February 9, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Erica Bulman)—Only the world's most cunning and experienced speedsters tame this Olympic downhill, as American Daron Rahlves and Austrian Hermann Maier showed Thursday during the first official training run.
The Kandahar Banchetta course is rugged, rigorous and relentless _ there's no chance to coast and there's no downhill like it on the World Cup circuit.
Rahlves, the last man to win a World Cup downhill at Sestriere in 2004, once again finished first. His time of 1 minute, 49.46 seconds dusted the No. 2 finisher, World Cup downhill champion Michael Walchhofer of Austria, by more than a full second.
"Obviously if I'm leading by 1.2 seconds, I like this hill, said Rahlves, who thrives on courses that are icy and tough rather than gentle and flat because he is both daring and relatively light. "This race comes down to me. I'm my biggest challenger. If I allow myself to ski well and relax, I have a great chance to win.
Rahlves was quickest through every interval in the first of three training days ahead of Sunday's gold-medal race on the 2.06-mile course. He owned the fastest average speed at 67.42 mph.
Maier, who will ski his first Olympic downhill since his famously fantastic crash at Nagano in 1998, crossed third in 1:50.73.
"There are a lot of bumps out there, cautioned the double Olympic champion, who said he's recovering from the flu. "You have to ski very aerodynamically and there is always something coming at you. You must always be thinking.
Like a fast-paced video game, the course throws out challenge after challenge. It starts with two demanding jumps, the first of several which racers face when they're not negotiating rollers that throw them out of their tuck or fall-away turns that make it tough to get their footing.[pagebreak]"You can never relax, said Fritz Strobl, who hopes to become the first man to successfully defend his Olympic downhill title.
The upper section alternates between brief flat stretches and difficult bends. Next comes a wooded area, where the course becomes steeper and faster with alternating turns and "schusses _ steep fast sections _ that continue until the finish line.
Experience, technical skill and brains will make the difference. Skiers will need to use the daily one-hour course inspection ahead of their runs to devise a solid strategy and draw a well-calculated line.
"It will make a great champion because it is a long and hard course, said Switzerland's Didier Cuche, an 11-year veteran who clocked 11th best Thursday.
American Bode Miller _ the reigning downhill world champion who could as easily medal in all five Alpine events as he could crash and burn _ finished 16th, 2.75 seconds back, but appeared relaxed and happy after his run.
Miller, whose two silvers were the only U.S. Alpine medals at Salt Lake City in 2002, has only one win this season _ a giant slalom at Beaver Creek two months ago.
"Actually it's pretty good, a smiling Miller said of the course before leaving the finish area.
Though Miller raced here in 2004, finishing 22nd, this was the first time many competitors had skied Sestriere.
"It helps to know the course, said 22-year-old Canadian Manuel-Osborne Paradis, who crossed 36th, 4.91 back, in his first career trip down the slope.[pagebreak]Only three World Cup downhill races have been staged here. The last time was at the 2004 World Cup finals, where Strobl settled for second place behind Rahlves. Frenchmen Henri Duvillard won in 1970 and Jean-Claude Killy in 1967, the first downhill here.
Two more training runs are scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
More will be at stake than just practice. Several members of the two leading national teams will be competing for the final spots on their squads.
Americans Scott Macartney, Steven Nyman and Marco Sullivan are vying for the last two berths on their team, and the fastest of the trio in Friday's training will secure a first spot. Then tthe last two will fight for the remaining berth in Saturday's practice.
Meanwhile, Austrians Klaus Kroell, Andreas Buder, Hannes Reichelt, Rainer Schoenfelder and Benjmain Raich _ the overall World Cup points leader this season _ are fighting for the last remaining downhill berth.
Each nation has four spots in each discipline.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press