LEUKERBAD, SWITZERLAND, JAN. 25 -- For Pirmin Zurbriggen, it was supposed to have been the week he proved he was up to his advance billing as the top ski racer on the World Cup circuit going into next month's Winter Olympics.
Having dominated Alpine skiing last season, he was coming home to race again in his native Valais before fans who look upon him with all the fascination and awe Americans reserve for rock stars.
But in a four-race series here in this Swiss ski spa and across the mountains in Saas-Fe, Zurbriggen failed to rise to the occasion. The man Sports Illustrated called "Good as Gold" failed to win a race before his enthusiastic hometown fans, who marched to each race waving Pirmin banners to the roll of snare drums and clanging cow bells while uniformed in matching fan-club red parkas.
Although he placed second in the super giant slalom here today behind Canada's Felix Belczyk and fourth in a giant slalom last Tuesday at Saas-Fe -- just miles from his native village of Saas-Almagell -- he was a bust in the two downhills that are considered the glamor events of Alpine skiing and Zurbriggen's speciality.
More galling to his ego was the fact that his fan club's cheering was drowned out by that of thousands of Italians who came over the mountains to cheer 21-year-old Alberto Tomba, the man who in the past two months imposed himself as the most exciting skier in generations.
The giant slalom at Saas-Fe was nothing short of a mano-a-mano duel between Zurbriggen, winner last year of 11 World Cup events as well as the world championships in super giant slalom and giant slalom, and Tomba, who this season has won seven of the first 10 slaloms and giant slaloms.
The race wasn't just a simple defeat. It was a rout. Tomba beat Zurbriggen by 2.39 seconds in this sport where hundredths of seconds are normally the margins of victory.
Tomba leads the World Cup standings with 206 points to Zurbriggen's 186. Is Zurbriggen concerned? "I'm not worrying much about the World Cup," he said. "It is less and less on my mind right now."
More and more on his mind are the upcoming Olympics, which begin in Calgary Feb. 13. "I'm skiing with more reserve now," Zurbriggen said. "I don't want to take any chances. A fall or injury would jeopardize everything for Calgary."
Downhill is Zurbriggen's forte. Last season he dominated the race, winning five of 11 World Cup downhills. Early this year he won one and placed second in three.
In Saturday's downhill on the Torrent slope above this hot springs resort, however, Zurbriggen coasted to an embarrassing 39th. Only once, in 1982, had he finished lower than that in his eight seasons on the circuit.
The winners Saturday, as last Tuesday, were Italians. In a race normally dominated by the powerful Swiss and Austrians, Italian downhillers came in first, second, third and 14th. It was a performance that raised questions about whether this was, in fact, the year of Swiss skiing that had been predicted.
The grueling downhill, on a track made unpredictable by a fall of fresh snow, was won by Italy's Michael Mair, 25, whose only previous World Cup downhill victory was at Val D'Isere in 1985. "Now it is not just Tomba who is giving the Swiss something to think about," Mair said.
Sunday was another day and another downhill. Zurbriggen again ran poorly, finishing 13th behind a Canadian, a Swede, a Japanese and Jeff Olson of the United States who is in only his second World Cup season.
Despite Zurbriggen's failure to win here, no one is counting him out for the Olympics. Although he has been outclassed by the ever-confident Tomba, he remains second in contention for the World Cup behind the ebullient Italian, and still leads the downhill rankings.
"I don't think Zurbriggen will win all the medals every one was predicting just a few weeks ago," said U.S. slalom and giant slalom coach George Capaul. "But he is still a great skier and I would certainly expect him to win at least one medal, possibly in the Super G."