Last Chance at Alpine Ski Races Before Olympics

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February 1, 2006

CHAMONIX, France (AP by Erica Bulman)—Liechtenstein's Marco Buechel was fastest Wednesday during downhill training for the final World Cup races before the Turin Olympics while Daron Rahlves finished 22nd and teammate Bode Miller completed a Dubai vacation.

Buechel was timed in 1 minute, 57.41 seconds, positioning himself as a threat for the downhill on this course _ the site of the first Winter Games in 1924 _ and the Olympic race in Sestriere, Italy. France's Antoine Deneriaz was second in 1:58.11 and Italy's Kristian Ghedina was third in 1:58.22.

The men's super-combi and downhill will allow skiers to fine-tune their technique and equipment for the Turin Games, which start Feb. 10.

Rahlves, the winner of three downhills this season, is another favorite this week and at the Olympics. The 32-year-old American is the last skier to have won a downhill on the Olympic course in Sestriere, which resembles the course in Chamonix with its varied terrain.

Miller, the reigning overall champion, was scheduled to return later in the day from his vacation. He skipped last weekend's event in Germany, the first time in almost four years he has missed a World Cup race. While his absence suggests Miller has all but forfeited the defense of his overall title, he is still a favorite to win multiple medals in Sestriere.

He captured two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, won the downhill and super-G world championship titles last year and became the first America in 22 years to win the overall World Cup.

This season, Miller has just one victory and is a distant fourth in the overall standings. He is 264 points behind leader Benjamin Raich of Austria with only 11 World Cup races remaining.[pagebreak]The mighty Austrians _ led by World Cup downhill leader Michael Walchhofer, defending Olympic champion Fritz Strobl and Hermann Maier, who won the last World Cup downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany _ will attempt to put their stamp on the discipline before Turin.

"I go into this week and the Olympics feeling good and sure of myself, said Maier, the only man with victories in at least two disciplines this season after winning a giant slalom, super-G and downhill.

Walchhofer tied for fourth with Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal. Strobl and France's Pierre Emmanuel Dalcin shared sixth and Maier was 13th.

For Raich, these two races offer a remote chance to capture the final remaining Olympic downhill berth on the Austrian team, which would allow him to compete in every event in Sestriere. Walchhofer, Strobl and Maier have the other three spots. Four are awarded to each nation in each discipline.

Warm weather prompted officials to cancel Tuesday's training to preserve the course. Another practice is scheduled for Thursday.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press