While "La Bomba" is away, the Austrians can play.
With Italian slalom ace Alberto Tomba at home nursing injuries from a practice spill, the strong Austrian ski team took advantage to win the season-opening men's World Cup slalom on Sunday.Thomas Sykora, third in the slalom standings a year ago, won the race with a two-run time of 1 minute, 46.03 seconds, .29 faster than teammate Thomas Stangassinger. The 1994 World Cup overall champion, Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, was third in the race and climbed atop the overall standings with 120 points, 100 more than Sykora and Switzerland's Steve Locher.
"It would be best to win with Alberto. I'm not happy that Alberto's not here," Sykora said. "I like him and he's the greatest skier of the last 20 years, with (Ingemar) Stenmark.
"It's hard enough to win this way (without Tomba)."
Indeed, Sykora admitted to a case of nerves coming into the race.
"I was nervous because everyone was coming to me and saying, `You are the strongest, you are the fastest.' It was a little bit of a tactic."
Sykora led Stangassinger, the 1994 Olympic slalom gold medalist, by .33 seconds after the morning run down the treacherous Clementine run and the margin helped him get through a difficult course in the afternoon.
"My trainer told me by walkie-talkie that I cannot go as fast as I can, I have to slow down a little," Sykora said. "I could not give the race away."
Given the relative luxury of a few hundredths of a second, Sykora retained control down the brutal steeps of the Clementine run, then maintained momentum through the flats.
"I want to win more races than last year, and I hope that maybe I can win the slalom World Cup," added Sykora, who won twice last year on the way to placing third in the slalom standings.
"But this is the first race. After three or four races, we'll find out who is the fastest."
Stangassinger wasn't going to let Sykora lay claim to the title, casting an eye on him during a post-race news conference.
"I guess I'm looking for the World Cup for the slalom," Stangassinger said, drawing a laugh from Sykora, who said, "Everyone is. I want to do that as well. He's very strong and it should be a good fight the whole year."
Aamodt, the 1994 World Cup overall champion, had the fastest second run among the leading skiers from the morning session and finished third at 1:46.91.
"I knew it was a rough course, but still I charged with everything I have on the top," Aamodt said. "I was struggling a lot along the bottom because it was flat, but I think the other guys struggled a little, too. Pretty hard conditions, rough conditions. I was surprised to see myself in the lead (after his run), but I was happy."
Aamodt, third in the season-opening giant slalom at Solden, Austria, last month, was encouraged by his second podium finish of the young season.
"I was maybe at the top (in 1994) and thought I was the best and I didn't want to listen to the coaches, because you think you're the best yourself," Aamodt said. "Suddenly, the other guys are in front of you. There's not much difference if you go a little back and everyone else moves up a little."
Aamodt displaced two other Austrians, Christian Mayer and Michael Tritscher, who had been third and fourth behind Sykora and Stangassinger in the morning run. Mayer finished two heats in 1:47.08 for fourth and Tritscher dropped to sixth at 1:47.34 after an afternoon effort of 54.98.
Norway's Ole Kristian Furuseth, fifth in the morning, held that spot overall with a final time of 1:47.12.
Japan's Kiminobu Kimura, only 16th in the first run, blazed down Clementine's one-third-mile forest of slalom poles in 53.74 to climb to seventh overall.
Norway added two more finishers in the top 10, with Thomas Stiansen eighth in 1:47.56 and 1992 Olympic champion Finn Christian Jagge ninth in 1:47.68.
Jure Kosir of Slovenia completed the top 10 in 1:47.72.
After five races this season, three for women and two for men, the United States scored its first points. Matt Grosjean of Steamboat Springs, Colo., was 22rd in 1:48.98, 2.95 behind Sykora. Grosjean was exceptional in the afternoon with a run that was .22 seconds faster than Sykora.
Grosjean had already left the race arena by the time Sykora came down and didn't immediately know that he'd skied faster than the winner.