Rocca gets slalom, Aamodt gets combined, Bode gets...? (M SL/CO,
January 19, 2003
Today's slalom in Wengen included a lot of tough runs, at least one
big surprise, and another chapter in an ongoing saga. The courses
at Wengen were extremely challenging, with some tough pitches and
snow that varied from soft to ice, making it difficult to impossible
for the racers to establish a good rhythm. For many, it was clearly
survival slalom, as they tried to simply make all the gates.
The victory today went to Italy's Giorgio Rocca. Rocca has been
billed as the next Tomba, which may be flattering, but the
expectations probably haven't helped him to develop as a racer in
his own right. Rocca had two runs that were as clean as anything
turned in today, and got his first ever World Cup win and first
World Cup podium of the year.
Croatian Ivica Kostelic, who is The Man this year as far as slalom
is concerned, laid down a first run that was exceptionally smooth
run compared to most of the racers. His time would hold up to tie
with Rocca for first after the first run, but he was shaking his
head in the finish area and didn't seem overjoyed with the way the
run had gone. Jean-Pierre Vidal (FRA) had a clean but cautious
first run, avoided the mistakes of many other racers, and got a
result that placed him in second behind Kostelic. Like Kostelic, he
didn't seem happy with his first run, and indeed the consensus
emotion among the racers seemed one of disgust.
Miller's first run was extreme Bode. He did it all: landed on his
***and got back up. Came to a dead stop and more or less fell
through one gate. Once again, he set a new standard for racing on
the edge, making and then recovering from mistakes that would have
had anybody else in the woods. Incredibly, he was only 1.2 seconds
out of first place after the first run, in 15th place. Asked to
comment on his run in the finish area, he said, with characteristic
understatement, "It's hard to focus on the gates when you're turned
There was more than a difficult course contributing to Bode's
erratic first run. According to coach Phil McNichol, one of Bode's
skis broke when the tip protector shattered on hitting a gate. The
ski delaminated, and Bode finished the run with a ski that was
literally falling apart. For whatever reason, Bode made no mention
of this in the interview with OLN after the first run, and it was
never mentioned in OLN's coverage. Bode simply mentioned that he'd
switched to a new ski for the second run.
Chip Knight (USA), ranked 9th in slalom before the race and recently
named to the US Ski Team's A team, benefited from the earlier
racers' course reports to turn in a clean first run. Chip hasn't
been on the podium yet, but he has scored points in every World Cup
slalom he's competed in this season. His first run today put him in
15th place and gave him the opportunity for a second run.
Erik Schlopy has the most aggressive style of the US men's technical
specialists. On his first run, he charged into the steeps harder
than any of the other racers - a very risky strategy on this course,
but it paid off. In spite of a significant error up top when he
buried his right hand in the snow, Schlopy was standing in a
respectable 11th place after the first run.
But the big surprise of the first run, and of the day, was Japanese
technical specialist Akira Sasaki. Starting with a bib number of
65, Sasaki had an incredibly fast and clean run to end in 7th place
after the first run. In his first season on the World Cup, Sasaki
had yet to qualify for a second run in any race. His performance on
such a difficult course was nothing short of astonishing.
In the second run, results were more predictable at first. Chip
Knight, starting early, had decent conditions for a faster second
run time and a final result of 17th. Erik Schlopy backed off his
usual aggressiveness for a much cleaner run, taking his own brief
time in the first slot. Bode's run was extremely conservative, as
he gave up thoughts of winning the slalom and simply tried to have a
decent finish. Commenting on his run afterwards, he said, with
characteristic bluntness, "I wasn't really looking for speed,
because I didn't know where to find it." He turned in the sixth
fastest second run, and was briefly standing in first, but could not
manage to take the combined from Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who had two
clean runs for a faster time in both slalom and combined. The final
difference between the two in the combined was only 0.13 seconds,
closer than anyone could expect given Bode's first slalom run, but
close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
And then it was time for Akira Sasaki's second run. Anyone who was
thinking that the first run was a fluke was quickly disabused of
that notion. Sasaki's run was fast, clean, and aggressive - all in
all, just not the quality of skiing that you'd expect to see from a
guy starting the race in the 65th slot. He skied completely over
his head, turned in what was by far the fastest second run time, and
crossed the finish line in first by a sizable margin.
