Skiing: Maier still the one to beat

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The Independent Online
HERMANN MAIER is determined not to lose his appetite for Alpine skiing when the men's World Cup circuit resumes this week.

The Austrian enters 1999 the way he started 1998, as the overall leader. The double Olympic gold medallist has a 103-point margin over the Norwegian Lasse Kjus. Maier aims to outclass his rivals in Kranjska Gora, where a giant slalom opens the year's competition today. The Slovenian resort close to the Austrian border also hosts a slalom tomorrow.

"You can lose your enjoyment of the sport when the schedule is so tight," Maier said.

Maier said his shaky form at the start of the season was because he was too cautious. His performances improved when he stopped thinking about results and resorted to his normal attacking style. With four wins in three disciplines, Maier has one more victory than at the same stage last year and his favourite races lie ahead.

"January was always my strongest month, even last year when it all really kicked-off for me in January," he said. "I love competing in front of home crowds and the bulk of Austrian races are yet to come. Maybe Kjus has already given up on the overall title by missing Bormio."

Kjus conceded his overall lead before Christmas in a super-G at Innsbruck when Maier led a record Austrian sweep of the top nine places.

Flu forced the Norwegian to miss a downhill in Bormio, Italy, on 29 December, which Maier clinched ahead of six team-mates. Tough competition is expected from two other giant slalom winners, Austria's Stephan Eberharter and Switzerland's Michael von Grunigen.

Slalom specialists have a busy schedule with tomorrow's race in Slovenia followed by a floodlit event the next day in Schladming, Austria. The defending slalom champion, Thomas Sykora, plans to make his first appearance of the season in Kranjska Gora after undergoing surgery in November for a recurring knee injury.

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