Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup December recap

01 January 2016 02:48
Anna Holmlund and JF Chapuis lead the SX World Cup after December
Anna Holmlund and JF Chapuis lead the SX World Cup after December -
GEPA Pictures

The 2015/16 Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup season began with five competitions at a trio of venues that saw December play out like a mini-season all unto itself, with enough drama, excitement, heartbreak, and glory to fill a book. While we don't have that much space, we'll try to run you through a highlight reel of it below...

 

MONTAFON, AUSTRIA, 5 DECEMBER 2015

 

The 2015/16 Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup tour got underway in Montafon, Austria, a brand new venue for the tour and one where the blue skies and excellent track conditions (despite tough odds) started things off with what would become the theme of the first month of the season.

Montafon has a strong history of hosting snowboard cross events, and that experience showed in their preparations for the inaugural foray into ski cross. Tough snow conditions abounded across the Alps in December, but that didn't stop the organizers and builders at Montafon from putting together a unique and exciting track.

The Montafon venue truly had a motorcross feel to it, with complex roller sections giving way to sweeping banked turns and a cinematic hip jump before the final drag strip that allowed all kinds of passing and challenges throughout the heats.

No where was this more apparent than in the ladies big final, in which Canada's Marielle Thompson fell behind out of the start but bided her time behind last season's crystal globe winner Anna Holmlund (SWE), before making a slick pass out of the back-to-back bank turn section to sweep into the lead and take the win.

The win was an impressive one for Thompson in her first race back in competition after sitting out more than half of 2014/15 after suffering a knee injury, and the ease with which it seemed she achieved the victory had many wondering how the other ladies' would keep up with her as the season progressed.

Things get even better for the Canadian squad in the men's race, with Deer Valley 2011 world champion Chris Delbosco leading off the season with a victory of his own – his first in nearly two years.

At 33 years old Delsbosco is one of the tour's most experienced veterans, and was at one time one of the top skiers in the game, finishing second overall for three straight seasons from 2009-2011. While he had struggled mightily in the three seasons preceding this one, his performance at Montafon, where he won every heat on his way to topping countryman Brady Leman and Kreischberg 2015 world champion Filip Flisar (SLO) in the final, seemed to signal that some of the old form had returned for the man sometimes known as “The Enforcer.”

It wasn't all good for everyone at the first race of the season, however, and there were two major losses to chalk up after Montafon. First was Swiss star Fanny Smith, who crashed hard onto her shoulder after losing control on one of the banks, breaking her collarbone and putting herself on the injured reserve until at least the middle of January.

The other was 2013/14 crystal globe winner and second-overall skier in 2014/15 Victor Oehling Norberg, who crossed the finish line cleanly after an incredible battle with Delbosco in the quarter finals only to collapse in the finish area, his persistent back problems flaring up to the point that he was stretchered off the slopes by the Montafon medical crew.

While the race in Montafon was in the bag and already feeling like a future classic, the Austrian hosts weren't done impressing just yet, as the festivities carried on after the race with a massive party in the town at the base of the resort. With a slew of DJs, several stages, and 5000 fans on hand for the revelry, the days' winners collected their prizes in rock star style in front of the huge crowd before finishing the night on the dance floor with the gathered revelers.

And then, on Sunday morning, after the party, it was up early and on to the next one – the biggest, baddest venue on the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup tour in Val Thorens, France.

 

Montafon results:

LADIES

MEN

 

Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup leaderboard after Montafon:

LADIES

MEN

 

GEPA Photos (for editorial use)

 

VAL THORENS, FRANCE, 11-12 DECEMBER 2015

 

Val Thorens, France, has been a fixture on the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup tour since the 2012/13 season, and quickly established itself in that first season as the biggest – and, arguably, best – ski cross track in the world.

With a natural line that lends itself to the creation of a series features that run the gamut from huge to tricky, a slow-fast-slow-fast pacing that keeps things interesting through every heat, and a gnarly negative turn that has earned a reputation as the ski cross tour's own, scaled-down version of “The Traverse” at Kitzbuhel's Hannenkahm downhill, combined with Val Thoren's unparalleled vistas, all make for perhaps the best place on earth for ski cross action. And, every year, Val Thorens does not disappoint.

