Alpine ski-racing in the modern era has not seen a start to the season like the one made by Bode Miller. By the middle of last month, after barely a quarter of the campaign, the American had recorded six World Cup victories from 10 starts. In doing so, Miller, a former slalom and giant-slalom specialist, became only the second skier ever to win World Cup races in each of the four alpine disciplines - slalom, giant slalom, super-giant slalom and downhill - in the same season. At this rate, or anything like it, the 27-year-old will become the overall World Cup champion and break the record of 13 World Cup victories in one season held by the Austrian Hermann Maier and Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.
At least, he will if he doesn't hospitalise himself. Because Miller is not only the best ski-racer in the world right now, he is the wildest: at 85mph, he sits back on his skis, his arms flail behind him, he loses his edges, he slips; and yet, somehow, he often recovers and, more and more frequently, he wins. As Miller told me shortly after finishing fourth in the downhill at Val d'Isère last month: "Sure, I want to win and ski better, but most of all my ambition this season is to stay alive."
His fellow, more technically correct, racers look on in disbelief, and the crowds can't get enough of the easy-going boy from the Appalachian Mountains. Britain's No 1 downhiller Finlay Mickel says: "When he starts a race, it's the Bode Show, and you never know what's going to happen."
Miller has never followed the rule book. According to Chip Cochrane, his college ski coach: "Alpine racers focus on technique first, speed second, with the idea that speed will follow technique. For Bode it's the opposite: speed begets speed begets speed." Konrad Bartelski, Britain's former No 1 downhiller, agrees: "His skiing is very radical, it's bizarre. Any young kid watching ski-racing should look at Bode, not anyone else - that's the way they'll be racing in the future."
It only adds to this season's drama that Miller's cowboy style is in dramatic contrast to his main rival, Maier. Maier's consistency and technical fluency have helped to earn him four overall World Cup titles and his Austrian national team their dominance for the past decade. Just compare them in the start gate: Maier, snorting like a bull; Miller, relaxed, almost casual.
But Miller's unorthodoxy, it would seem, is in the blood. Born in 1977, he was raised with his three siblings in a remote 15ft by 25ft cabin, 1,200m up Kinsman Mountain in New Hampshire, with no electricity or running water. "Sometimes it would get so cold that cups of water would freeze on the floor in the morning," Miller told the New Yorker magazine last year. "We'd just wear more clothes." His parents were skiing hippies: Woody, his father, tried selling his own health snacks for a while; Joanne, his mother, taught the kids at home. At three, Miller started skiing; by 19, he was attending a local college on a ski scholarship, where he acquired a reputation for high-velocity wipeouts.
"Like a cat being thrown over an icy driveway," was how one ski-manufacturer rep described Miller's skiing at the time. Fortunately, the same rep saw talent in the 19-year-old, and persuaded him to try racing in a pair of new "carving" skis. These hourglass-shaped skis, with their pronounced side-cuts, had recently been developed to enable recreational skiers to turn more easily. However, they had been largely ignored by racers with their longer, straighter skis. Miller raced with the carvers at the 1996 Junior Olympics in Maine and won the giant slalom and super-G by over two seconds each.
Miller explains how the new skis helped: "The transition from one edge to the other in the turn has always happened earlier for me than for most people," he says. "That's how I go straighter [and faster]. When I was young, I'd have this early transition, then wait for the ski to come ripping into the turn, but because the ski had no side-cut [to help it turn], I'd fall on my side and slide into the woods. My compensation was to sit back, lever the tail and bend the ski. With side-cut skis I didn't have to do that, and it was ridiculous how much difference it made." By the end of 1997 he was on the US national ski team and the World Cup circuit.
On the unfamiliar mountains of Europe, however, Miller didn't just fare badly, he was a liability - at one point he failed to finish 14 of 21 races he started. When the race announcer called Miller to the start gate, it was said, other racers would gather round the TV monitors to see exactly where the young American would go head over heels. According to Miller, though, the risks were justified: "The [US] coaches always wanted me to try to finish sixth or 10th and stay on my feet," he says. "I wanted to try to win, even if I wasn't ready to win and even if that meant falling."
