Beaver Creek brings bigthings for U.S. |

Beaver Creek brings bigthings for U.S.

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – Oh, baby. Bill Marolt & Co. would like to see more men’s World Cup races on Birds of Prey, Beaver Creek’s heralded and steep, steeper, steepest racing trail.

The men’s alpine World Cup tour made a beeline for Europe this week for the rest of the winter after arguably the most successful series of races – for the Yanks – in World Cup annals. The Olympics are Feb. 10-26 in Torino, but the VISA Birds of Prey races served as a nearly ideal springboard for the Olympic season. The races included:

– Two U.S. wins (Daron Rahlves in a pulsating downhill and Bode Miller, that sometime Park City resident, in a weather-whipped giant slalom blending snow, winds and what seemed to be skiing by Braille)

– Five top-3s (Rahlves and Miller were 1-2 in DH, Miller and Rahlves went 1-2 in GS and determined Parkite Ted Ligety took third in slalom)

– Two other top-5s (Rahlves fifth in super-G, and Park City veteran Erik Schlopy, with his best performance since his GS bronze medal at the 2003 World Championships, overcoming a broken left hand to finish fourth, giving the U.S. Ski Team a blockbuster 1-2-4 showing in GS)

– Two more top-25s for Steve Nyman, the lanky Orem skier who shifted from Sundance to the Park City Ski Team and is emerging as a top contender for an Olympic spot through the season’s early going

"Even though we’ve had momentum over the last few years," Marolt, president and CEO of the U.s. ski and Snowboard Association since the summer of 1996, said in the finish area, "you never know if it’s going to carry forward for the next year. Now, we have a toehold and a platform from which we’ve got to push forward. There’s a lot of stuff between here and February."

Added U.S. alpine chief Jesse Hunt, "It’s tough to sum up the week other than ‘It’s just been tremendous.’ I obviously didn’t expect this type of results at this level but the guys are well-prepared and coming in here they’re coming onto familiar terrain…

"Beaver Creek did an awesome job of preparing these races and actually following through and delivering these races when every day has been such a difficult one and a challenge," he said.

A look back:

Thursday (super-G) – Slow start for the Yanks. Gusting winds and swirling snow make for a nasty stew of race conditions. And as the snow fell, it became clear early skiers had the best chance for success.

Austrian Hannes Reichelt, starting No. 7, won in 1 minute, 17.33 seconds – barely topping Canadian Erik Guay by four-hundredths of a second. Third place went to another Austrian early starter, Matthias Lanzinger, who ran fifth.

Rahlves, racing 28th, "clicked into race mode" in the last seconds before he left start; he refused to give in to the weather and came down through the tricky conditions to finish fifth (1:18.22) while Nyman – somehow roaring out of the 54th start slot – tied for 25th. "It was mind games all day," Rahlves, the 2001 super-G world champion, said. "It was whipping snow at the start. …I had to back off a bit on my tactics. It was really tough conditions. You couldn’t see so much of the way."

Nyman, a forerunner the last two years in Birds of Prey World Cup races, won a Super Series (NorAm) super G on Birds of Prey two years ago. "Yeah, this was different. For one thing," he said, grinning. "I started 10th in the NorAm, not 54th…

"They moved a lot of snow and got down to the hard snow," Nyman said, "and that was great." Rahlves added, "It held up really well. They did a great job in preparing…but they always do on this hill."

Miller, the defending World Cup SG champion (and reigning SG world champ, too) was out early when his goggles iced-up.

Friday (downhill) – A year ago, Miller and Rahlves went 1-2; they would repeat the feat at the world Championships downhill with gold for Miller and silver for Rahlves. This time, Rahlves took it…and Miller was second (with Nyman 23rd). And Rahlves called it the night before.

The Birds of Prey DH run starts with 15-18 seconds across a flat stretch before racers drop over The Brink and slam into the longest sustained steep course on the World Cup circuit. Thursday night, as the gnarly weather threatened the race, Rahlves said, "If they lower the start, it’s mine." They lowered the start…and the race was his. His 10th win came in 1:13.37 with Miller second in 1:13.64.

A predicted monster storm never reached the area, but snow began falling shortly after dawn, joining winds and fog which blanketed stretches of the course. Officials dropped the start below the brink; Rahlves loves the straight-at-it steep start, won the first section and held off Miller at the bottom.

"The worst part about it was the start, kicking out. I missed a little bit there, but I kept skating all the way to the second gate," he said. Still, he had the fastest first split.

"Then it was like run-and-gun, trying to be strong on the skis, snap some turns off and then put it down the fall line," he said. He had one spot where he threw a giant slalom move, swinging his skis sideways as he approached a gate so he didn’t ski too straight and ruin his line at the next gate. "I completely tossed the skis sideways, more like a GS move, but at these speeds, going 65, I’ve never done it before – but today I pulled it out…

"On the bottom part, it was tight. Bode was scaring me. He was skiing well, too, and that’s good to see – the two of us skiing well, challenging each other for the win. It was within hundredths at the last split but I knew I had the speed at the bottom.

Saturday (giant slalom) – Payback for Miller. Rahlves, whose first U.S. title came in the 1995 GS at Park City Mountain Resort, has emerged as a GS threat. He grabbed the second-run lead…but couldn’t hold off Miller this time. A sizzling second run by the defending World Cup champion gave him his 20th World Cup victory (2:34.56) with Rahlves second (2:35.05) and Schlopy, nursing his bandaged left hand, fourth.

Finn Kalle Palander, who was third, breaking up a U.S. podium sweep, laughed as he said, "I felt like I was at the American championships."

Miller survived three bobbles on his final run, including going on his hip at one point. "Those of you who know ski racing, you’re not faster if you’re on your ass, but it does add excitement sometimes. I knew I needed to bring a lot of intensity to the second run. As Kalle said, it was more of a course that suited Schlopy and Kalle and, for sure, some of the others who were closer to the front.

"I wanted to put down a run that I was really psyched about, so with the fatigue and the snow conditions and all the things kinda going against me, I think I felt like maybe this challenge was more worthy," Miller said. "I like those kinds of challenges. It definitely was worthy of a massive effort. It made it easier for me to dig deep…

At the end, he somehow cleared a gate near the finish. "I willed myself around that fourth from last gate," the winner said. "If you guys know physics, that didn’t make any sense. I simply made my ski go around it without any of the laws of physics applying."

Sunday (slalom) – The U.S. victory magic sputtered, but Ligety grabbed another podium for the Ski Team. A brilliant second run put him close and when Austrian Benni Raich, the first-run leader and the most consistent racer in the sport, missed a gate near the end, Ligety – who just signed a deal to represent Park City Mountain Resort – had his first top-3 World Cup finish…with Mom and Dad watching. (See details on Page A-1).

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