Defending overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn will go head-to-head with German rival Maria Riesch on Saturday at this season's first slalom race in Finland.
The American three-time overall winner, known for her dominance in downhill and super-G, has focused her pre-season training on increasing her ability to explode out of turns in the slalom and giant slalom.
The Olympic downhill champion's aim is to keep an advantage over Riesch, her best friend on the circuit and the Olympic slalom gold medallist. Riesch finished second in the overall standings behind Vonn the last two years, and is seeking to close the gap this season.
"I know her big goal is to beat me this year," Vonn said. "Not that it hasn't been the last years, but I feel extra pressure from her this year."
Canada will have 12 skiers competing this weekend, led by veteran Michael Janyk of Whistler, B.C.
"Physically I would say I'm as strong as I've always been," said Janyk, who finished ninth in the overall World Cup men's slalom standings last year. "Mentally I feel way more prepared because of the work I've done if the off-season."
Among the five Canadian women skiing Saturday will be Anna Goodman of Point Claire, Que., who is returning to the World Cup circuit after undergoing right knee surgery in March.
Hugues Ansermoz, the women's team coach, said the race is a yardstick for the season.
"This race is important for us," he said. "It gives us a sense of where we stand and what we need to work on over the next weeks."
The event in Levi could give Vonn a good start. Two years ago she won her first World Cup slalom race here and last year she finished second, only eight-hundredths of a second behind Riesch.
Vonn has said she loves the Finnish hill, 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, which reminds her of racing back in Minnesota, where she grew up.
Riesch, 25, travelled to Gallivare, Sweden, on Monday to practise in similar conditions as those in Levi and escape the warm temperatures in central Europe.
Riesch and Vonn will be up against home favourite Tanja Poutiainen and Austria's Marlies Schild, who won the slalom World Cup in 2007 and 2008, and the silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
On the men's side, Olympic slalom champion Giuliano Razzoli of Italy will make his season debut in Levi on Sunday. Razzoli missed the season opener in Soelden, Austria, due to a hand injury suffered during pre-season training.
The injury, which required surgery, stopped him from skiing for a month and he couldn't practise with normal slalom gates until this week. Instead he spent time in the gym and focused on getting stronger.
"I'll do my best and we will see what happens," Razzoli said Friday. "My arm is better, it is OK."
Razzoli is still far from his best, but hopes he'll back at full strength by January.
Alpine Canada's strength rests with the men's speed team.
Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., won the super-giant slalom Crystal Globe last season, the first Canadian in 28 years to win a World Cup discipline. Teammate Manuel Osborne-Paradis of Invermere, B.C., was on the podium three times, including wins in both downhill and super-giant slalom.
Robbie Dixon of North Vancouver, B.C., is looking forward to a breakout season. John Kucera of Calgary, who missed all of last season with a broken leg, is expected to return in the new year.
The young women's team will be led by veteran Britt Janyk, Michael Janyk's older sister. Emily Brydon of Fernie, B.C., who had two podium finishes last year, has retired while Kelly VanderBeek of Chilliwack, B.C., is still removing from a knee injury suffered last year.
The first men's downhill race will be held Nov. 27 in Lake Louise, Alta. The women will open their speed season the next week.
Razzoli will be challenged at the Levi slalom by defending World Cup slalom champion Reinfried Herbst and another Austrian, 2009 world champion Manred Pranger.
The Finnish crowd will be cheering for former slalom world champion Kalle Palander, who competes for the first time on home snow after a near three-year break brought on by a right leg injury.
The Finn made a strong comeback in the World Cup giant slalom opener in Soelden, posting the 11th fastest time, before fog forced organizers to call off the race.
"There have already been some really good parts in my runs, now it's only a matter of putting the pieces together," Palander said this week.
Racing conditions at the Levi Black piste are expected to be good and not terribly cold for the region —the weekend temperature was forecast at minus 8 degrees C.
Levi, a small ski resort that is the world's most northernmost World Cup venue, is hosting World Cup slaloms for the fifth time since 2006. About 20,000 fans are expected.