Reigning world downhill champion Erik Guay produced a scintillating run through thick fog that looked to have given him victory in the classic Val Gardena downhill in Italy on Saturday, but he had to settle for third place as conditions cleared up and two late starters jumped ahead of him.
Guay, of Mont-Tremblant, Que., tamed the famous Saslong course with a beautifully-executed race in extremely poor visibility. He was sitting pretty in first place until racers starting 35th and 39th made the most of improving conditions to move in front and deny him a victory.
Still, Guay’s third-place finish was Canada’s first alpine podium of the 2012-13 Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup season and Guay’s 18th career World Cup top-three result. The 31-year-old now sits only two behind Crazy Canuck legend Steve Podborski, who holds the Canadian record for World Cup podiums with 20.
Guay’s teammate Manuel Osborne-Paradis, of Vancouver, B.C., looked back to his best as he also charged hard from the back to claim a seventh-place finish.
“I’m pumped that from top to bottom I was attacking and skiing well. I did pretty much everything I had to do,” said Guay, who clocked a time of one minute, 29.06 seconds on the shortened course. “I definitely feel like I was one of the better skiers out there today. I had a little bit tougher conditions but (the late starters) took advantage of their start position well.
“I’m really happy with my skiing and I’m extremely optimistic for the rest of the season. Two more podiums and I will (tie) Steve’s record. I don’t spend my nights dwelling on it but to be able to say I’m the best skier in Canadian history would be something special.”
The start of Saturday’s downhill was delayed and then interrupted several times as course workers and racers grappled with snow and fog. Following a course hold, Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud – starting 12th – stormed into the lead and then his teammate Aksel Lund Svindal, who started 16th, moved into second. Guay was within reach of Jansrud at the top of the course and then slayed the bottom section to move into the lead by 0.16 seconds.
“Val Gardena is a track that I like quite a bit,” Guay said. “I spent some time looking at my super-G race and I had some really fast splits. I knew if I skied to my potential I could (win).
“In one section coming into the Ciaslat I was a little bit low and that cost me (the win). But I’m pumped that this year I’m obviously off to a much better start. I was fourth in Bormio (Italy) last year (they race there Dec. 29 this year) and it’s a track I enjoy. That’s what I’ve got my sights set on right now.”
Guay was denied when first Slovenia’s Rok Perko, starting 35th, took the lead and then the USA’s Steven Nyman, starting 39th, made the most of clearer conditions to secure the win. Nyman won in 1:28.82 and Perko was second in 1:29.01. It’s not the first time racers starting near the back have broken through in Val Gardena. Liechtenstein’s Markus Foser famously claimed victory in December 1993 after starting 66th. Canadians Rob Boyd and Darren Thorburn were fourth and fifth, respectively, in that race.
“Erik skied like a champion. He was the best guy on the mountain but conditions changed,” said Pete Bosinger, head coach of the men’s alpine team. “Erik skied as well as he could. In those conditions, you had to execute your plan and then test your will and ability to ski it with the conviction it takes to win. Erik did that.”
Guay was lightning-fast in training earlier in the week – finishing second-fastest in the first training run and fourth-fastest in the second training run. He looked poised to do something special on a hill that has been a happy hunting ground for Canada over the years. Ken Read started the ball rolling with a third-place finish in 1978 before Boyd famously won in 1986 and 1987 – with his teammate Brian Stemmle also finishing third in ’87. Of the modern generation, Canadian Cowboy Osborne-Paradis was third in Val Gardena in the 2008 downhill and won a year later. Guay was third in the super-G in 2010.
“We knew coming in here that it’s always been a great race for Canadians,” Bosinger said. “It’s almost 25 years to the day that Rob Boyd and Brian Stemmle were on the podium here and we’ve had many other podiums here.
“We’ll take this result here and get set for the next races, where we will continue to try to perform and (push) for the podium.”
Osborne-Paradis, who is quietly putting together a superb comeback season after returning from a long-term injury layoff, started 38th Saturday and attacked from the start.
“I knew I had a shot. I know how to ski this course,” said Osborne-Paradis, who made a mistake but clocked a time of 1:29.36. “I knew what I had to do to win. It’s a bummer I caught an edge. It cost me the race, for sure.
“Confidence-wise, I’m back to where I need to be to be competitive. The super-G was a great result,” added Osborne-Paradis, who was 18th in Friday’s super-G. “I always say that any top 10 in World Cup is a good result because everyone’s trying to win. It’s just a shame that a mistake was so costly, but that’s racing. It’s kind of bittersweet. I could have ended up in the nets so you take your small victories and move on.”
Jan Hudec, of Calgary, Alta., was one of the early starters and he finished 35th with a time of 1:30.62. Fellow Calgarian John Kucera was 42nd, Ben Thomsen, of Invermere, B.C., was 49th, Dustin Cook, of Lac-Sainte-Marie, Que., was 53rd and Conrad Pridy, of Whistler, B.C., was 59th.
Next up for the Canadian men’s team is Sunday’s World Cup giant slalom in Alta Badia, Italy. The ladies’ super-G in Val d’Isère, France, was cancelled due to weather conditions. A ladies’ giant slalom is scheduled to take place in Courchevel, France, on Sunday.