The women's downhill World Cup season opener in Zermatt-Cervinia was canceled due to extremely strong winds. FIS says "The races in Zermatt/Cervinia have enormous potential. They have the benefit of spectacular landscapes, including the iconic Matterhorn. And they close a gap in the calendar by giving speed skiers an earlier start to the World Cup. A significant bonus: by offering additional training opportunities, athletes’ need to travel to South America is reduced, helping with FIS's sustainability efforts."
For the men Austria have been on a historic men’s slalom drought – not winning an Audi FIS World Cup race in 17 attempts, their worst run since the 1960s – but the powerhouse nation was back in style on home snow in Gurgl, grabbing a podium clean sweep at the first attempt of the season.
Manuel Feller (AUT) led the Austrian charge with a gutsy performance in the second run on a rutted piste with dimming light.
Marco Schwarz (AUT) came second with a brilliant display that suggested he is an early contender for the big globe – he is having a shot at all four disciplines this year – while Michael Matt (AUT) seized third, bouncing back from a series of challenges.
Like many of the Austrian team, Feller had some demons to conquer here. Last season he was leading the slalom in Kitzbuehel, but straddled on the second leg to throw away a potential win.
The 31-year-old was again magnificent in the first run, on this new competition piste in his homeland – but by the time he lined up for a second go, the surface was rutted and the light difficult.
Feller only has one gear however – a top-speed, all-or-nothing approach that can often lead to blow outs – and his second trip down the slope was the performance of a lifetime.
He was fearless in his capturing of his third slalom World Cup win (the other two came at Lenzerheide and Flachau in 2021), and overcome afterwards.
“It is always a dream to celebrate a victory at home,” said Feller. “A first victory after two years.
“The crowd was awesome. This was a super premier here in Gurgl. The slope was perfect and standing on the podium with two of my teamates, especially Michael who has had a tough time behind him, is special.
“It was not the best season for all of us [last year]. We all had struggles. So this is a perfect start. Hopefully we can continue like that.
“Thanks to all the guys and ladies here at the finish area, it is a really good day.”
Feller, fifth in the race for the slalom crystal globe last season, showed consistency where his nearest rivals in the slalom struggled – Clement Noel (FRA) had a tricky second run, Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR) was below par, Ramon Zenhaeusern (SUI) put down a conservative second run and Loic Meillard (SUI) straddled.
All of them will no doubt improve, but Austrian ski fans can – at last – delight in being at the top of the leaderboard again, for now.
Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (NOR) and Marco Odermatt (SUI) will have raised an eyebrow today: the duo are expected to duel for the big globe, but if Marco Schwarz can produce results like today across four fronts, he will be a real contender.
Schwarz has made it known he wants the big globe, and it has made for a tricky balance: he has beefed up physically for the downhill, but will this make him less slick in the slalom?
The Austrian answered the question in emphatic style in Gurgl, looking as technically brilliant as he ever has, especially during a lightening second run – where he produced the kind of charge that helped him win the 2021 slalom title.
“It was really cool,” said Schwarz. “This is my first time here in Gurgl, my first podium in a long time in slalom. To join with two teammates makes it pretty nice.”
Talking about his overall challenge he added. “We will see. Tomorrow I will go to the US to prepare for Beaver Creek and we will see from there.”
Matt, meanwhile, was a perhaps the happiest man of all. He’s had to overcome a long list of setbacks – injury, equipment changes and struggles with form – to get back to his best skiing.
But the 30-year-old, whose last World Cup podium was in 2019, showed real courage on both runs in Gurgl, attacking relentlessly on a difficult track, where numerous racers straddled.
“It’s been a very long journey, this feels like the first podium, to be honest,” he said.
“It has been very frustrating [coming back to form], because you know you can do it, but some things are not working. Now I think I have found the key again.
“This is one of the toughest slalom courses, so I am looking forward to the rest of the season.”
He was quick to pay tribute to his teammates and coaches, too.
“I have a great team behind me, and they know I can ski fast. And the coaches never stopped believing I can do it.
“Waiting at the finish with a colleague, then three of us getting on the podium, is very special.
“You grow up together, from 14 years old we have been together and gone through ups and downs.”
There is surely plenty more to come from this resurgent team.