Maier clear favorite this weekend; Women's contest wide open

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The Independent Online

Having conquered North America, the Herminator-led Austrians return to European snow this week prepared to extend their reign over the Alpine World Cup in Val d'Isere.

Having conquered North America, the Herminator-led Austrians return to European snow this week prepared to extend their reign over the Alpine World Cup in Val d'Isere.

While Hermann Maier has dominated the men's circuit, winning five of the six races he's entered this season, the women arrived at the famous French resort with no one country or skier able to put their stamp on the competition.

Eight women's races have produced as many different winners, and with defending overall, super-G and giant slalom champion Alexandra Meissnitzer injured and out for the season, there is no clear cut favorite for the women's crown.

In contrast, Maier is well on his way to reclaiming the men's overall title he lost to Norway's Lasse Kjus last year.

Maier, with 580 points in the overall standings, already has built a substantial 200-point lead over his closest challenger, compatriot Andreas Schifferer.

Another Austrian, Hannes Trinkl, the only skier to have beaten Maier this season - pushing his teammate into second place in a downhill in Lake Louise, Canada - is third.

Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt is the highest-ranked non-Austrian in the overall, sitting fourth.

The Austrian domination, however, extends beyond Maier. Austrian skiers have won seven of eight races. Only Didier Plaschy of Switerland broke the sweep, winning the season's only slalom.

In a downhill in Beaver Creek two weeks ago, five Austrians finished among the top six, and all 11 enrolled finished in the top 16.

Now heading into the weekend's downhill and giant slalom at the classic French event, Maier remains the man to beat.

On the women's side, there is no such obvious favorite.

Last weekend in Serre Chevalier, the overall lead changed hands three time in as many days.

Italy's Isolde Kostner arrived at the historic resort leading the standings, but soon was overtaken by Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister, the winner of Saturday's giant slalom.

A day later, after winning Sunday's slalom, 17-year-old Croatian Janica Kostelic took her turn at the top of the rankings, where she sits with 286 points.

The only woman to have earned points in every discipline so far this season, Kostelic heads into this week's races looking to extend her lead.

Several skiers will be taking full advantage of Meissnitzer's misfortune, including her own teammates, who will be battling to take over as the team's leader.

Dorfmeister could return to the top of the overall if she can follow up her victory in Serre Chevalier with another in Thursday's giant slalom.

Compatriot Anita Wachter, a 16-year veteran of the World Cup circuit, will also be among the favorites, having finished second and third in the two giant slaloms already this season.

France's Regine Cavagnoud and Switzerland's Sonja Nef are also serious threats.

The 29-year-old French skier, considered more of a speed specialist than a technical skier, confounded the pundits when she stormed to victory in the giant slalom in Copper Mountain. Nef, who battled back from six knee operations, won the season-opener in nearby Tignes.

The super-giant slalom contest promises even more surprises.

Slovenia's Mojca Suhadolc, the winner of the season's only super-G so far, and Hilde Gerg of Germany, the runner-up, are among the principle contenders.

Speed specialist Kostner, the 1996 and 1997 world super-G champion, has

solid third in Lake Louise.

Austrian all-rounder Renate Goetschl, the defending World Cup downhill champion and super-G silver medalist at last year's worlds, will also count among the names to watch.