This season the big story coming in was whether or not Jean Frederic Chapuis (FRA) would be able to claim victory on the course at his home resort - a course that was named in his honour following his historic gold medal as part of an all-France men's podium sweep at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Chapuis was coming off a crystal globe-winning 2014/15 campaign, and that, combined with his Sochi gold and his world championships title from Voss 2013, meant that he had won all the major hardware in ski cross by the age of 26. His home race remained one of his last goals to conquer.

However, in the first race of the back-to-backers scheduled for the weekend, it was Chris Delbosco once again, stepping up for his second win in a row in a commanding performance on the course where his last win (before Montafon) had come, almost two years earlier.

Delbosco was again joined on the podium by Brady Leman and Filip Flisar, this time with Flisar in second and Leman in third, as three of the most powerful skiers on the tour asserted an early dominance.

Chapuis went out in the quarter finals in that race, and it seemed like perhaps the pressure and distraction of the off-hill responsibilities placed upon him as Val Thorens' favourite son were getting in the way of his goals.

On Saturday, however, he shattered that illusion, slicing his way to the big final and then charging from third position to first with what has emerged as an early candidate for the “Pass Of The Year,” overtaking Delbosco and handing the big Canadian the first lost heat of his season.

It was a spectacular win, capping another incredible Val Thorens weekend off in storybook fashion and further establishing Chapuis as the best ski cross racer on the planet. However, despite Chapuis success at home, Delbosco's third-straight podium to start the season had him still well out front in the overall standings.

While Chapuis and the men's race was the feature story in Val Thorens, the ladies' competition had no shortage of drama itself.

After Anna Holmlund lost to Marielle Thompson in Montafon, it was clear that the tall Swede was looking for some payback in Val Thorens, and she came out swinging, winning the first of the two qualification rounds.

However, Thompson, who had won the previous three events in Val Thorens, answered back in short order by winning the second qualification round, and everything seemed to be in place for an epic battle over the course of the weekend's two races.

Except, that's not quite how things panned out.

In the big final of race one, Thompson hooked an edge just out of the start gate, catapulting spectacularly over the first feature and landing luckily on the transition below without sustaining any injury. Still, the fall finished her bid for a fourth-straight win at Val Tho before it really began, and she was forced to settle for fourth place while Holmlund would go on to take the victory and reclaim the red leader's bib that she wore to start the season.

Then, in the second race, Thompson crashed yet again, pinched between two other competitors heading into a corner in the semi-finals, tumbling, and missing a place in the big final at Val Thorens for the first time in six events.

And with that, the door was more or less kicked wide open for Holmlund, and she took her second straight race, leading hometown favourite Alizee Baron (FRA) and Kreischberg 2015 world champion Andrea Limbacher (AUT) across the line and on to the podium.

With perfect weather, the hometown win by Chapuis, and the back-to-back triumphs for Holmlund, Val Thorens had once again delivered some of the best ski cross competition we are likely to see this season. However, as the teams packed their bags and hit the road to Italy, there was the sense that there was more to come in the Dolomites.

 

Val Thorens results:

LADIES 1 / LADIES 2

MEN 1 / MEN 2

 

Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup leaderboard after Val Thorens:

LADIES

MEN

GEPA Photos (for editorial use)

 

INNICHEN/SAN CANDIDO, ITALY, 19-20 DECEMBER 2015

 

With a lack of snow throughout Europe becoming more and more of an issue for all the FIS disciplines as December progressed, the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup tour actually got lucky in the Dolomites at Innichen/San Candido, Italy, as the lower elevation of the resort meant that organizers were able to take advantage of inversion conditions to make a monumental amount of snow and save a competition that seemed destined for cancellation just 10 or so days prior.

With competitions scheduled every season dating back to 2009/10, the Innichen/San Candido event is is the longest-running event on the tour. However, competition was cancelled last season due to similar conditions as were experienced this December, and everyone from organizers to athletes were desperate not to see a second cancellation in two seasons.

Thankfully, with a huge effort by the organizers and the efficient professionalism of course builders White Industries, the 2015/16 iteration of the Innichen/San Candido World Cup not only took place, but did so on the best track ever seen at the venue, and two more days of racing to close out the 2015 calendar year lead to the crowning of the king and queen of December on the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup.

Things got off to a somber start on qualification day, with Marielle Thompson, dropping in first for the first qualification, catching an edge at high speed and crashing yet again, making for an uncharacteristic run of bad luck for the 23 year old.

