Aiming for back-to-back victories, Canada's Erik Guay was fastest in World Cup downhill training Saturday on the physically demanding Stelvio course in Bormio, Italy.
The Bode Miller-led U.S. speed team, by contrast, is still looking for its first podium finish of the season — with the Sochi Olympics only 41 days away.
And if the final training session in Bormio was any indication, things haven't changed much since last weekend, when Guay won the Val Gardena downhill and Miller finished fifth.
Guay, from Mont-Tremblant, Que., also led training Saturday and Miller was fifth again.
"I feel like my racing is in a really good spot — better than it's ever been," Guay said. "And I know the reason as well, so that's pretty exciting."
Guay won the Val Gardena downhill last weekend but has never finished better than fourth in Bormio.
"Some years I come here and I'm intimidated by the course and I don't feel quite up to it," he said. "This year I'm excited about it and I'm looking forward to the challenge tomorrow."
While Guay would not reveal the "reason" for his speed, he did attribute some of his success to his personal coach, his younger brother Stefan Guay, a former World Cup racer.
"To start working well with a coach typically takes two years, sometimes three," Guay said. "Stef now in his second season, I find he's getting confident and better every time. So that instills a lot of confidence in myself."
The Stelvio is known for its knee-jarring bumps and shadows, making it a serious physical test. And this year, there's an added wrinkle with recent snowfall providing changing conditions all the way down.
"Up top it's quite soft and then toward the middle it gets a little bit firmer and more choppy and then toward the bottom it's standard Bormio — rock hard, fast, rattly," Guay said. "So it's got a little bit of everything and it takes a fine touch to adjust on the way down. But it's a fun course."
Miller is still working on his downhill form after a year off to recover from left knee microfracture surgery, but he's comforted by top 10 results in both super-G and downhill last weekend, plus past success in Bormio. He swept the gold medals in super-G and downhill at the 2005 world championships here and also won the World Cup downhill in 2007.
"It hasn't been the season that I had hoped but I've been making progress all year," Miller said. "I look forward to hills that are a little bit tougher and a little more challenging and this one definitely is that."
While Miller finished second to Ted Ligety in a giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colorado, this month, no U.S. man has reached the podium in a speed race this season.
"It's definitely been a bit of a slow start but we've definitely been building — slowly," said Marco Sullivan, the veteran skier from Squaw Valley, California. "We have four or five guys who are consistently in the points, it's just a matter of moving into that top 10."
It's been a sharp change from this point last season, when Sullivan had finished third in the season-opening downhill in Lake Louise, Alta; Steven Nyman had won the Val Gardena downhill; and Ligety had placed fourth in two super-Gs.
Could it be that the Americans are pacing themselves to peak in Sochi?
"I don't think that's it," Sullivan said. "I don't really know what to attribute it to but no one is going slow on purpose. We're all trying to go fast each week."
One of the problems has been the race conditions.
"The first couple of races were cold and icy and we hadn't trained on that," U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said. "Now we've had the chance to do that."
Errors have also played a role, with both Ligety and Nyman failing to finish races in Val Gardena.
But there are signs of a turnaround, with Miller, Sullivan and Travis Ganong — another Squaw Valley native — combining to set the fastest time in every section in Friday's opening training session, when Miller was second.
"It's kind of a cool stat," Nyman said. "But it's just putting it all together and I think that's kind of the big thing right now."