Without Miller, Walchhofer favorite in Italy
BORMIO, Italy – With Bode Miller at home resting a sore ankle, Michael Walchhofer is the favorite for the World Cup downhill Tuesday on the knee-jarring Stelvio course.
Walchhofer won back-to-back downhills on consecutive days here three years ago and was fastest in the opening training session on Monday.
“I feel I’m in great shape to do something big here,” the Austrian skier said. “You have to try and keep some energy in reserve for the last steep pitch – that determines everything. Your legs are burning by the time you get there and you really need to keep yourself together mentally.
“This is a technical race but also a tactical one.”
At 2.03 miles, Stelvio is the second-longest course on the circuit behind Wengen, Switzerland. The constant bumps and shade nearly all the way down make it the toughest physical test on tour.
One skier after another stood with their hands on their knees after crossing the finish line during Monday’s final training session, with some athletes looking like they barely had enough energy to stop.
Andrej Jerman of Slovenia, who finished fourth three years ago and collected four top-10 finishes in Bormio, led the second training session.
“It’s very important how good your physical fitness is and I was always good in that,” Jerman said. “Some people are better in gliding, some are better in turns. I’m good in fitness.”
Local favorite Christof Innerhofer of Italy is the defending champion.
“It’s nice to come back here. I have great memories of this course,” said Innerhofer, who is dealing with back pain. “It’s tough to race with the best in the world on this course when you’re not in top shape.”
Downhill World Cup leader Didier Cuche placed third in training Monday, while defending overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal sat out with the flu.
Svindal is still hoping to race, but current overall World Cup leader Benjamin Raich will not. The Austrian skier, more of a technical specialist, is skipping this race.
Miller is spending the holidays with his daughter in San Diego, hoping to get his ankle back in shape after injuring himself during a team volleyball game this month in Val d’Isere, France.
Miller also needs to work on his fitness after skipping summer training while he debated retirement. The New Hampshire native plans to return for a slalom on Jan. 6 in Zagreb, Croatia.
He has posted three victories on the Stelvio, winning gold medals in downhill and super-G at the 2005 world championships and taking the annual World Cup race in 2007.
Without Miller, American hopes rest with Marco Sullivan of Squaw Valley, Steven Nyman, Andrew Weibrecht, Scott Macartney and Erik Fisher.
U.S. head coach Sasha Rearick put some pressure on the squad during a team meeting on Sunday.
“We got the little talking to last night that we had a pretty (poor) first training run as a team and we’ve got to step up for sure and start pushing the envelope more,” Sullivan said.
With Miller likely to take the top spot on the Olympic downhill team, the remaining five skiers are fighting for three spots at the Feb. 12-28 Vancouver Games.
Nyman’s top finish this season was 18th in Val Gardena this month, and he feels like he’s on the “tail end” of the Olympic list.
“All that can change with one good race,” Nyman said. “That’s the attitude you’ve got to take, and that’s what it takes to get to the Olympics.”
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