50 Years of Alpine Ski World Cup – Sestriere in a league of its own!
Nearly two hundred ski areas around the globe hosted at least once a World Cup event since the very first competition at Berchtesgaden on Jan.5th - 1967 – but only five from the fifteen places from that opening World Cup season are still ‘active’ nowadays. In the alphabetical order there are Adelboden (SUI), Kitzbühel (AUT) Madonna di Campiglio (ITA), Sestriere (ITA) and Wengen (SUI).
On March 3rd - 1967, the spectacular site of Sestriere created nearly forty years earlier by FIAT’s founder Giovanni Agnelli, organized the first ever World Cup downhill races on Italian soil – it was also the start of an amazing success story in winter sports for that distinctive resort in Piedmont!
In the following decades, Sestriere became a booming skiing destination as well as the host of a unique series of major international snow events – starting with the legendary Arlberg-Kandahar races organized since 1952 and crowned with the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. In the meantime, Sestriere put together numerous major international competitions as the Skiing World Series in the mid 1980’s, dozens of World Cup stages for women and men, FIS World Championships in 1997 as well as the 2004 World Cup ‘Grand Finals’ – truly a record in its kind that no other winter sports resort can match.
The list of athletes having excelled on the ‘Classic’ Kandahar-Banchetta or the G.A. Agnelli runs since 1967 truly is impressive as it includes nearly all the names of leading champions in modern ski racing history. It started with the impressive victory of Jean Claude Killy with an advance of nearly two seconds on his teammate Bernard Orcel after a reckless run down the treacherous downhill course.
On the women’s side, his teammate Marielle Goitschel shared first place in the women’s Kandahar race with Giustina Demetz to enjoy her only second win in the specialty. In December 1971, Austria’s skiing legend Annemarie Moser-Proell also prevailed on the ‘Kandahar Banchetta’ more than thirty years before her successors as ‘speed-queens’ – Renate Goetschl in 2004 and USA’s Lindsey Vonn in 2008, the last time women competed at Sestriere.
A few moments remain particularly significant and memorable – starting with Pirmin Zurbriggens’s first ever slalom win back in December 1984 – allowing him later on to become the first ever allrounder able to celebrate World Cup wins in all five disciplines of modern ski racing, a feat also achieved afterwards by Marc Girardelli, Gunter Mader, Kjetil André Aamodt or Bode Miller.
In fact Bode achieved quite a stunning performance in Sestriere in December 2004 winning there his last World Cup slalom to enjoy his sixth win in all four alpine specialties within two months. The US American had previously triumphed in giant slalom races at Soelden and Val d’Isère, in downhill at Lake Louise and Beaver Creek, and in a Super-G in Canada! He crowned that amazing 2004/05 season with two more FIS gold medals at Bormio before receiving his first overall World Cup globe at the Finals at Lenzerheide.
The great era of Alberto Tomba
Bologna’s Alberto Tomba won six races from 1987 to 1994 on the challenging slopes overlooking the ‘Colle di Sestriere’ including his very first one back on November 27th 1987 when the local OC organized a very early start of the World Cup season.
Wearing bib 25 Alberto surprised himself and the rest of the field that day clearly beating former slalom World Champion Jonas Nilsson and Austria’s Günter Mader… Two days later he managed to upset another (more) famous Swede in giant slalom – three time overall World Cup champion Ingemar Stenmark, also a former winner in slalom at Sestriere!
Alberto also excelled in December 1994 one of the first ever World Cup slaloms organized in the Alps under floodlight – he surely was happy to have been able to sleep a little longer than usual !
A good place for experts
The Sestriere event has also been sometimes special for the Kostelic family with Janica enjoying three slalom wins there while her older brother Ivica scored his first ever World Cup points in December 2000 finishing 21st in a slalom. Two years later he dominated the rest of the field in a special slalom format – the ‘KO Slalom’ on his way to clinch gold in that specialty a few months later at St. Moritz!
The list of winners in the numerous women’s races included other world class gate-specialists as Erika Hess, Anja Paerson, Sonja Nef, Vreni Schneider, Marlies Schild or Mikaela Dorfmeister, all past World Cup champions in a specialty or in the overall standings.
Marlies Schild had to be very patient in the early part of her career marked by numerous crashes and injuries until finding her best rhythm in March 2004 to finally celebrate her maiden World Cup triumph in Sestriere on the last weekend of racing that winter.
Those thrilling 2004 Finals were also marked by the great fight for the men’s crown between four of the most charismatic champions on the men’s tour that year – Bode Miller, Benjamin Raich, Stefan Eberharter and Hermann Maier, who was in the lead in the overall standings at the beginning of the week!
Herman’s greatest win ?
That group was only separated by a few points before the first speed race on the Banchetta downhill run and each of them had strong chances for the overall victory. With his 2nd place just behind California’s Daron Rahlves in the opening downhill race, Eberharter got very close to Maier who didn’t score a single point as he only came in 18th - ahead of Miller a distant 22nd . At that point Stefan seemed to have a good shot at an eventual third consecutive overall title as Herman was having a tough time dealing with the very aggressive snow that was covering the slopes of Sestriere.
Yet after another of his crazy runs, Maier managed to beat Eberharter by nearly a second the next day in Super-G and reinforced his lead in the intermediate standings up to 42 points while Benni Raich kept his chances alive with two technical races left taking an unexpected 4th place that day!
The Benni Raich’s hopes to beat all of them vanished over the weekend as the giant slalom race had to be cancelled because of strong gusts of wind and snow – at that point his delay on Maier was too important… “I feel sorry for Benni as he would have fully deserved to clinch the big globe, he would have been a great overall champion it,” commented the Austrian veteran afterwards. “He is still young and his best days are still to come.” In fact, Raich captured the overall title in 2006 after winning the combined and the slalom titles at Bormio 2005 – before winning two more Olympic gold medals in slalom and giant slalom at Sestriere in 2006.
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