Swiss Skiers Optimistic for Success on Home Snow this Weekend
WENGEN, SWITZERLAND - Come mid-January each and every winter, Wengen is a critical measuring stick by which the success of Switzerland’s top ski racers is gauged with great scrutiny.
Win the ultra-grueling Lauberhorn – as Carlo Janka did last season in spectacular fashion – and instant celebrity status is attained. Run off a string of above average performances – as Silvan Zurbriggen has done in the super combined in years past – and a high level of satisfaction belongs to both you and the home nation. Or come ever so close to a prestigious victory – as Didier Cuche has done twice in the Lauberhorn – and all of Switzerland feels disappointment with you.
Much of the attention this weekend will be on the big three – Janka, Cuche and Zurbriggen, but the Wengen World Cup races are also the perfect opportunity for redemption for racers like Marc Berthod, Ambrosi Hoffman and Daniel Albrecht, all of whom have battled injuries on various levels in the past.
One couldn’t be closer to perfection than Janka was at last year’s Lauberhorn, skiing near flawless en route to a commanding 0.66 second victory ahead of Canada’s Manuel Osborne-Paradis.
“There are a lot of good emotions, good memories from last year,” said Janka after his second training run. “It’s good to be back here.”
Success also came two seasons ago for Janka in Wengen, as he won the super combined ahead of Italy’s Peter Fill, claiming his second career victory.
But this season, Janka had failed to demonstrate the early season form of last year, which propelled him to the overall title. He has reached the podium only once this season – a second in super-G in Lake Louise – and his best downhill result in three races is a seventh, also in Canada.
“Maybe not the same confidence like last year, but I’m happy with my skiing now, Adelboden was ok,” said Janka about his progress and feelings coming into the important races. “I think I’m on the right way and I’m ready for the weekend.”
“He’s showing that things are going better and that it is starting to come back,” said Swiss head coach, Martin Rufener. “He feels good and I’m sure he is a hot-shot for Friday (super combined).”
Last season, Janka was second in super combined – losing out to Bode Miller – prior to his Lauberhorn triumph the very next day.
“If he has a good result on Friday, then I think he’ll pull things together for Saturday,” adds Rufener.
Saturday’s sentimental favorite – well at least for the Swiss – is the wily veteran Cuche. The three-time World Cup downhill champ is still seeking an elusive Lauberhorn title in a race where he has been runner-up to Miller twice – in 2007 and 2008.
Cuche was fastest in Wednesday’s final training, but needs to be mistake free and nail the right line at the top of the 4430-meter course, a section where he has struggled, if he wants a chance at victory.
“He’s been pushing hard in training and obviously he has a lot of experience,” said Rufener. “I hope things come through for him on Saturday and he gets his dream and wins the downhill.”
Cuche, who stands fifth in the downhill standings, has admitted that staying focused in Wengen has sometimes been difficult for him.
“With all the sponsors, people asking for autographs and media, it is hard to stay concentrated on ski racing in places like Adelboden and Wengen,” said Cuche during a Swiss team press conference on Wednesday evening.
And then there is the red-hot Michael Walchhofer and the rejuvenated Austrian speed team, which currently has four racers among the top seven in the downhill standings.
“The Austrians have come back really strong after last season, so I think it will be very tight at the front,” says Janka. “We hope for the Swiss guys that we can have one more victory here in Wengen and I hope for Didier.”
The tour’s biggest surprise this season has been Silvan Zurbriggen, who finds himself third in the overall standings, second in downhill and fifth in slalom entering the weekend. Having also finished third three times over the past four years in Wengen’s super combined, the 29-year-old racer appears primed to fare well in multiple disciplines this weekend.
“I think they are both very important,” says Zurbriggen about Friday’s super combined and Saturday’s downhill. “They are 2 different races and it will hurt a bit here in Switzerland, but I think it will be a good hurt. The most important thing is to make the best effort on both courses and hopefully I will be in good shape.”
In the downhill standings, Zurbriggen trails only Austria’s Walchhofer by 15 points, a major surprise. The Swiss racer carries the momentum of a second place finish at the last downhill in Bormio, preceded by his unexpected victory in Val Gardena. However, his best-ever finish at the Lauberhorn was 16th, in 2005.
“In the (downhill) training I wasn’t strong enough to be considered one of the favorites,” he says regarding his expectations for Saturday’s Lauberhorn. “I don’t know really where I am exactly, but will try my best on Saturday and we’ll see.”
For Daniel Albrecht, who has competed in training this week, it has been an emotional return to Wengen, just two years after competing here and one week prior to his horrific accident the following weekend in Kitzbühel.
“It’s really, really good to be back here because for one year we didn’t know if I would ever ski again. Now I can ski the most difficult slopes and it’s not going too bad,” said Albrecht in the finish area after Wednesday’s second training run.
Despite the steady progression in training, Albrecht may opt to skip Saturday’s Lauberhorn as he doesn’t want to jeopardize his bib start number which is based upon FIS points, with a subpar result.
“I will have a talk with my coaches and if it is not dangerous for the points then I will have to make a decision by myself and we will see,” he said.
If the Swiss top guns can post some big results and attain podiums in the days ahead it will surely make the weekend all that much sweeter. However, win or lose, most seem to agree that Wengen is truly a magical place for ski racers.
“I think time stopped here maybe in the 1950’s,” says Janka with a youthful smirk. “It’s really special with the trains and atmosphere. I think it’s the most special place on the World Cup.”
-Written by Brian Pinelli
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