Clement Noel, the reigning men’s Olympic slalom champion, signalled a dramatic return to form at just the right time by claiming victory in front of 45,000 screaming fans in Schladming’s famous night slalom.
Noel arrived in Austria having failed to finish five of his 10 World Cup slalom races since winning Olympic gold in Beijing 11 months ago, picking up just two podium places along the way.
But with the 2023 FIS Alpine Skiing World Championships starting on home snow in Courchevel Meribel in just 13 days, the Frenchman powered his way to top spot.
“It was tough the beginning of the season, that’s why it feels so special to win here tonight because I struggled a lot, with the confidence and everything,” Noel said, after jumping up from seventh after run one to finish ahead of another skier who had been struggling for form, Ramon Zenhaeusern.
“Lots of DNFs (did not finishes) at the beginning of the season. I was not so fast. I was fast in training but not really in races so I was kind of wondering how I could get back to the top,” a delighted Noel added.
Old friend, and one of the only men taller than him on the World Cup circuit, Zenhaeusern was equally over-joyed to find his best under the Austrian lights.
“It’s one of the (most) emotional podiums in my career because I started in 25th position at the beginning of the season (in the rankings),” said Zenhaeusern.
The 2.02m skier struggled with shoulder and back injuries last season but a controlled and aggressive second run saw him jump from fifth after run one to finish as runner-up, just ahead of the slalom season’s standings leader Lucas Braathen.
All this on a course the Swiss man admitted to previously “not really liking”.
“To end today with this crowd, with so many people, it’s just amazing,” Zenhaeusern laughed before declaring he was “looking forward” to Schladming’s famous “party”.
The wildly enthusiastic crowd – some of whom watched the race from the comfort of hot tubs – were certainly treated to a wonderful race. All three of the season’s big guns put themselves in position at the halfway point, with Henrik Kristoffersen, Manuel Feller and Braathen within less than 0.60 seconds of each other at the top of the leaderboard.
But each one made crucial errors to leave the way open for Noel and Zenhaeusern.
And it was left to Noel to describe just what it meant to two skiers who have been searching for a long time for this kind of performance.
“It’s so difficult to be 100% confident all the time (in slalom) and when you start to make mistakes or ski a little bit less fast then you are starting to ask yourself too many questions and it’s difficult do your own skiing or (find) magic,” he said, before casting his mind ahead.
“For the World Championships it means a lot to win a race just before and I will be, for sure, more confident and all the French team also.”
There is one more men’s Audi FIS World Cup slalom race for the rest of the field to grab a similar boost, taking place on 4 February in Chamonix.