreciating their tight title battle through the winter. Pinturault replied with his own well wishes.

“He was the most — how do you say — regular athlete the whole winter,” Pinturault said of Kilde, who had one victory all season but finished in the top 10 a total of 22 times (to Pinturault’s 17). “He didn’t get a lot of victories, but he was always there.”

Pinturault, whose Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski (first on skis at age 2), retreated to France. He had grown up in the ski resort of Annecy, where his dad operated the luxury Hotel Annapurna.

The nation went on containment on March 17, a week after the Slovenian races were canceled.

Pinturault celebrated his 29th birthday with family on March 20. Around that time, older sister Sandra and their dad began feeling sick. Then Pinturault and his other sibling, younger brother Cedric, started to feel symptoms: headaches (“not that bad”) and a fever. Then the loss of taste and smell.

“This stays for 10 days at least,” Pinturault said. “Those 10 days were very special because you don’t really know when it will come back.”

Then Pinturault’s wife since 2017, Romaine, got sick. The Pinturaults’ cases were mild enough that none needed hospitalization. Alexis didn’t get checked out until after his symptoms faded. He took an antibody test.

“I was positive in everything,” he said. “It was not big deal. I was still able to live, so walking, cooking, walking outside, playing a little bit. Of course I was ill, and I felt not that great, but it was never that bad that I had to stay in bed and sleep and hoping that it was getting better. For me, at least, it was pretty OK.”

This week, Pinturault trained at the French Alps resort of Courchevel feeling, he estimated, 90 percent. Not quite fully recovered. But still confident he would travel to Val d’Isere for more ski training before a summer break.

Pinturault chose a ski career over soccer at age 15, then debuted on the World Cup at age 17. In his first 14 races over nearly two years, he failed to finish all of them, either skiing out or not qualifying for a second run.

Then in his 15th, Pinturault placed sixth from bib 62 (podium finishers are usually among the first 30 racers). His senior career took off. He would eventually become France’s all-time World Cup wins leader, earn three Olympic medals and a 2019 World title in the combined.

The 2019-20 season was characterized by learning, Pinturault said. Then the virus. In one way, it did not hit him too hard. “Like a big cold,” he said. In another way, its affect on the end of the World Cup season, it was more difficult to handle.

“That was, for me, the hardest,” he said. “It was more about the head. You are a little bit depressed.”

Pinturault continued, noting it was not a situation he could control. He is proud of how he raced during a season where, for the first time, he was the targeted star. He feels confident of stepping up again whenever racing resumes.

“Nobody wanted to live this situation,” he said. “All I could do, I made it really good.”

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Course worker accidentally halts World Cup skier’s slalom run

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Argentine skier Cristian Javier Simari Birkner was the 75th and final skier on the start list for Wednesday’s World Cup slalom in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy.

A course worker must have thought the race had only 74.

The worker was near a flag on the course but scrambled away after realizing Simari Birkner was approaching. The damage was already done, as a distracted Simari Birkner pulled up and, with a look of desolation, abandoned his run.

The race winner was Switzerland’s Daniel Yule, who has won only twice on the World Cup circuit, both times on this slope and in back-to-back years. Yule has been on the podium one other time this season, taking third in November in Levi, Finland.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen finished second to take the lead in the World Cup slalom standings and move up to third overall. France’s Clement Noel placed third and stands just behind Kristoffersen in the slalom standings.

Alexis Pinturault moved into the overall World Cup lead, finishing fifth.

Simari Birkner, 39, has been a fixture in international skiing for years, competing in World Cup races since 1998. Wednesday’s race, though, was his first World Cup event of the season. His career-best World Cup finish is 26th in a super combined event in 2012 in Sochi. His only other top-30 World Cup finish was 29th in the same event in Kitzbuehel, Austria. He has never reached the final run of a World Cup in slalom or giant slalom.

