Maier wins season opening giant slalom

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The Independent Online

Hermann Maier's bid to recapture the overall World Cup from Norway's Lasse Kjus got off to a strong start on Sunday, with the Austrian winning the season's inaugural giant slalom in Tignes, France, and the defending champion bouncing off course.

Hermann Maier's bid to recapture the overall World Cup from Norway's Lasse Kjus got off to a strong start on Sunday, with the Austrian winning the season's inaugural giant slalom in Tignes, France, and the defending champion bouncing off course.

Maier, the 1997-98 overall World Cup champion, blitzed down the sun-soaked Tignes glacier in a two-run combined time of 2 minutes, 22.33 seconds to win his 19th career World Cup title, his sixth in the giant slalom.

"This was such a good start to the season for me," said Maier, a double Olympic and world champion. "The first race is always important because you get to see where you stand with the other skiers.

"You get to see if the others are in good shape or not," said Maier, one of four Austrian racers in the top six. "I see we Austrians are not so bad at this moment."

Kjus had a less successful start to his season.

The Norwegian gave Maier's campaign to regain the overall title an extra boost when he lost his grip on the rapidly deteriorating surface, fell on his side and skidded off course in the opening run.

Reigning World Cup giant slalom champion Michael Von Gruenigen had a second-run scare, but survived it to finish runner-up in 2:23.08.

Second after the opening leg, Von Gruenigen looked poised to record a spectacular time in the final run, until his right ski-pole was ripped from his hand as he struck a gate midway down the course.

Undaunted, the Swiss skier continued to negotiate the remaining gates dotted along the choppy course to finish with the fifth-fastest run and maintain his second place.

"Hermann made a super performance today and I don't think I could have beaten him even without losing my pole," said Von Gruenigen. "But I might have had a better time with two poles."

Runner-up in the overall World Cup standings last season, Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt crossed in 2:24.23, tying for third with Austria's Stephan Eberharter, second in the World Cup giant slalom and super-G standings last year and fourth overall.

Aamodt, who has not won a race since 1997, is looking for a victory this season, as well as a World Cup trophy of some sort.

"This year I started on the podium so maybe I can win a race," said Aamodt, the 1994 World Cup overall champion. "I haven't won in so long.

"Maybe I need to take more risks even at the danger of going out," Aamodt said. "It's better than always being second, third or fourth."

With no major international championships this season, the fight for the World Cup overall crown this season promises to be even spicier than last year's.

"This is the first time since 1995 there are no other titles to win besides the World Cups," Aamodt said. "Last year I came in second in the overall so it will be good fun to fight Lasse and Hermann for it this year."

Maier, who had claimed two Olympic golds, 10 World Cup wins and the overall title in 1998, surrendered his overall crown to Kjus last season, finishing third.

But Kjus is not the only thorn in Maier's side.

Maier and Von Gruenigen have been engaged in a fierce tug-of-war for the World Cup giant slalom crown over the past few years.

Von Gruenigen won the title in 1997, before handing it over to Maier the very next year. But the Swiss skier had the last word, reclaiming it in 1999.

"For sure this duel will continue," said Von Gruenigen, who added Aamodt to his list of rivals. "This type of game motivates me.

"In my career I've raced against some big champions like Alberto Tomba and now it's Hermann," he said. "These kinds of battles are good for skiing and they pump me up."

American Bode Miller finished 19th in 2:26.72.

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