The men’s slalom and women’s giant slalom titles will both come down to the wire, perhaps dramatically on the final day of the World Cup season in Meribel, France.
Snow and course conditions in the French Alps resort were soft and difficult on Saturday, as the adjacent race courses were baked in abundant sunshine. Racers will face similar conditions on Sunday, although temperatures are expected to be slightly milder, but still rising to seven or eight degrees Celsius.
In quest of his second slalom title in three seasons, Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has a relatively comfortable 48-point lead over teammate Lucas Braathen.
However, Kristoffersen appeared to have succumbed to the tricky snow conditions on Meribel’s ‘Roc de Fer’ piste in Saturday’s GS, losing his line and skiing off course in his first run. Braathen, on the other hand, sufficiently navigated the less than ideal snow, stringing together two solid runs to finish second, 0.49 seconds behind race winner Marco Odermatt.
“That was one hell of a battle in the second run – salt isn’t really my favorite and that’s usually how it goes at the end of the season,” Braathen tells Ski Racing Media, referring to the treated, yet deteriorating snow conditions.
“I’ve been trying this season to add salty snow into my repertoire, that has been sort of my weak point, and I think I just did that today and I’m extremely proud,” he said.
Might the 21-year-old’s mastery of the spring-like snow conditions on Saturday bode well for Sunday’s critical race?
“For sure it’s a confidence boost, but with the shorter skis, it feels like a new sport,” Braathen said. “I’m going to take the experience from today’s race and add that to tomorrow’s race. … I believe my skiing is top-three worthy these days, and no matter what happens tomorrow, it’s been a damn good season.”
Asked to assess the possibility of gaining the required 49 points to overtake his more experienced teammate, Braathen quickly refers to a season of unpredictability, one that has produced seven different slalom winners across eight races. Kristoffersen is the only one among the group with two wins.
“I’m not even going to give the possibilities a shot in this year’s slalom, it’s been way too crazy – I’m guessing everyone in the top five can basically win tomorrow and I’m going to be one of the dogs out there to be on top,” Braathen said, referring to the packed bunch, behind Kristoffersen, vying for the season title.
“Especially after me, it’s super tight – if you look at the top four or top five, anyone can really take it away – it’s going to be a mental battle out there for sure.”
Germany’s Linus Strasser stands third, 64 points behind Kristoffersen; Austrian Manuel Feller fourth, 70 off the lead; and Swiss Daniel Yule fifth, 88 points back.
Kristoffersen and Braathen’s teammate Atle Lie McGrath – fresh off victory at the Flachau night slalom – stands 10th in the World Cup slalom standings. If all goes well for the ‘Norwegian Vikings’ on Sunday, the team could close out the season with four racers among the top 10, each of whom has won a race. Sebastian Foss-Solevaag rounds out the Norwegian foursome, currently in ninth place, just four points ahead of McGrath.
McGrath fearlessly assessed the potential showdown between his two teammates.
“Henrik has a decent lead and is really good when it is salty conditions, but Lucas is one of the most mentally strongest skiers I’ve ever skied with, so nothing is done until its done,” McGrath said. “Henrik DNF’d today and Lucas was second, so maybe that’s some momentum for Lucas.
“For sure, it’s going to be rough tomorrow, you can just feel the heat now. It will be another fight in the last race of the season.”
Pressed about what he must do to give himself a fighting chance to hoist a slalom crystal globe, Braathen succinctly states: “Gotta send it man, gotta send it, that’s all.”
French faithful will urge on Worley
French ski racing fans will be cheering vociferously for home-nation hero Tessa Worley, who trails Sweden’s Sara Hector by a mere five points entering the GS finale. Crowds in Meribel were large and enthusiastic on Saturday, so one can only imagine the revelry surrounding Worley as she chases her second career GS title on Sunday.
Mikaela Shiffrin is mathematically still in contention for the GS globe, but lies a distant 51 points behind Hector. Having wrapped up her fourth overall World Cup title on Thursday, the 27-year-old Colorado racer says she is relishing racing without any pressure, but still must remain focused to close out a long season.
“If the course deteriorates … then I have to be on point more for safety than anything, but watching the men today, nothing became dangerous,” Shiffrin told Ski Racing Media in the Meribel finish area. “It’s just the end of the season, warm, sunny, beautiful weather and the snow gets quite soft. It’s not my favorite conditions, but I have to just take it as an opportunity and finish the season strong.
“It’s also quite special to have these last two races skiing without immense pressure – I actually enjoyed the feeling of ski racing today and that’s been not often with my range of emotions, but it’s nice to feel that today and I think it will be the same tomorrow.”
Hector could have clinched the globe or at least taken command of the slalom standings on March 8, if not for an uncharacteristic and costly DNF early in her second run of a home race in Are. Leading up to the mishap, the veteran Swede had been the mark consistency, scoring six consecutive GS podiums, including three victories this season.
“Between Tessa and Sarah, there will be some excitement coming from the final day of ski racing and with Tessa racing on her strongest level of the season in GS, I really enjoy watching and I’m sure the fans will as well,” Shiffrin said.
The first run of the women’s giant slalom kicks off at 9am local time on Sunday, followed by the first run of men’s slalom at 10:30am local.
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