Skier Lara Gut the downhill favorite as World Cup training ends

— It’s just training, of course.

But there is no one who wouldn’t want to trade places with Switzerland’s Lara Gut in the Raptor women’s World Cup field going into Friday's downhill at 10:45 a.m at Beaver Creek.

She authoritatively put herself in the role of favorite with Thursday’s final training run.

Yes, it’s just training, but it’s hard to ignore that she put down a time of 1 minute, 40.76 seconds — 1.18 seconds ahead of Austria’s Tina Weirather during the final dress rehearsal. No points have been on the line, but Gut’s training times have plummeted from 1:43.42 to 1:42.12 to 1:40.76 during the past three days, for finishes of first, third and first, respectively.

“Yeah, clearly, (Gut) did a lot of things right to be that far ahead,” said Leanne Smith, the top American on Thursday, in ninth place. “So, definitely (that’s) something to look at. We’re all going to be watching her in video tonight. It doesn’t mean that anyone else can’t do that.”

The 22-year-old Gut, naturally, downplayed it.

“I don’t know. I don’t care,” Gut said. “Tomorrow, everybody has to do something. It’s not that if I’m the favorite, they’re going to say, ‘(I’m) a second behind. She’s on the podium.’ Everybody starts everything from zero.”

And in a case of traditional gamesmanship, her competitors maybe tried to plant a seed of doubt.

“Yeah, she’s ahead pretty much, but it’s just a training run and it’s not counting,” said Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who was sixth. “But, yeah, it’s not always so easy when you have three really good training runs to do it again in the race.”

While strategies are different for training, what was impressive is that Gut seemed to get faster as the run progressed, the green numbers increasing on the scoreboard in the finish area at each interval. Since this was only the third time down the new course, there isn’t a consensus strategy for Raptor, but Gut hammered the middle section, so far the most technical part of the course.

The margin of victory also was a bit ominous. While Weirather was second, only Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec (third, 1.68 seconds back), Norway’s Lotte Smiseth Sejersted (fourth, 1.81) and Austria’s Anna Fenninger (fifth, 1.96) were within 2 seconds of Gut.

Trouble spots

Although Gut’s run Thursday was perfect compared to the field, she said she’s still having problems with the Heckle and Jeckle. That’s a combination of left and right turns before the final compression of the course. Taking the wrong line there leads to too much air, and possibly precious tenths of seconds on the course’s final jump, Red Tail.

“Three days, the same mistake,” Gut said.

Hoefl-Riesch said she went to longer skis for her second training run Wednesday. That didn’t work, especially from the start to The Runway, a flat where racers try to build speed going into Apex, the first big drop of the Raptor.

On Thursday, the 2010-11 World Cup champion returned to her regular setup.

“Yesterday, I didn’t find a good rhythm when the steep part started,” Hoefl-Riesch said. “So I think this is really important to get a good rhythm in the first two or three turns and you can take the good feeling down the whole thing.”

Smith said that the Kestrel turn, pretty much at the midpoint of the course, was giving her problems.

“I think it’s just a matter of toughening up and arching those, and then when you need to do a small redirect. That’s where you need to be doing it,” she said. “I was just happy to get sacked up, be in a better position than I was in yesterday. That was really important to me.”

Notables

As Gut rightly noted, the rest of the field is not going to wave the white flag Friday. Big names abounded on the first page of results. Tina Maze, the defending World Cup champ, was eighth. Austrian Nicole Hosp continued her weeklong trend of bib-hopping, punching in at 11th with her No. 41.

Fellow Austrian Andrea Schmidhofer recorded the biggest jump going from the No. 46 bib to seventh place. American Stacey Cook was tied for 14th with Austrian Maria Fischbacher.

American youngster Jacqueline Wiles seems intent on bumping her way into the points. The Oregon native was hovering at 33rd on Thursday. Julia Mancuso made a mistake early in her run and spent the rest of her outing as a cruiser, finishing 60th.

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