Hirscher definitely back on track after Birds of Prey GS win
BEAVER CREEK — It is safe to say that Austria’s Marcel Hirscher has recovered from his offseason broken-ankle injury.
The six-time defending World Cup champion, in only his second race back this season, won the Birds of Prey giant slalom with a combined time of 2 minutes, 37.30 seconds, topping Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen (2:38.18) and Germany’s Stefan Luitz (2:38.33) on Sunday.
“Especially in the second run, when you are so pumped and there is so much adrenaline, [the ankle] doesn’t hurt,” Hirscher said. “It is completely free of pain. I didn’t think about it.”
In the process, Hirscher stared down Ted Ligety in their rivalry. Ligety was second after first run and Hirscher third. The Austrian surged to his sixth win at Beaver Creek and 46th World Cup victory, while Ligety fell to seventh.
History repeating itself?
Hirscher served notice that he was in fine form with the third-fastest run of the morning. On the other hand, he was also third after one run during the Levi, Finland, slalom last month.
He finished 17th in that race, his first since the ankle injury.
“This was, for sure, my mistake. I skied not real good in my second run,” Hirscher said about Finland. “But today, I thought about it. Let’s go for it. Let’s give it a try. Let’s see what is possible. But [it was] so unexpected to win.”
Perhaps to Hirscher, but not to the rest of the field.
“I’m not surprised,” Kristoffersen said, who was sitting right next Hirscher during the post-race news conference.
The second run was a masterpiece, particularly up top. The field struggled with Russi’s Ride and the Goshawk and Screech Owl jumps, but Hirscher hammered that section, gaining 0.11 seconds of the field to that point — Ligety and Luitz still had to race.
Hirscher followed the traditional game plan of a Beaver Creek GS — take the speed from the top and keep it going in the flats. The numbers on the scoreboard were green and getting bigger.
Ironically, his one bobble came on Red Tail, where victory slipped through his grasp during the 2015 FIS World Alpine Ski Championship slalom.
Back in 2015, Hirscher had the gold in his grasp and skied off course there, for an improbable DNF. That would have been his third gold and fourth medal at the 2015 Championships.
On Sunday, he corrected course and roared into the finish area for the 23rd GS win of his career.
With the victory on Sunday, Hirscher served notice that he is back in the hunt for an unprecedented seventh consecutive World Cup championship. And, as usual, he downplayed his chances.
“I’m here, so it is possible, for sure,” Hirscher said. “Just in mathematics, the chances are not the best ones. I want to go for it. I want to compete as good as possible in each race.”
Kristoffersen rallies for second
Kristoffersen made it three Norwegian podiums in as many days. More of a slalom specialist — 14 of his 15 World Cup wins are slaloms — this was a good result for the 23-year-old.
“I think the skiing is looking really good,” Kristoffersen said. “For me personally, [Birds of Prey is] not the best hill for my type of body and being one of the lighter skiers. It’s difficult because of the flats. The skiing is really good, and I’m super happy to be second today.”
Kristoffersen was eighth and 1.07 seconds behind Luitz after the first run. His second run was the second fastest of the afternoon’s proceedings.
“If I do the two best runs of my life and I’m fifth, I have to be happy,” Kristoffersen said. “Of course, it’s more fun to be on the podium and winning. But I just have to keep improving and get closer to Marcel in GS and try to beat him as many times as possible in the slalom.”
Kristoffersen did win five slaloms last season, but Hirscher still won the globe, 735-575.
Luitz makes podium
The last time Luitz raced GS here at Birds of Prey in 2015, he was second after the first run — behind Hirscher — but struggled in his second and fell to 22nd.
So, one could forgive him if he wasn’t particularly comfortable after winning Sunday’s morning run.
“Today with the lead, I tried not to do the same,” Luitz said. “… You have so much time [until] the [next] start, it’s a little different when you have so much time. You have to stay focused. I think I handled it well.”
This is Luitz’s fifth GS World Cup podium, and his first since a third-place finish in Garmisch, Germany, on Jan. 29 of last winter.
“Starting the season with a GS podium is just amazing,” he said.
The men’s World Cup heads to Europe for the rest of the season.
The first stop is next weekend in Val d’Isere, France, for GS and slalom.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, firstname.lastname@example.org and @cfreud.