February 10, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Erica Bulman)—After easily handling the notoriously treacherous Olympic downhill course on a training run, Daron Rahlves said the competition now basically boils down to just one man.
Rahlves, the last man to win a World Cup downhill at Sestriere in 2004, was riding high again on Thursday. His time of 1 minute, 49.46 seconds on the first day of official training bettered World Cup downhill champion Michael Walchhofer of Austria by more than a full second.
"Obviously, if I'm leading by 1.2 seconds, I like this hill, Rahlves said. "This race comes down to me. I'm my biggest challenger. If I allow myself to ski well and relax, I have a great chance to win.
That's a brave statement in a competition containing the likes of Bode Miller and Austrians Hermann Maier and Fritz Strobl.
Rahlves was quickest through every interval in the first of three training days ahead of Sunday's gold-medal race on the 2.06-mile course and had the fastest average speed at 67.42 mph.
The Kandahar Banchetta course is icy, bumpy and fast, which is well-suited to Rahlves, who is daring and relatively light.
Maier, who crossed third in 1:50.73, also knows the course well.
"There are a lot of bumps out there, said the double Olympic champion, who is recovering from the flu. "You have to ski very aerodynamically and there is always something coming at you. You must always be thinking.
This will be his first Olympic downhill since his fantastic crash at Nagano in 1998.[pagebreak]Like a fast-paced video game, the course repeatedly throws out challenges. It starts with two demanding jumps, which racers face when they're not negotiating rollers that throw them out of their tuck or fall-away turns that make it tough to get their footing.
"You can never relax, said Strobl, who hopes to become the first man to successfully defend his Olympic downhill title.
The course also mixes brief flat stretches and difficult bends then heads into a wooded area, where it gets more treacherous with alternating turns and "schusses _ steep fast sections _ that continue until the finish line.
Experience, technical skill and brains will make the difference. Skiers will need to use the daily one-hour course inspection ahead of their runs to devise a solid strategy and draw a well-calculated line.
Miller, the reigning downhill world champion who could as easily medal in all five Alpine events as he could crash and burn, finished 16th, 2.75 seconds back. Still, he appeared relaxed and happy after his run.
Miller, whose two silvers were the only U.S. alpine medals in Salt Lake City in 2002, has only one win this season _ a giant slalom at Beaver Creek two months ago.
"Actually it's pretty good, a smiling Miller said of the course before leaving the finish area.
Two more training runs are scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
More will be at stake than just practice. Several members of the two leading national teams will be competing for the final spots on their squads. Each nation has four spots in each discipline.
Americans Scott Macartney, Steven Nyman and Marco Sullivan are vying for the last two berths on their team, and the fastest of the trio in Friday's training will secure a first spot. Then the last two will fight for the remaining berth in Saturday's practice.
Austrians Klaus Kroell, Andreas Buder, Hannes Reichelt, Rainer Schoenfelder and Benjmain Raich _ the overall World Cup points leader this season _ are fighting for the last remaining downhill berth.
This was the first time many competitors had skied Sestriere.
Only three World Cup downhill races have been staged here. The last was the 2004 World Cup finals, where Strobl settled for second place behind Rahlves. Frenchmen Henri Duvillard won in 1970 and Jean-Claude Killy in 1967, the first downhill here.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press