Racing

American Underdog Bryce Bennett Nabs Career First World Cup Victory

After equipment issues and disappointing World Cup finishes, Bryce Bennett has finally found the podium—and claimed the top spot.

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The world’s premier speed skiers took to the famed Saslong course in Val Gardena, Italy on Friday, Dec. 17 and Saturday, Dec. 18 for the next super-G and downhill races on the men’s World Cup circuit. Val Gardena is always a highly anticipated stop for the U.S. Ski Team, since American men have a great track record at this venue in the Dolomites, securing six podiums since 2006 and even more Top 10 finishes.

All eyes were on veteran Steven Nyman, the winningest U.S. athlete at this stop, to ski away with another podium finish this weekend. But in a complete upset, it was underdog Bryce Bennett (Tahoe City, Calif.) who skied the downhill of his life to secure his first career World Cup victory on the venerable course.

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde maintained Norway’s dominance in Friday’s super-G, gunning to victory for the second consecutive year, while contributing to his country’s total of eight wins over the last 10 super-Gs at the Italian ski resort.

And those are just the highlights of an extraordinarily exciting race weekend in Val Gardena. Here’s an in-depth looks at the men’s results.

Val Gardena Men’s Downhill (Dec. 18)

Saturday’s downhill, one of the trickiest on the men’s World Cup circuit thanks to an abundance of compressions, jumps, and hidden gates, challenged racers to step up their game and attack the course with the most aggressive, direct line they could muster.

In the end it was Bennett, a 6-foot-7-inch tall athlete with more than a 7-foot wingspan who most skillfully used his long legs as shock absorbers—both on the upper, rolling sections of the track and on the notorious Ciaslat section—who bested the competition with the most direct line.

Bennett, 29, who was 41st and 22nd in two training runs leading up to Saturday’s race, kicked out of the start gate as just the 10th racer and posted a time of 2:02.42. With multiple serious contenders yet to come down the hill, it wasn’t a sure thing that Bennett’s time would stand. But no one, not even Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr or Switzerland’s Beat Feuz, were able to finish close to Bennett’s time.

Watch: Bryce Bennett attacks the Val Gardena downhill track

“It just happened, finally. It’s been a long time,” said Bennett, who is in his 11th year on the U.S. Ski Team and who’s best World Cup result to date were two fourth-place finishes in Val Gardena and one in Bormio. “I needed a good plan, I watched a lot of video last night and just committed to it.”

Bennett found a near perfect line in the always unpredictable Ciaslat, a 20-25 second section of the Italian course with five sweeping turns chock full of precarious terrain. He made up roughly 0.40 seconds here and attributes much of this knowhow to his freeriding days at Palisades Tahoe.

“My entire life was about who could hit the biggest cliff, jump off the stupidest stuff, so that part is natural to me, the big jumps and the air,” Bennett says. “But where I get the feeling is from BMX racing. I did that for eight, nine years growing up to a decent, high level. It’s just that feeling of being able to work the terrain and use it. It gets me speed where people don’t think you can.”

Austrian Otmar Striedinger was runner-up to Bennett, finishing 0.14 off Bennett’s pace. Switzerland’s Niels Hintermann finished third, 0.32 off Bennett’s winning time.

“It’s so cool, I’m so proud of him,” says U.S. ski team veteran and Bennett’s teammate Steven Nyman, who was 23rd in his 14th career downhill start at Val Gardena. “He’s been so close to the podium for so long and then to land on his first podium as a win is so cool, on a course that he absolutely loves.”

The most dramatic moment of the race came as Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde descended the Saslong, starting immediately after Bennett. He appeared entirely in command and on his way to a second victory in two days, clocking a split time 0.86 faster than the American leader as he sped towards the bottom. Suddenly, Kilde clipped a gate on a left-footed turn, narrowly avoiding a nasty crash but missing the ensuing gate, which resulted in a DNF.

Bryce Bennett celebrates his first World Cup victory Val Gardena, Italy
Bryce Bennett celebrates his first World Cup victory Val Gardena, Italy. (Photo: Saslong Classic Club)

Bennett, who’s come so close to the podium so many times before, seemed to bask in his moment in the sun as he sat in the leader’s chair, watching the rest of the competition navigate the tricky course.

“It was out of left field a little bit,” he said. “It was just a surprise today. There were no expectations of this.”

The U.S. ski racer gave tremendous credit to his ski serviceman Leo Mussi. The Italian tech behind the scenes is a legend in this region, having also tuned skis for Nyman when he clinched his three victories here.

“I knew the skis would be fast,” Bennett said about his Fischer skis.

Bennett becomes the ninth U.S. male skier to win a World Cup downhill, joining Nyman, Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves, Travis Ganong, Marco Sullivan, Bill Johnson, A.J. Kitt and Kyle Rasmussen. Tommy Moe won Olympic downhill gold in Lillehammer 1994, but never won a World Cup downhill.

The lanky American downhiller will pursue back-to-back downhill victories on the dark, bumpy and icy Stelvio track in Bormio, on Dec. 8, another Italian course where he has placed fourth.

Val Gardena Men’s Super-G (Dec. 17)

Though he had a disappointing race in Saturday’s downhill, Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde charged to his third consecutive victory on the Saslong course in Friday’s super-G race, extending a winning streak from last season’s sweep of the two Val Gardena races.

The Norwegian was smooth and steady, winning the super-G by 0.22 seconds ahead of Austrian Olympic champion Mathias Mayer. Mayer’s teammate Vincent Kriechmayr, the 2021 world champion, rounded out the podium in third.

Watch: Aleksander Aamodt Kilde wins men’s Val Gardena super-G

Four of Kilde’s nine World Cup victories have come in Val Gardena, and Saturday’s victory means Kilde is solidly on track to becoming one of the frontrunners for this season’s overall World Cup crystal globe.

It was also a solid day for Americans Travis Ganong and Ryan Cochran-Siegle (bib eight). Ganong, who started with bib 5, skied a smooth and fluid line to cross the finish line in the lead. Then Cochrand-Siegle, skiing three racers later, was the first to best Ganong’s time by just 0.01 seconds. The two Americans were able to enjoy time together in the leader’s box until Kriechmayr, who raced with bib 11, broke up the American party by sliding into the lead. Cochran-Siegle ultimately settled into ninth place, with Ganong closing out the Top 10 behind his teammate.

“Coming down with the green light, it was solid top-to-bottom skiing and it was nice to be there with Ryan as well,” Ganong said.

“It was definitely fun to share that moment with Travis,” Cochran-Siegle said.

From Val Gardena, the men’s World Cup circuit immediately heads to Alta Badia, Italy for two giant slalom events on Dec. 19-20. After that, the tech racers go head to head in slalom in Madonna di Campiglio on Dec. 22.