Aubert earns Zagreb's coveted crown

03 January 2010 18:09

The Snow Queen crown is one of the most yearned for prizes on the women's World Cup and the battle came down to the very end on Sunday, but it was French racer Sandrine Aubert who took the throne.

With nearly 10,000 spectators lining the race hill Sunday, every racer started and finished each run to a cacophony of horn-blowing, cheers and applause.

"It's a very special race," said Aubert, who also won the slalom in Are and finished second last week in Lienz. "Many of us consider this the best race, the most exciting on the World Cup tour. Just to see the crowd and energy around this race ... to perform well here is something really special."

Austrian Kathrin Zettel finished second on Sunday, .43 seconds behind Aubert. The result was her sixth podium this season and although she hasn't won yet, she said she's not frustrated at all with second and third place.

"I'm really happy about it," she said. "I had so many problems this summer with my knee, it's so much better than anything I [hoped for] this season."

Still, she agrees with Aubert that Zagreb is about the best place to land on the top step of the podium. She hopes that one day the Snow Queen crown will be hers.

"There are so many people watching and [cheering], it's really special to race here," she said. "It's a really wonderful trophy. Sometime I want to get this trophy."

Last year's queen, Maria Riesch, came very close to defending her crown, but her sister Susanne came even closer, finishing third on Sunday, .74 seconds back.

"It is a great feeling to be on the podium here," Susanne Riesch said. "Last year I was able to achieve my first top 10 result here and that was a great satisfaction. It's just a different race ... a different atmosphere. The people in the finish area [give you] great momentum."

Maria Riesch, despite losing the lead in the slalom standings to Aubert on Sunday (she now has 293 points to the French racer's 316) and barely missing the podium with her fourth-place finish, said she's happy with her result and with her sister's, too.

"We are always training together in the summer, conditioning and working out. I think we can help each other a lot," the elder Riesch said of her sister. "She's a slalom specialist and really concentrated on the slalom so that's a little bit of an advantage. If you see the results today, so many tech specialists are in front and not so many all-arounders anymore, like Lindsey or Anja Paerson, so I'm actually really happy with my result today. Of course, it's a little bit sad to be right next to the podium but if you saw how I skied in Lienz (DNF in the GS and 14th in slalom), today was really solid and now I have my confidence back. It was a great day for the Riesch family."

Maria Riesch is also planning on getting her standings lead back from Aubert.

"She's had lots of good races the last weeks and she got really consistent," Riesch said. "She's always killing the second runs. But I hope I can get the red leader bib back soon. I hope I have the front at the end of the season."

Although she is no longer the Snow Queen, Riesch still savored the atmosphere in Zagreb.

"Here in Zagreb it's just great," she said. "It's a little bit of a weird feeling in the start gate because you can hear every word so you really have to concentrate on your own thing and not listen too much about what the speaker is saying. But when you come down and the crowd is yelling and cheering, it's a great feeling."

Tina Maze, who finished sixth on Sunday, said the same.

"It was so strange because I heard my time on the course and then I heard I was going well," Maze said. "I really like it to help me ski good ... it should always be like that."

Course crews worked throughout the night Saturday to prepare the course for Sunday's race. Organizers said after 10 solid days of rain, even on Saturday the finish area resembled a mud-wrestling arena. Mother nature cooperated, too, for Sunday's race. Temperatures dropped significantly overnight and the rain turned to snow, so the landscape was wintery for the Snow Queen coronation.

Temperatures are expected to stay cold through Wednesday, for the men's night slalom race in Zagreb.

by Shauna Farnell / www.skiracing.com