Cuche wins big in Sölden, Ligety grabs second
By Brian Pinelli
Picking up right where he left off last season, veteran Swiss skier Didier Cuche began defense of his World Cup giant slalom title in style with a convincing victory on opening day in Sölden. The 90-kilo athlete made up significant time on his rivals on the lower, flat, gliding section of the Rettenbach Glacier course to capture his 3rd career giant slalom win.
"It was a really nice day," said Cuche. "I knew that I could ski fast here. I had really good training days in Switzerland and at Saas Fee (just prior to the opening World Cup). To bring together good training and good runs wasn't easy because the pressure started to come from everywhere. I stood through it as much as I could and it worked."
For the many fan clubs showing their allegiances with colorful banners and flags while packing Sölden's Gletscher Stadion, the start to the first run at 9:45am was about as exciting as one could hope for. The start order was Didier Cuche, Ted Ligety of the United States and Benjamin Raich of Austria. Ironically, despite a random draw the night before these racers were the top three finishers in last year's giant slalom standings.
The 35-year-old Cuche wasted no time sending a message to his rivals storming down the steep 360-meter vertical course in 1:09.89 - it would hold up as the fastest time of the first run. Austrian favorite Raich, who has never reached a podium in Sölden struggled a bit going .75 slower - only good enough for fifth heading into run number two. 2006 Olympic Combined champion Ligety was considerably faster coming shy of Cuche's time by .36.
"Of course, at the first run I knew I had a big advantage starting number one, but I also knew that it would be a big fight in the second run on a rough course," said Cuche.
Clouds moved in before the second of the two runs in the early afternoon, testing the world's best with flat light on a significantly more rutted racecourse.
With Italy's Massimiliano Blardone as the current leader, the final three skiers took their turns. Switzerland's Carlo Janka, last season's World Champion from Val d'Isere skied a quick lower section and moved into the lead by one hundredth of a second.
Next up was Park City, Utah's Ligety. At the second to last split, he was .80 ahead but eventually settled for moving into the lead by .35, which ultimately would not hold up to Cuche.
"I felt I skied pretty well," said Ligety who raced while sporting a neon green helmet as part of his Shred product line. "I made time on him (Cuche) in the more technical areas. I just lost six-tenths again in the second run on the bottom. That is where the race is won or lost."
The good-natured Cuche agreed and after the race offered an explanation for his success on the lower gliding section.
"It's the weight - a lot of food," he said. "I eat a lot of meat and fish."
Last season, Ligety was third in the giant slalom standings finishing 53 points behind Cuche. Austria's Raich, who settled for fifth today was only 12 behind the Swiss skier in 2008-09.
"I think it's going to be a fight between Didier and I (this season)," said Ligety. "Of course there are a lot of other guys that will come along in future races, but I think it should be good. There are a lot of great hills for me on the tour so I think I have a good chance."
Janka of Switzerland, who only turned 23 ten days ago ultimately ended up .95 behind his teammate Cuche and .35 behind Ligety. For Janka, it was his fifth career podium.
"It was a good day for me and Didier and of course Switzerland," said Janka in the finish area after the race."
One of the surprise performances of the day belonged to 24-year-old Norwegian, Kjetil Jansrud. Jansrud, who was eleventh after the first run posted a stellar second and moved all the way up to finish 6th.
His teammate and defending overall World Cup champion, Aksel Lund Svindal skied off on the second run failing to earn any points in the season opener. He bruised his left knee in training last week-end in Saas Fee and flew to Germany for three days of tests.
After the race Svindal posted on Twitter, "Tried racing today, but my leg was hurting too much. But it's getting better!"
Ligety, 25 is ten years younger than his friendly rival Cuche. At the FIS press conference following the race, the American was asked if he will still be racing at age 35. Ligety's response was indicative of the many good-natured rivalries and friendships shared along the World Cup tour.
"I'm not sure if I'll still be skiing at age 35," said Ligety, with his blonde hair spiked in the air. "I was actually making fun of him (Cuche) at the start because he is bald. I hope I'm not bald when I'm 35."