After four mediocre seasons, he finally fulfilled his promise in 2001, winning his first World Cup race at Val d'Isère (he recovered from a stumble mid-course). By the end of March 2002, he had won several races, two silver medals at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics and fourth place in the overall World Cup rankings. The next year he finished second, and last year fourth, taking the individual giant-slalom title.
And now the American leads the overall World Cup rankings, with victories for the first time in the speed disciplines, super-G and downhill. Meanwhile Maier, despite a remarkable comeback from a motorbike accident in 2001, is not quite the all-conquering figure he was.
Nevertheless, over Christmas Miller dropped to 14th place in each of the downhills at Val Gardena and Bormio and failed to finish the Alta Badia giant slalom; last season he faded in the final events. Has he the stamina to achieve overall victory? Bartelski hopes so, and says Miller's style of skiing is based necessarily on throwing caution to the wind: "He completes his turn at the very last moment, waiting for the carving ski to carry him back round. That's how he saves time - but that's also why he gets into trouble more often, his skis are on their edge for longer."
This season, however, Miller has switched to the same ski manufacturer as Maier, and Bartelski senses a new confidence in his approach to the speed events. "He won his first-ever downhill in Beaver Creek this season, where he crashed out last year. Before, he was risking it everywhere, which was why he was blowing up," says Bartelski. "But the places where he was risking it [in Beaver Creek] last year, he was taking it easy this time - he had so much in reserve. Which is what makes him dangerous for everyone else."
What's more, if Miller is feeling the burden of expectation this year, he's not letting on. "When you're skiing well, there's less pressure," he says. "And right now, I'm skiing aggressive and well, better than I was four years ago. Then, I felt there was a lot more pressure because I was doing things I didn't really know if I could do or not." As for that apparently casual style, Bartelski thinks it is, in fact, an indication of Miller's remarkable feel for his skis: "He tiptoes his skis round turns, he's not hanging on to them or trying to control them - he's letting gravity accelerate him. He's a bit like Rudolph Nureyev and the rest are like Ozzy Osbourne."
The difference, many say, is that Miller, unlike many racers, has always enjoyed a sporting life away from the slopes: he was a state champion at tennis, played at a comparable level in football and is a three-handicap golfer. His off-season training is also unusually broad-minded: tightrope walking, unicycling, even log-rolling. It's this approach that his coach on the US team, Phil McNichol, highlights when he calls Miller a "self-discovery" athlete.
Not that Miller is entirely clean living; McNichol has had to indulge his liking for a few beers on the Saturday night after a downhill and before the next day's slalom. When he does take himself to bed, it's in his customised motorhome, which he drives round Europe. And his idiosyncratic regime works: around the tour he's a laid-back, approachable figure. He signs autographs for hours and even hangs out in the press tent between runs. Consequently, he's that rare entity in Europe at the moment, a genuinely popular American celebrity.
This is the decisive season for Miller. There are World Championship titles for him to defend in Bormio in February - but it's the overall World Cup title he wants. Yet whether he achieves what he's capable of or merely ushers in a new era of ski-racing, everyone, including Finlay Mickel, agrees that they're witnessing a rare athlete in action. "He looks like he's going to make a mistake, then he's perfect on his skis. He seems to be leaning back. But don't look at his arms or his weird body position - look from his feet to his knees to his hips," says Mickel. "He does stuff that no one else does right now."
'World Cup Skiing', today and every Sunday in January, 7.30am, Channel 4.
Born: 12 October 1977 in Easton, New Hampshire, US (also his residence).
Height: 6ft 2in. Weight: 15st.
Career progression: 1996: two golds in Junior Winter Olympics (giant slalom and super-giant slalom). 1997: joins World Cup tour as part of US team. 2001: wins a World Cup giant slalom at Val d'Isère, the first of 18 World Cup victories. 2002: two silvers (giant slalom and combined) at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. 2003: two golds (giant slalom and combined) and a silver (super-giant slalom) at the World Ski Championships in St Moritz. 2004: joins only one other skier, Marc Girardelli, in winning a World Cup race in each of the four alpine disciplines in a single season.