Poutiainen holds off Zettel to win opener in Sölden
By Brian Pinelli
At 10:15am local time, 26-year-old Italian Manuela Moelgg kicked out of the start house under bright sunny skies officially opening the 2009-10 FIS Audi World Cup Season. Moelgg, who has four giant slalom second places over the past two seasons, but no victories posted a solid run of 1:11.76. Only teammate and last year's champion in Sölden, Denise Karbon, was faster down the Rettenbach Glacier course in the first of two runs clocking 1:11.52.
Ten centimeters of snow fell on the glacier overnight and the start of the race was delayed by thirty minutes. However, most of the athletes seemed pleased with course conditions on the steep piste as a result of diligent preparations by men's technical race director Hans "Iceman" Pieren both after and in the days leading up to the snowfall.
Only one of the two Italians would stand on the podium at the end of the day. In the second run, last year's World Cup giant slalom champion, Tanja Poutiainen of Finland, who was third after the first run sped down the 360-meters of vertical drop in 1:12.82 Her combined total of 2:24.96. was good enough by the narrowest of margins for her first-ever victory in Sölden. Austria's Kathrin Zettel had a stellar second run, 25-one-hundredths faster than Poutiainen but came up one one-hundredth short of the Finn's two-run total.
"This is a dream start to the season," said Poutianen in the finish area after the race. "I always race really good in Sölden. I've had some podiums and top five results but never a victory. I was a little bit nervous but I knew I could ski really well and finally I have it."
First-run leader Karbon finished 32-one-hundredths behind Poutiainen and had to settle for third place.
Her Italian teammate, Moelgg made a monumental mistake midway down the course catching her right edge, resulting in a tumble and ending her chances for a first-ever giant slalom victory.
"I was just focusing on my skiing and trying to do my best rather than see what the Italians and all the others were doing," said Poutiainen. "But today my fighting until the end was enough."
Last season, Poutianen and Zettel battled down to the wire at World Cup Finals in Are, Sweden with the Finn edging the Austrian 508-501 in total points to claim the season giant slalom title.
"This is a good start but the season is long and the girls will come fast behind me, said the 29-year-old resident of Rovaniemi, Finland. "I still have to improve, train well and stay in good shape but it's a good start and I'm happy."
Zettel, last year's combined world champion from Val d'Isère, France was more than satisfied with the podium. The 23-year-old Austrian up and comer only returned to training in September after suffering a left-knee injury about six months ago.
"I'm really excited about today," said Zettel. "The first run was ok, but the second run was really tough with a lot of bumps and difficult light so it was very hard for driving."
The Austrians suffered a severe blow in the first run when Nicole Hosp appeared to catch her right edge, got twisted sideways and ultimately bounced and slid down much of the upper section of the course. Hosp, an 11-time world cup winner was taken down the mountain on a sled and according to the Austrian Ski Team suffered a torn ACL of the right knee ending her Olympic season.
Last season's overall World Cup champion, Lindsey Vonn, who switched from Rossignol to Head skis in the offseason began defense of her title with a respectable ninth-place showing. Vonn was 1.32 seconds behind Poutiainen in her weakest discipline.
The Audi FIS Alpine World Cup now heads north to Levi, Finland for a ladies' and mens' slalom two weekends from now.
"Now I get to go home and continue the season in Finland," said a jubilant Poutianen. "I'm really looking forward to skiing slalom. The past few weeks we've only skied GS focusing on this race. Now I have to find my slalom pace as well, but I think it will be here. We travel tomorrow to Northern Finland for training."