World Cup wrap: New champions mean new era is finally here after season where anything was possible
After the Alpine Skiing World Cup closed its books on a successful 2020-21 season, Pete Sharland looks back at an interesting half a year. There are two new overall champions as well as a host of exciting new names. Focus will now turn to Beijing in 2022 and the Winter Olympic Games…
Alexis Pinturault of France takes 1st place in the overall standings during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia takes 1st place in the overall standings during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's on March 21, 2021 in L
Twenty-eight races. That’s how many slaloms Mikaela Shiffrin and Petra Vlhova won between them before their remarkable streak was snapped.
The American and Slovakian superstars had dominated the slalom for nearly four years until Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin vanquished the behemoths on December 29. That moment was the perfect example of a season where it felt like anything was possible.
In the men’s tour, five racers - Lucas Braathen, Mauro Caviezel, Martin Cater, Ryan Cochran-Siegle and Manuel Feller - won a World Cup race for the very first time. Meanwhile Gisin was one of two women, along with revelation Katharina Liensberger, to claim a first win.
For Feller, and team-mate Marco Schwarz, this was about establishing themselves in a post-Hirscher world. Until one of them can win consistently at the highest level the spectre of Hirscher will loom large but this was a very cathartic season for Austrian fans.
It was also very promising for the Swiss team, with talented youngsters Marco Odermatt and Loic Meillard finishing second and fourth respectively in the overall standings. The pair have long been tipped for greatness and with Beijing around the corner they might be peaking at the best time. It’s also hard not to be warmed by veteran Beat Feuz taking the globe in the Downhill.
But the star of the show was Alexis Pinturault, the Courchevel Kid. When Hirscher hung up his skis, Pinturault was one of those who was pegged to pick up the mantle. This was his coming of age season, that culminated with his first Overall title on his 30th birthday. Pinturault won five races in a very impressive season and he will be aiming high at the Olympics having won a silver and a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. He was part of an excellent season for the French team with Mathieu Faivre and Clement Noel also both shining.
‘That is absolutely brilliant!’ - Pinturault wins World Cup titles
Pinturault’s closest rival coming into the season was supposed to be Henrik Kristoffersen, winner of two small globes and third in the big globe last season. But the Norwegian really struggled. Whether it’s a confidence, fitness or a combination of both he has work to do over the summer after finishing outside the top five in every category, winning just two races. His bronze at Cortina showed what he is capable of but something has to click before the Olympics.
‘I worked so hard for so many years’ – Pinturault after claiming crystal globes
The women’s tour had so many remarkable stories. To start, the champion, Vlhova, who finally won having finished second and third in the last two seasons. So often the Slovakian felt like the second act to Shiffrin but this was the season any remaining doubt over her talent was erased. Vlhova now goes into the Olympic season as one of the clear favourites for the slalom gold.
Petra Vlhova seals overall World Cup title
As a skiing writer you don’t want to always find yourself coming back to Shiffrin. Like Marcel Hirscher and Lindsey Vonn before, Shiffrin is so dominant, and so transcendent, that she demands attention.
However, this was one of Shiffrin’s weaker seasons, at least in the World Cup - she finished fourth in the overall and her three race wins is her poorest tally on the circuit.
But this season was so much more. It was about her emotional return to racing following the death of her father Jeff. It was about battling a back injury throughout the season. It was about finding her feet in a world where the American skiers were away from home longer than ever before.
That Shiffrin won four World Championship medals, the most of anyone, speaks to her talent and sheer force of will. She is now the most successful American at the worlds, surpassing both Vonn and Ted Ligety. She now has 11 medals, the most of anyone save Anja Parson since the Second World War.
'A masterclass' - Shiffrin claims her first victory after her father's death
However although Shiffrin won more medals than anyone at Cortina she certainly wasn’t the queen of the worlds. That title was shared equally between Lara Gut-Behrami and Liensberger.
Speed specialist Gut-Behrami had her best season since her dominant campaigns in 2014 and 2016. In the latter of those seasons Gut-Behrami won the Super-G small globe and the Overall globe as well as finishing second in the Combined. Since then she has never hit those heights, finishing third in two small globes in 2017 and second in one in 2018. At Cortina she stunned the pack to win Giant Slalom gold to go along with a Super-G title, her first World Championship golds.
Liensberger also won two golds at Cortina and she ushered in a new era of Austrian skiing. While Hirscher dominated the men’s tour for so many years, Austria failed to exert influence on the women’s tour. Six years went by without a slalom win before Liensberger erupted this season. Within the space of a month she won two slalom World Cup races, took the slalom globe and won the slalom world title. Liensberger turns 24 at the start of April and represents the future of Austrian skiing.
‘What a way to close out the season!’ – Liensberger seals slalom World Cup
Speaking of next generation it was a tough season at times for Alice Robinson but the New Zealand sensation ended the season with a victory for a timely reminder of her prodigious talent. Elsewhere there was another World Cup win for skier/snowboarder Ester Ledecka, this time in the Super-G and spare a thought for Sofia Goggia, who missed the World Championships through injury after winning an utterly absurd four Downhill races in a row.
We end the women’s wrap with one of the old guard: France’s Tessa Worley, who will be 32 when the new season rolls around in October. Worley made her debut in the World Cup as a 16-year-old back in 2006. Before this season her last win came in October 2018, a run of over 800 days that was finally ended in January.
Taking a step back the FIS deserves plenty of credit for getting the season done without too many incidents. The weather beat them a few times but they largely kept a handle on Covid, no easy task in a sport that travelled across Europe.
Still there are still some issues. Some of the discrepancies in courses during parallel events is ruining a brilliant way to get younger fans interested in the sport. Plus the bias towards technical races continues, failing to schedule new speed races after their finales were cancelled did a disservice to someone like Gut-Behrami, who deserved a shot at challenging for the Overall title.
Next up, the 2021-22 season and the Beijing Olympics...