Sasaki's brilliant run completely changed the game. With Sasaki
sitting on top of a huge lead, the six racers to follow knew that
they could not hope to win with conservative runs. Kalle Palander
(FIN), who had turned in the third fastest first run time despite
having his goggles obliterated by a slalom pole, got back on his
tails in the upper section on the second run, then seemed to get
jammed up and rocked forward in the middle section. His run was a
mixed bag, to say the least, and he finished fourth overall.
Pranger, whose usual starting gate wind-up may have been influenced
by the presence of an unknown racer in the #1 position ("Sasaki?
WAS???"), hammered the course a little too hard and was late, late,
and more late in the difficult middle steep. That cost him heavily
and he was standing only in fifth when he crossed the finish line,
with a final standing of 8th. Jean-Pierre Vidal, who seemed to be
struggling and literally gasping in the middle section of the
course, was unable to match his speed in the first run and slipped
back to 6th.
And then there were two: Kostelic and Rocca, who had tied for first
in the first run. Kostelic, who can do the math, started the run
much more aggressively than he usually does. His run was fast, but
even with his first run advantage, he was unable to catch Sasaki,
and was standing in 2nd place at the finish. Deprived of his chance
to do the Croatian Crawl yet again, Kostelic didn't seem to mind in
the least. Unlike some of the other top racers, who seemingly could
only give the first-place Sasaki a blank stare of disbelief, he
approached Sasaki immediately and offered obviously heartfelt
congratulations. Just like his smiling younger sister, Ivica
clearly understands that there is more than one way to be a winner.
The final racer down was Rocca. Like all the other top finishers in
the first run, he knew he could not beat Sasaki by playing it safe.
He pulled it together with admirable style, laying down a smooth and
strong second run. His combined time for the two runs just barely
edged Sasaki by a narrow 0.04 seconds, giving Rocca the win.
Kostelic and Sasaki, who was clearly happy to be anywhere on the
podium, immediately hoisted Rocca onto their shoulders, to give him
his special moment, his first - but likely not last - World Cup win.
It was not only Sasaki's first podium, but his first World Cup
points in any event. Japan has not had a podium finish since 1998.
The big change in points standings was in the overall. Bode made
out well, despite failing to win the combined and finishing far back
(for him) in the slalom. The 104 points he picked up allowed him to
retake the overall World Cup lead. He now stands at 858 points to
Stephan Eberharter's 815. The lead will almost certainly trade
hands at least once next weekend in Kitzbuhel. Aamodt is still
relatively far back, but he gained some real ground on Bode and
Eberharter. He is just heading into the part of the season that
will allow him to pick up some real points, and should certainly not
be discounted as a contender for the overall. And, if today's
result was anything to go by, both Bode and Aamodt will make out
like bandits in the combined events coming up. No one else was even
close in this event: Lasse Kjus, who took third in the combined, was
an astonishing 9.68 seconds behind Bode. OLN's Chad Fleischer
called it the easiest sixty World Cup points that Kjus ever earned,
and who knows, maybe other racers will be inspired to get in the
game. But I think the number 1 and number 2 spots in the combined
are firmly locked up.
And now that the justly earned congratulations have been tendered,
and the future speculation indulged in, let me take a moment to say
something that needs saying. Bode Miller has to resolve his gear
issues immediately. The series of equipment-related issues that has
plagued him this year has strained credulity - and badly damaged the
credibility of equipment supplier Rossignol. First, there was the
premature binding release in the Park City GS in November. Okay,
maybe that was just a freak occurrence. But then it happened again,
in Adelboden. Asked to comment afterwards, Bode damned the gear
with faint praise, saying only, "It's actually a really good binding
if it stays on." Today, referring to the broken ski, Bode said
only, "I changed equipment after the first run." I guess you did,
Bode. We're going to have to start calling you Silent Cal.
In the finish area after his first run, Bode displayed as much of a
sense of humor as anyone could be expected to, but this equipment
failure business is a joke that's funny once, at most. I hope Bode
makes the switch now, before he - with the able assistance of
Rossignol - manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and ...
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