Speed freaks: World Cup 2014/15

Austria's Marcel Hirscher on the edge of glory - Courtesy of Atomic
Austria’s Marcel Hirscher on the edge of glory – Courtesy of Atomic

Fasten your seatbelt: the new World Cup season is upon us. Graham Bell has the lowdown on the ones to watch 

A t the tail end of last season, while recovering from her second ACL knee repair, Lindsey Vonn moonlighted behind the ticket counter of her home town, Vail. No one recognised her.

When Vail/Beaver Creek hosts the 2015 World Ski Championships in February, Lindsey will hope for more encouraging home support. The big question is: can she make a more successful comeback this time around?

The injury last season that kept her out of the Sochi Olympics was not as severe as the original damage caused by the crash in the Schladming 2013 World Championships, but the time away from the high-speed racing will now start to play a factor. A home World Championships will certainly give her motivation, but will also add to the pressure.

Someone who Lindsey will not have to worry about this season is her great rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch from Germany, who retired last spring at just 29 years old. Considering that Switzerland’s Didier Cuche holds the men’s record for oldest ever World Cup winner at 37 and Michaela Dorfmeister, from Austria, the women’s at 32, Maria’s news was a surprise, but it was her stated desire to quit while she was at the top. With three gold and one silver medal from the last two Olympic Games you can’t argue with that.

Lindsey Vonn is one month older than Hoefl-Riesch, but has no retirement plans, especially as she is only four World Cup wins away from overtaking Annemarie Moser-Proell’s record of 62 wins.

While Vonn has been away from the tour, the competition has grown significantly stronger. Slovenia’s Tina Maze became a record breaker herself in 2013 with the most World Cup points scored in a single season, beating Hermann Maier’s old record by 414 points. Do not expect her to make the same erratic start as last season – her two gold medals in Sochi 2014 proved she is still a fierce competitor.

Switzerland’s Lara Gut is perhaps Lindsey’s biggest threat at the World Championships – she loves the Birds of Prey course at Beaver Creek, taking a double victory there last season.

World Cup overall winner Anna Fenninger, from Austria, had a storming end to the 2014 season after the massive confidence boost of winning a gold and silver medal in Sochi; if she can continue on the same form, then Lindsey will have her work cut out in the speed events.

In the technical events all the focus will be on the girl tipped as the next Lindsey Vonn: Mikaela Shiffrin, Alpine skiing’s youngest ever Olympic gold medalist in Sochi at just 18.

On the Men’s tour, three racers stand out as clear favourites in this World Championship season, the three reigning 2013 world champions: Alex-Lund Svindal*(Norway) in Downhill, Ted Ligety (USA) in Super-G, Combined and GS and Marcel Hirscher (Austria; pictured above) in Slalom.

Of the three, Svindal probably has the most to prove after the disappointment of missing out on the medals in Sochi; he will be looking forward to a double stab on the Birds of Prey course. The Men’s tour will stop there in early December, then again for the World Championships in February.

Although Ligety was slightly disappointed not to be in the shake-up for the overall World Cup last season, he is the only one of the three to claim Olympic gold. Ligety will also be looking forward to racing on home snow in Beaver Creek on a piste he dominated last season.

Last season Marcel Hirscher performed the impossible for a third year in a row, by winning the overall World Cup without competing in all the disciplines. This season he still will not be racing downhill, but any technical event without him on the podium will be a surprise.

Challenging Hirscher for the podium in World Cup slaloms will be the youngest male medallist in Olympic Alpine skiing history, Henrik Kristoffersen at 19, from Norway, and the oldest Olympic gold medallist at 34, Mario Matt, from Austria. Of the two, Kristoffersen should be the real worry. He has taken Hirscher’s technique and turbocharged it – imitation, they say, is the best form of flattery.

Finally Bode Miller could be back for one last hurrah – unfinished business with the Hahnenkamm course and a home World Championships could be enough to persuade the 37-year old back into the ring.

* Since writing this, Aksel Lund Svindal has torn his achilles whilst playing football, and is likely to miss the whole season