Gusting winds at the starting gate and a barrage of fluffy snow bedeviled some of the world's best skiers and produced a first-time Super-G winner in Austria's Hannes Reichelt as the Birds of Prey World Cup event got under way Thursday.
Nearly a third of the field -- 17 of 56 skiers -- failed to complete the 2,005-feet vertical drop down the mountain face, including American Bode Miller, the reigning World Cup champion and gold-medal hopeful for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Miller managed to stay on course for less than 40 seconds before missing a gate and veering off. It was his second poor showing in as many weeks, coming on the heels of a 18th-place finish in the Super-G at Canada's Lake Louise.
Reichelt benefited from a relatively early start (seventh), completing his winning run in 1 minute 17.33 seconds. Joining him on the podium were Erik Guay of Canada (1:17.37) and Austria's Matthias Lanzinger of Austria (1:17.49).
American Daron Rahlves continued his strong start to the World Cup season by finishing fifth. The performance kept him in third in the Super-G standings, with his best event -- the downhill -- scheduled Friday, if weather permits.
"This is my best start ever," said Rahlves, 32, of Sugar Bowl, Calif. "A top-five is a lot better than I've done here before in the Super-G, so I'll take this one. My biggest goal is to take the downhill title."
Among alpine skiing's four disciplines, the Super-G is most akin to the downhill in terms of speed and danger. Ideal course conditions are a solid, slick sheet of ice; fluffy snow is a hazard, as is swirling snow that limits visibility.
With winds gusting to 45 mph Thursday and a relentless snowfall blanketing the manicured course, race officials considered canceling the event before deciding to go ahead. In hopes of keeping conditions from deteriorating so rapidly, they sent skiers out of the starting gate at shorter intervals. But it soon became clear that early starters held an advantage because they were able to attack the course more aggressively.
"I tried to risk a lot, and maybe that was the reason I won the race," Reichelt said.
The starting order for Thursday's race was set in reverse order of the World Cup standings for the top 30 skiers after heavy snow and winds wiped out Wednesday's training run. That put Miller last among the elite skiers.
John McBride, the U.S. ski team's head coach for the downhill and Super-G, blamed Miller's poor showing on equipment problems. "Two weeks in a row now he has had issues with his goggles, where ice builds up from the top down so he ends up having to look through the bottom of his goggles," McBride said. "That's probably not ideal in a speed event, from my perspective."
But Rahlves, who started just two spots ahead, suggested that Miller made a tactical error in negotiating the course's gates.
"He was going too straight; he didn't have a chance," Rahlves said. "It was tough conditions, and it's hard on the mind because you really want to attack, but with the conditions you have to be really conservative on the line. I made one little mistake where I went a little too direct, and it was a little costly."
Miller, 28, couldn't be located to dissect his run, once again dodging reporters as he typically does after performing poorly. But even his most ardent supporter couldn't put a good face on Miller's disappointing start. It stands in sharp contrast to last year, in which he won the first three races of the season and went on to become the first U.S. skier in 22 years to win the World Cup overall title.
But with the Olympics less than 10 weeks away, Miller hardly looks like the best skier in the world -- neither mentally nor physically fit enough, it seems, to fulfill his massive potential.
Pressed on the matter of Miller's fitness, McBride said: "Bode is very strong. He's very powerful. I would say his aerobic conditioning is probably not where it could be. Will it affect the way he recovers and pushes through a season with a lot of load? Time will tell."
McBride had other reasons to be satisfied, however, starting with Rahlves's fifth-place finish. Rahlves got off to a slower start than Miller and bobbled through a few of the early gates before making up time in the latter stages of the run.
"He didn't ski as clean on the top pitch as he could have," McBride said, "but he was Scooby the Scrappy Dog up there and kept it rolling!"