Skiing World Cup starts quest for Hirscher’s successor

SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — The Alpine skiing World Cup is entering its most unpredictable season in many years.

The retirement of Marcel Hirscher has opened up the fight for the overall championship again, with a handful of racers tipped as main candidates to succeed the record eight-time overall champion.

The season-opening giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier on Sunday might give a first indication of the new pecking order, with France’s Alexis Pinturault and Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen expected to take leading roles.

Pinturault finished runner-up to Hirscher last season, and the Frenchman increasingly resembles the Austrian standout.

For three years now, Pinturault has been living in Austria during winter to optimize his training opportunities, often sharing the same practice hill with Hirscher.

And like Hirscher, Pinturault will now travel the World Cup circuit with his own team.

“Now all year I am having my own staff around me,” Pinturault said. “It makes things a bit easier because they exactly adapt to my plans and needs and that’s really important for me.”

Also, Pinturault has started to learn German, the common language in the Alpine skiing world with its strong base in central Europe.

What still separates him from Hirscher are eight overall World Cup titles. His second-place finish from last season, trailing by 325 points, was the closest Pinturault has been.

He is well aware of the expectations he is carrying in the post-Hirscher era.

“I think we are the big favorites, with Kjetil (Jansrud), with Henrik, with Dominik Paris,” said Pinturault, a winner of 23 World Cup races and seven medals at major championships. “We have a lot more pressure now.”

Asked if he was feeling the added pressure too, Kristoffersen said no, not anymore, after learning his lesson last year.

“I learned a lot last year, when there was a lot of talk like: ‘Now you have to beat Marcel for the overall as he might be coming toward the end of his career’,” the Norwegian said. “There was a lot of talk like this and that was just too much for me.”

His lesson learned? Do not focus on the overall title.

“I shouldn’t say I don’t care about the overall, but at the moment I don’t think about it,” Kristoffersen said. “The coolest thing is to cross the finish line and see the green light and win the race. That’s the coolest thing, the adrenalin when you win a race.”

Of course, winning enough races will keep Kristoffersen in the race for the sport’s most coveted prize.

He entered the World Cup near the end of the 2011-12 season, which was the year when Hirscher started his reign.

“I was always chasing him,” Kristoffersen said. “I was also beating him sometimes.”

Specializing in slalom and GS, just like Hirscher, Kristoffersen finished runner-up to the Austrian twice, in 2018 and two years earlier, when he beat him to the slalom season title.

His intense fights with Hirscher, especially in slalom where they pushed each other’s boundaries, have been one of the highlights of the men’s World Cup in recent years. But Kristoffersen did not believe that his rival’s retirement will affect his own approach.

“If you are only motivated to ski faster when there is someone else who gives you the motivation, then you have the wrong motivation. It has to come from within,” he said.

Kristoffersen has just extended his contract with equipment supplier Rossignol and also settled a long-term sponsorship conflict with the Norwegian federation.

“There are definitely less distractions now,” he said. “I have my own team within the group, which I am really happy about. Everything is much more calm and it suits me. But it’s a sport with small margins so everything has to work out perfectly.”