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Who to watch for in 2015 World Cup Skiing

Thu 23rd, October 2014

Solden, Austria (SportsNetwork.com) - The leaves are turning, there's a chill behind the mountain air and those dreamy photos of Ushuaia are tucked away for another year. Yes, it must be time for Solden.

After the rollercoaster highs and lows of Olympic year, the world's top alpine ski racers are back in Europe and preparing for the first races of the new World Cup season up on the Rettenbach glacier, at the crossroads of three countries and the changing seasons.

And though it's just October, Christmas has already come early for race fans around the world with the news that both Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller, the sport's two pre-eminent global stars, are planning to stick around - knee ligaments permitting - for the foreseeable future.

Vonn, the four-time overall World Cup champion and former Laureus world sportswoman of the year, is plotting a gentle comeback from an injury-plagued two years, but still aims for the four World Cup victories she needs to finally overhaul Annemarie Moser-Proll's longstanding record of 62 on the women's tour.

Miller - well, he's just Miller, continuing to draw and dazzle crowds around the world with his unconventional approach to genius, and thrillingly unprepared to call it a day when injury and age would have seen off lesser mortals long ago. No wins and four podiums seemed an unjust return for the 37- year-old's performances on comeback last year, and few who gasped at those astonishing training runs in Kitzbuhel and Sochi will begrudge him a 34th career World Cup victory.

The overall World Cup titles, though, are likely to prove beyond both Miller and Vonn, with defending champions Marcel Hirscher and Anna Fenninger, of Austria, leading the charge for another rot-weiss-rot lockout of the standings.

Hirscher once more starts the year as favorite to scoop his fourth successive big globe, and at just 25, appears to have Marc Girardelli's all-time men's record of five within his reach. The unfortunate injury to Norwegian speed veteran Aksel Lund Svindal, by far his toughest competitor in recent years, certainly makes the job easier.

Do not rule out challenges, though, from the likes of Alexis Pinturault, the Frenchman long tipped as a rising star of the sport, and GS uber-champion Ted Ligety, the American, if they prove able to grab a few more points in the Super-G.

On the ultra-competitive women's tour, the race, as ever, is wide open. After a pre-Olympic coaching change paid handsome dividends with two gold medals in Sochi on the back of a sub-par season, Tina Maze starts as the favorite on paper.

Few ski races, though, are run on paper, and at 31, after winning all the sport has to offer, only the Slovenian knows whether the motivation remains to pursue her record-breaking haul of 2,414 points from two years ago.

And there are no shortage of challengers for the women's Overall crown, dramatically snatched with a late-season surge by Fenninger earlier this year. It is indeed a striking compliment to the health of women's skiing that despite the summer retirements of longtime superstars Marlies Schild and Maria Hofl-Riesch, a new generation is seamlessly filling their places.

In particular, an emerging three-way rivalry between speedsters Fenninger (25), Lara Gut (23) and Tina Weirather (25) seems likely to endure for many years, while such is the precocious slalom dominance of Mikaela Shiffrin - still only nineteen - that it would require only a modest improvement in GS consistency for the American to join the action as a viable big-globe contender.

Happily for Shiffrin and her compatriots, there's a distinct North American twang to this season's calendar. The regular November speed races in Beaver Creek and Lake Louise are complemented this year by women's technical events in Aspen, scheduled in preparation for the World Cup finals of 2015/16.

And in February, all runways will again lead to Colorado for the return of the FIS World Championships to the Vail Valley after 16 years: how Vonn and Miller, cast as returning heroes, would love to bag a gold medal on home snow. (Warning: expect Raptors, BIG jumps and eagles with a terrifyingly large wingspan.)

First, though, we eagerly await a the thrills and spills of a new World Cup season. Amongst the many highlights of the calendar, watch out in particular for another installment of 3-Tre history under the floodlights in Madonna di Campiglio in December; a city event in Munich on New Year's Day; men's and women's speed races in Kitzbuhel and St Moritz, the two traditional sporting capitals of the Alps, on the same weekend in late January; and the hard-fought crystal globes being settled at the Finals in Meribel next March.

It promises to be another thrilling season. So ladies and gentlemen, buy your tickets now: the White Circus is coming to a town near you.

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