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Alpine skiing: Experience to the fore ahead of Sochi

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A couple of races apart, experienced heads came to the fore in men and women's World Cup action in Kitzbuehel and Cortina on the weekend, a perfect warm-up for the Sochi Olympics.

French tyro Alexis Pinturault and Swiss speed queen Lara Gut, both aged 22 but the latter already a five-year veteran of the circuit, each won their respective final events: the super-combined and super-G.

But the rest of the weekend took on a different script that could be replicated at the February 6-23 Sochi Games if the courses promise to be as tough and exacting as they were in the two "classic" race resorts.

Experience rose through the starting numbers in Kitzbuehel, with 36-year-old Swiss Didier Defago, the oldest racer on the startlist, claiming the men's super-G title by 0.05sec from American Bode Miller, 10 days his junior.

"It was obviously disappointing not to win - five hundredths is not very much time," said Miller.

"Just give me a break and let me win one time here! I'm okay with it. I skied hard and just got beat."

The vaunted downhill 24 hours earlier would likely have gone Miller's way if not for a horrendous mistake, instead 32-year-old Austrian Hannes Reichelt claiming a first home win in eight years from Norway's reigning world downhill champion Aksel Lund Svindal.

The 31-year-old Norwegian also finished third in the super-G but failed to finish the slalom leg of the super-combined, in which American triple world champion Ted Ligety, 32, finished second ahead of Austrian Marcel Hirscher.

Hirscher had dramatically bombed out of the opening slalom, allowing German Felix Neureuther in for a win to dash Austrian hopes.

In Cortina, there were victories for Gut, Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Tina Maze of Slovenia and Austrian Elisabeth Goergl, familiar faces the four, and likely to once again feature heavily on Sochi podiums in the absence of US rival Lindsey Vonn.

Runaway World Cup overall leader Hoefl-Riesch made three podiums in the re-scheduled four races, as did Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather without winning an event.

Swiss Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden and Austria duo Nicole Schmidhofer and Nicole Hosp will also likely be in the running come Sochi.

The resurgence of Maze bodes well for competition in Russia, the 30-year-old never-say-die Slovenian attributing her Cortina success to the recent arrival of Mauro Pini as the team's head coach.

"Mauro brought peace in the team because it just became easier with him. We knew he was a great coach with a lot of experience," said Maze, who won Olympic silver in the super-G and giant slalom in Vancouver four years ago.

"With him in the team I just have to focus on my skiing and not on other matters. He understood the situation and all the emotions going through my body and mind.

"He told me not to fight against but to accept the emotions and ski with it."

In the men's events, American Ligety pinpointed Pinturault as one to watch in Sochi.

"Alexis is probably the best skier from one event to another," he said. "It's not easy being a good slalom skier and a good giant slalom skier and then tackle super-G on top of that - he can win super-Gs from time to time if it's a good course for him.

"And super-G is only a couple of steps away from being fast in downhill which is a pretty incredible accomplishment for someone who's so young. Once he pieces those together... I guess we're all in bad luck."

One likely highlight of the men's draw in Sochi will be the slalom, with the Hirscher v Neureuther v Pinturault battle continuing.

Hirscher, 24, is somewhat carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders given the poor form of his aging slalom teammates such as Benjamin Raich, Reinfried Herbst, Manfred Pranger and Mario Matt.

"There are five or six guys skiing brilliantly who can win the slalom," Hirscher insisted.

"No, my slalom is not as solid as last year because I'm making some mistakes. But the speed should be nearly the same."

The men's circuit moves on to Schladming, where there is a slalom on Tuesday. The final races before the Olympics are at St Moritz, with a downhill and giant slalom next weekend. The women race a giant slalom and slalom in Kranjska Gora.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140127/alpine-skiing-experience-the-fore-ahead-sochi