With the Vancouver Olympics relegated to memory, the world's best alpine skiers can look forward to a more, well, regular regular season in 2010-11. But while the interest of casual fans may wane with Sochi still 3½ years away, those in the know recognize there's plenty to watch as World Cup competition begins in earnest this week with the opening speed events at Lake Louise, Alta.
It's a world championship season, so the goal for the second straight year is to qualify for a big event in February — this time, the International Ski Federation's jewel competition in Germany.
Meanwhile, the stakes are high as ever on the World Cup tour, where storylines abound. Can American Lindsey Vonn, the sport's biggest name, capture her fourth straight overall title? Does rising Swiss star Carlo Janka, the men's overall champion, have what it takes to repeat? Can Canada rebound from a rash of injuries and a disappointing Olympics?
Here's a guide to the most interesting teams and ski racers to watch this season.
Of Lindsey Vonn 's many remarkable traits, perhaps the most admirable is her ability to stay hungry while becoming the unquestioned face of her sport and achieving a measure of crossover celebrity. But the striking 26-year-old Minnesotan may see her mettle tested as never before as she bids to become the first person to win four straight overall titles since Austria's Annemarie Proell in the 1970s.
Last season was an especially taxing one for Vonn, who had the pressure of chasing her first Olympic medal when anything less than gold would be considered a major disappointment. She came through by winning the downhill in Vancouver as expected and adding a bronze in the super-G. Vonn went on to wrap up four different World Cup season titles by claiming her third straight downhill crystal globe, second super-G and first-ever combined to go with the overall crown. To avoid a letdown, Vonn focused her off-season training on her weaker disciplines, the slalom and giant slalom. But it's fair to wonder how long she can stay on top.American Bode Miller's go-for-broke style makes for entertaining, unpredictable racing. (Mikko Stig/AFP/Getty Images)
Ted Ligety is coming off his second giant slalom globe in three years, but he'll continue to ski in the shadow of the incandescent Bode Miller. Even at 33, Miller remains one of the most entertaining racers on the circuit because fans never know what to expect when the Ski-Free-or-Die New Hampshire native leaves the gate. Expected to contend for five medals at the 2006 Torino Olympics, Miller was shut out and painted a slacker by a mostly non-ski-savvy American press. Expected to fade into the sunset in Vancouver last February, he won a medal of each colour to run his career haul to five.
Miller, the Brett Favre of ski racing, wasn't sure if he'd return to the tour, and still says he's not certain he'll finish the season. But the go-for-broke American plans to compete more regularly in the various disciplines as he tries to stave off decline: Miller has only one World Cup win since he captured his second overall title in 2007-08.
The Swiss team's power tilts toward the men's side, where the terrifically well rounded Carlo Janka defends the first of what could become several overall championships. Only 24, Janka finished no worse than sixth in the season standings for each of his four main disciplines (he's not a serious slalomer). He didn't, however, win an event Cup title, becoming the first man since Norway's Lasse Kjus in 1995-96 to claim the overall crown without topping any discipline. Janka won his first Olympic medal by taking the giant slalom gold in Vancouver, and he'll defend his world title in that same event.
While Janka's career seems to be blossoming, Dider Cuche's is winding down. At least it ought to be, except the 36-year-old is showing no signs of slowing. Cuche finished third overall for the fourth straight year last season, and also won his third downhill globe in the last four years.
Another Swiss to watch is slalom ace Silvan Zurbriggen, who climbed to third last season in his best discipline and finished eighth overall.
