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Norway hopes for success at downhill’s ‘Formula One’

Aksel Lund Svindal and his Norwegian teammates on Thursday put the finishing touches to their preparation for Kitzbuehel's World Cup downhill, the alpine skiing equivalent of the Monaco Formula One race.

Norway hopes for success at downhill's 'Formula One'
Aksel Lund Svindal. Photo: Cornelius Poppe / NTB scanpix
Svindal clocked 1min 58.14sec in the second training run down the “Streif” piste on the Hahnenkamm mountain in the picturesque Tyrolean resort.
 
That was enough for joint sixth alongside compatriot Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, with Kjetil Jansrud in 11th, 0.12sec adrift.
 
Unheralded Italian Mattia Casse was the pace setter, the 2010 world junior downhill champion improbably clocking 1:56.85 from a starting bib number of 47, to nip in ahead of teammate Christof Innerhofer.
 
The Norwegian men's team has dominated the alpine ski season so far, winning 12 of 19 races on offer in an incredible show of consistency including victories in all three races in Wengen last weekend.
 
“For this weekend it's top of the list because we're in Kitzbuehel and that's where the racing is!” the unflappable Svindal said of his winning ambitions in Austria.
 
“I would love to win it, but I wouldn't trade it for two victories anywhere else. It's the biggest World Cup race we have, but is it double the size of any other race? I don't think so. Of course I would love to win it, but if I don't win it, then I'll try again next year.”
 
Svindal said his victory in the Wengen downhill and second place behind Jansrud in the combined was a real boost before tackling the toughest course on the World Cup circuit.
 
“Confidence is always something you build, not something you wake up with one day,” he said. “So everything I've done this season should build some confidence for what's coming up.”
 
The Hahnenkamm remains the most prestigious speed event in one of the circuit's most iconic locations: racers touch 100km/h within 8.5 seconds of leaving the start and there have been some extremely gruesome crashes, notably Swiss racer Daniel Albrecht in 2009 and Austrian Hans Grugger in 2011.
 
'Very unforgiving'
Saturday's 76th running of the downhill, which made its debut in 1931, is over a piste more than 3.3 kilometres long, with racers reaching motorway-coasting speeds of 140km/h while being forced into negotiating 80-metre jumps.
 
“One of the things is that it is very unforgiving,” Svindal said of the Streif. “There are a lot of sections that if you go out, you don't miss a gate — you hit the net.
 
“It's like driving Formula One in Monaco, where there's no gravel or grass to roll out on if you don't take the corner but you go into a wall. Luckily there's no wall here!”
 
Italian speed specialist Innerhofer insisted he could be in the mix, but stressed he was not out to break the growing Norwegian hegemony.
 
“I don't think about this. I will do my race and then we will see,” Innerhofer said. “I don't think about overall or any globes. While Aksel and Hannes (Reichelt) can ski fast on every race, I must have steep parts and icy snow.
 
“The most important for me is to come through the finish line having given 100 percent risk.
 
“The key to Aksel's success is that last year he didn't ski. So he's come back with more passion. He stopped for one year but is now really enjoying his racing.”
 
The dangers of racing here were shown up when Austrian Florian Scheiber was airlifted off the course after losing a ski and crashing heavily into the safety netting.
 
France's Guillermo Fayed, standing third in the downhill standings behind Svindal and Reichelt, likened the extreme course to a personal battle.
 
“I have good and bad memories of this piste,” he said, having finished third last year for just his fourth ever podium finish.
 
“To arrive at the bottom in one piece is good, better to get a result. The course is like love: if it goes well, it's great, if not it's hellish!”
 
Fayed's teammate Adrien Theaux, who won December's downhill in Santa Caterina, Italy, and clocked the fastest time in Tuesday's training, again showed his form with fourth place.

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NORWAY

PROFILE: Norway’s ‘complete competitor’ Aksel Lund Svindal

Norwegian colossus Aksel Lund Svindal will go down in the annals of alpine skiing as one of the very best after claiming world silver in his farewell downhill race on Saturday.

PROFILE: Norway's 'complete competitor' Aksel Lund Svindal
Aksel Lund Svindal celebrates third place in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images/AFP Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images North America / AFP
Coming in just two-hundredths of a second behind teammate and close friend Kjetil Jansrud was the perfect send-off for the 36-year-old Svindal.
 
Svindal has been one of the stars of the ski circuit with 11 titles (overall-2, downhill-2, superG-5, giant slalom-1, combined-1), 36 victories (14 downhill, 17 super-G, 4 giant slalom, 1 combined) and 80 podiums in 17 
seasons on the World Cup.
   
In addition to being a two-time overall World Cup champion (2007, 2009), he is also a five-time world champion in downhill, giant slalom and super combined, and won Olympic golds in the downhill (2018) and super-G (2010).
   
Standing 1.89m (6'2″) tall, Svindal said he was prepared for the next stage of his life.
   
“I think I'll miss it not in a sad way, in a way that is 'That was awesome',” he said. “But even good things come to an end and you can think back at all the good memories.”
   
The ever-modest and affable Svindal, be it speaking in his native Norwegian or fluent English or German, pinpointed respect as the one thing he wanted to take with him from skiing.
   
“This is an awesome sport, not just the racing part, but the respect between the racers,” he said. “There's a lot of things this sport can be really proud of and I'm part of that sport so that's something I want to try and take with me into other things I do. I hope I contributed on that side in the sport as well.”
 
 'Amazing career'
 
Norwegian teammate and long-time World Cup 'Attacking Viking' confidant Jansrud was full of praise for Svindal.
   
“There are not many people who get to retire with such an amazing career,” he said.
   
Svindal made his World Cup debut in 2002 and went on to become the oldest Olympic alpine ski gold medallist when he swept to victory in the 2018 Olympic downhill in Pyeongchang.
   
In between, many kilometres of downhill skiing were covered by the racer credited as an outstanding role model and driving force behind the Norwegian team's winning philosophy of keeping it simple.
   
Svindal retires as one of the most decorated skiers ever, having being crowned world champion five times, twice picking up the crystal globe for best overall skier, as well as winning a medal of each colour at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
   
He is a complete competitor who has also had to overcome some horrific injuries, none less so than when he crashed in Beaver Creek in 2007. He also sat out the 2015 season and most of 2016 because of injuries.
   
But Svindal is known for his supreme physical conditioning, and each time he bounced back.
 
US ski star Lindsey Vonn, who ironically races her final downhill on Sunday, has forged a deep friendship with Svindal, often training together.
   
“When athletes in the past have retired, I've been the same way, 'No, you can do it, keep going, anything is possible',” she said. “But as an athlete, when you get to that point, you just know in your gut that it's time.
   
“Aksel is in the same position as I am. We are both kind of accepting where we are at the moment and it's just nice to be able to talk to someone who is going through the same thing as I am at the exact same time.”