Alpine skiing: Hoefl-Riesch to defend narrow World Cup lead

Overall World Cup leader Maria Hoefl-Riesch has her work cut out this weekend if she wants to retain her top place amid strong challenges from her young rivals, four weeks out from the Olympics.

Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather is just two points behind in the standings, and Swiss skier Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden is also hot on her heels in the downhill.

Anything less than a win on Saturday could see the German double Olympic champion toppled from her position as number one.

Weirather, 24, who has had a surprising run this season with six podiums already, returns to the hill where she was crowned downhill junior world champion seven years ago.

Austria's Anna Fenninger is also within reach of an overall World Cup lead, just 14 points behind Hoefl-Riesch.

In a first training run on Thursday, 2011 world champion Fenninger laid down a marker, scoring the fastest time on the 3,005-metre (9,859 foot) Kaelberloch slope, ahead of Switzerland's Lara Gut and Slovenia's Tina Maze.

"I didn't actually have a 100-percent good feeling, I slid out in a few places and didn't really keep to the line," she said.

"It's a bit of a surprise," said the 24-year-old, trying to mitigate her result. "You shouldn't really overrate a best time in training."

Weirather admitted it would be hard to beat Hoefl-Riesch, who already secured the overall World Cup title in 2011, but showed she was up for a challenge.

"It's always nice to come to a place where you have good memories, where you know you were fast and you can be fast again."

"I am going to take my chances," she added.

Gut, who won the super-G at the venue in 2011, praised a slope that was demanding but satisfying, with skiers going into a steep incline straight out of the start gates and hitting 100 kilometres per hour (62 miles per hour) within seconds.

"At first, if you don't know the hill, you have a lot of respect because you're thinking if you miss one bend, you land in the security nets."

"But in the end, if you're well on your skis, it's pretty simple," said the 22-year-old, who began the season with three back-to-back wins but has since fallen behind."

The weekend's races in Altenmarkt include not just the downhill on Saturday but also a super-combined on Sunday -- one of only two such events this World Cup season and the only one before the Olympics in Sochi next month.

With US ski star Lindsey Vonn out for the season due to a knee injury that will see her miss the Olympics, Hoefl-Riesch could well win in a discipline in which she has excelled in the past.

The question is whether Maze -- last season's overwhelming winner with three world championship medals and three World Cup crystal globes, including the overall -- can pose a threat.

The Slovenian, who won both super-combined events last season, has made it on to the podium only three times this year -- albeit in three different disciplines -- without a single win.

This compares to 30 podiums in 43 races in 2012-2013.

On Wednesday, it was announced that the Slovenian had changed coaches, possibly signalling a return to form in the near future.

"Some good changes are happening," she posted on her Facebook page, along with the slogan "Keep Calm and Think Positive."