Still the deepest team in ski racing (it's often said that their last cuts for worlds and Olympics would be in the starting gates for most other countries), Austria boasts the defending World Cup men's slalom champion (Reinfried Herbst) and combined champ (the remarkable Benni Raich), plus the reigning world champs in the men's slalom (Manfred Pranger) and women's super-combined (Kathrin Zettel). Oh, and toss in three-time Olympic medallist Marlies Schild, who's still a strong slalom skier.Austria's Benni Raich is a model of consistency, finishing second overall four years running. (Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
But the Austrian women are coming off a down year by their standards. Last season marked the first time since 1997-98 that no Austrian woman finished in the top four overall (Zettel was fifth, and Elisabeth Goergl sixth). Help is on the way, though, with Nicole Hosp returning from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the slalom opener last October on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria. Hosp began her comeback on the same course last month, but failed to qualify for the second run. Still, she's not far removed from the success of her overall championship in 2006-07 and a runner-up finish the following year.
Over on the men's side, Austria has a good mix of productive veterans and ascending talent. Raich, 32, is as consistent as they come. He's finished second overall four years running, and in the top three every season since 2004-05, including first overall in 2006-07. The six-time event globe winner may have something to prove this year after failing to crack the podium in Vancouver despite being the defending Olympic champ in the slalom and giant slalom.
Marcel Hirscher is the Austrian up-and-comer to watch. The 21-year-old technical specialist rose to sixth overall last season, up from 51st in 2007-08 and 14th in 2008-09.
The host team for the world championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in February hasn't produced a World Cup overall champ since the great Katja Seizinger in 1997-1998. But the Germans now have a legitimate all-event superstar in Maria Riesch, who won Olympic gold in the slalom and combined while competing in all five disciplines in Vancouver. Riesch, who turned 26 on Nov. 24, is coming off another outstanding World Cup season: she repeated as slalom champion and finished No. 2 overall behind Vonn for the second year in a row.
Riesch's younger sister Susanne Riesch is a rising threat in the slalom, and Kathrin Hoelzl is the reigning World Cup and world champ in the giant slalom (not to mention the only woman not named Lindsey Vonn to win a globe last season). Hoelzl didn't win gold at the Olympics, though. That prize went to 21-year-old teammate Viktoria Rebensburg, who could be a star in the making after finishing fourth in the GS standings last year while also showing some chops in the speed disciplines.
Ski racing's hard-luck team is hoping for better days ahead. Last season, an avalanche of injuries derailed the Canadian squad's dream of owning the Olympic podium on home snow. Over the summer, a warehouse fire at London's Heathrow Airport destroyed the men's team's entire cache of equipment as it was en route to a training camp in New Zealand.Super-G champion Erik Guay is the first Canadian in almost three decades to be defending a globe. (Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images)
The women's team didn't lose its gear, but it did lose its best skier in the overall standings to retirement in speed specialist Emily Brydon (who tied for 20th), leaving Britt Janyk (38th) as the team's top returnee. The ever-promising Kelly Vanderbeek is attempting to come back from a knee injury and subsequent surgery that cost her the Olympics, while Larisa Yurkiw and Anna Goodman are also returning from season-ending injuries. On the technical side, 21-year-old Marie-Michele Gagnon showed some potential with three top-16 finishes last season.
The outlook is rosier on the men's side, thanks to a strong speed core. Reigning downhill world champion John Kucera says he'll get all the way back from a horrific crash at Lake Louise last year that broke both the tibia and fibula in his left leg and eliminated him from the Olympics. But he isn't there yet, and remains uncertain about when he'll return to World Cup action. Erik Guay defends his super-G globe — the first event title by a Canadian since Steve Podborski's downhill victory in 1981-82. Downhiller Manny Osborne-Paradis is a threat after posting two wins last season, including a surprise victory in the Lake Louise super-G. Former Lake Louise downhill winner Jan Hudec is trying to come back from (another) injury. On the technical side, slalom specialist Michael Janyk looks to make good on the potential he flashed by winning bronze at the last worlds.
Aksel Lund-Svindal (Norway): Lost his bid to win the overall title for the third straight season in which he was healthy, but wound up fourth. Svindal redeemed himself in Vancouver, winning a medal of each colour.
Anja Paerson (Sweden): The former two-time overall champ finished third last season for the second straight year and won a bronze in the combined at the Vancouver Olympics.