But he has fared better in Olympic and world championship competition, with a career best of 17th in each. He was 17th in the 2002 Olympic slalom and has six top-30 Olympic finishes, two each in the slalom, giant slalom and combined. He has twice finished 17th in world championships — the 2003 giant slalom and the 2007 slalom — and has 11 top-30s.

Simari Birkner has three younger sisters — Maria Belen, Macarena and Angelica — who also compete, with similar results.

A course worker also was in the way earlier this season in Alta Badia, Italy, where Croatia’s Filip Zubcic had to swerve to avoid someone at the finish line as he finished 10th in a giant slalom.

TV: Alpine skiing broadcast schedule

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Alexis Pinturault wins World Cup opener; Americans just miss podium

AP
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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Widely regarded a main candidate to succeed retired Marcel Hirscher as World Cup overall champion, Alexis Pinturault passed his first test with flying colors on Sunday.

He beat teammate Mathieu Faivre to lead a French one-two finish in the World Cup season-opening giant slalom in spring-like, sunny conditions on the Rettenbach mountain glacier.

Pinturault held a slim lead of two-hundredths of a second over Faivre after the opening run but extended the margin to 0.54 in the final leg. It was the 12th time that Pinturault led a race after the first leg, and the ninth time he held on to the advantage to win the race.

“Everything is working really well, I have a good team around me,” Pinturault said. “That’s something that brings me a lot of self-confidence.”

Zan Kranjec of Slovenia came 0.63 behind in third, followed by American duo Tommy Ford and Ted Ligety, who trailed by 0.70 and 1.09, respectively.

Ford, with his best career World Cup finish, and Ligety, with his best since January 2018, came close to ending the U.S. men’s program’s longest World Cup podium drought in two decades. The American men had zero World Cup podiums last season for the first time since 1997-98.

Lucas Braathen of Norway posted the fastest second run to climb from 23rd to sixth, 1.10 behind Pinturault, while Swiss prospect Marco Odermatt dropped from third to 13th after coming wide on a left turn halfway down his final run.

Pinturault finished runner-up to Hirscher in the overall standings last season, making him one of the favorites to take over from the record eight-time champion from Austria as winner of the sport’s biggest prize.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault also won the traditional first GS of the season in the Austrian Alps when it was last held in 2016. The race was canceled due to bad weather in the past two years.

Sunday’s win was Pinturault’s 24th career victory, and 12th in giant slalom. He also won Olympic bronze in the discipline in 2018.

“This was the first event of the new season, you had to get used to racing again,” said Pinturault, adding it was “cool, a super start” for the French team to place 1-2.

The result came as a surprise for Faivre, who said before the race that his start in Soelden had been doubtful after back problems affected his pre-season training.

“It was a tough summer because of the injury. We didn’t really know how long it would take for me to heal,” Faivre said. “But training the last two weeks went very well. I had a lot of fun.”

While France led with the top-two spots, the U.S. ski team had an excellent start to the season as well with Ford and Ligety’s achievements backed up by Ryan Cochran-Siegle finishing in 11th.

Ford improved one spot from his previous best — a fifth place in Alta Badia, Italy, last season — on a hill where he had never scored World Cup points before.

“I am feeling strong. My first run was just solid skiing, real safe. The second run I definitely trusted it more and let it go. Psyched with this personal best,” said Ford, who posted a photo from the race on his Instagram account and wrote: “Nice way to score points for the first time in Sölden.”

In sharp contrast to Pinturault, another favorite in the post-Hirscher era struggled in the opening race.

GS world champion Henrik Kristoffersen failed to find his rhythm in the opening run and finished eight-tenth behind Pinturault, before he almost skied out in the final run, losing control of his inside ski in a wide left turn. The Norwegian ended up more than two seconds off the lead in 18th.

“It was a classic mistake that cost me,” Kristoffersen said. “But it’s only the first race of the season.”

The anticipated season-long duel between Pinturault and Kristoffersen will go into its next round at a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 24.

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