This crash was more significant than the two previous in Val Thorens, and Thompson was taken off the hill by ambulance, spending the night in the hospital. While her injuries were not serious and she would be back on hill the next day to cheer on her teammates, there would be no racing for her in Innichen.

This meant that it looked like it was up to Holmlund yet again to lead the pack, and she seemed primed to do so by winning handily both qualification rounds.

However, things can go off script pretty quickly in ski cross, and by the end of the weekend we would have two new winners on the 2015/16 season for the ladies.

First up was Heidi Zacher (GER), who was gifted Saturday's race when a last-ditch pass attempt by Alizee Baron (FRA) on Holmlund and her Swedish teammate Sandra Naeslund ended up entangling all three skiers, opening up a massive hole that Zacher was able to swoop through to nap her second career win, with Holmlund still making the podium in second, followed by Naeslund.

Then, on an action-packed Sunday where some small course adjustments worked to nearly triple the amount of passing as compared to Saturday, Kresichberg 2015 world champion Andrea Limbacher (AUT) was able to triumph in a ferociously fought big final over Kelsey Serwa (CAN) and Baron, with Holmlund forced to settle for fourth place after three separate pass attempts by her were thwarted.

For Limbacher it was her first World Cup victory in nearly three years, while for Deer Valley 2011 world champion Serwa it was her sixth career podium at Innichen/San Candido and the true announcement of her comeback after taking the 2014/15 season off for academic pursuits.

Still, by the end of the weekend, Holmlund would retain the red World Cup leader's bib by a sizable margin, sitting on the throne as queen of December by nearly 150 points above Baron, with six other ladies tightly-packed within 100 points behind the Frenchwoman.

In the men's event, Jean Fred Chapuis followed Holmlund's lead and went two-for-two in qualifications also, making for four straight top qualification times dating back to Val Thorens. However, unlike Holmlund, Chapuis was able to capitalize on his top standing in the first race of the weekend, skiing almost like he was in another league to his competitors, fending off Brady Leman and scoring his to his second-straight victory. For Leman, the  second-place was his third podium on the season.

It was the worst result of the season for Delbosco in the first Innichen race, as his struggles on the tricky Tirolean track continued with a 10th place finish. Despite this, he was able to maintain his hold on the leader's bib, with one race to go before the end of December.

However, Delbosco was not able to step up on Sunday either, and the hero of race two in Innichen/San Candido would be a man who had dropped out of the conversation after Montafon.

In Sunday's race Victor Oehling Norberg announced in no uncertain terms that he was back and that he was strong, going toe-to-toe with Chapuis and emerging victorious in his second race back in competition after being taken off the hill in a stretcher only two weeks earlier.

It was a courageous display for Oehling Norberg, who raced while wearing a girdle wrapped so tightly that he could barely breathe by the time he reached the finish line after each heat, and winning as he did despite challenges throughout the big final by Chapuis made his performance even more impressive.

Chapuis would go on to to claim second, followed by his teammate Sylvain Miaillier, making for a strong weekend all around for the French and giving Chapuis the red bib and the unofficial title of the king of December. Leman, with his second place performance on Saturday and a fifth of Sunday, would leapfrog Delbosco to finish the month sitting in second, 45 points off of Chapuis' pace and just 13 points ahead of “Del”. And, lurking just behind them was Flisar sitting in fourth, as the typically slow-starting Slovenia finished off what was perhaps his best December since arriving on the World Cup.

It was another storybook ending in a season that seems to be producing them every race, and it came at the end of the most epic weekend yet at the most historic course on the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup tour. The 2015/16 incarnation of the Innichen/San Candido ski cross World Cup set a new benchmark for the event, sending the tour into the holiday break on a breathtaking high note.

And so the top skiers from the 2014/15 World Cup finished the opening run of events just where they left off last season, sitting on top of the 2015/16 Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup rankings. While neither Holmlund or Chapuis hold unassailable leads after the first five races of the season, both are exhibiting flashes of brilliance that suggest the rest of the field will be in tough to close ground on them. The three diverse tracks of the opening month of the season truly threw just about everything ski cross has to offer at all the athletes, and Holmlund and Chapuis proved their prowess throughout.

 

Innichen/San Candido results:

LADIES 1 / LADIES 2

MEN 1 / MEN 2

 

Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup leaderboard after Innichen/San Candido:

LADIES

MEN

GEPA Photos (for editorial use)