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As Alpine skiing World Cup starts, the men’s spotlight is shared

Henrik Kristoffersen, Alexis Pinturault

Winner Alexis Pinturault (R) of France and third placed Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway react in the finish area after the second run of the men’s giant slalom of the FIS Ski World Cup in Hinterstoder, Austria, on March 2, 2020. (Photo by GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT (Photo by GEORG HOCHMUTH/APA/AFP via Getty Images)

APA/AFP via Getty Images

Three men go into the World Cup Alpine skiing season with legitimate claims to alpha status, a little more than one year after the longtime dominant Marcel Hirscher retired.

Norwegians Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and Henrik Kristoffersen and Frenchman Alexis Pinturault are all on the start list for Sunday’s giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, the first of a scheduled 38 individual races through March. The coronavirus pandemic, plus the usual weather variables, will determine how many of those 38 races happen.

Kilde, the latest of Norway’s Attacking Vikings, won last season’s overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, in anticlimactic fashion. The last seven races were canceled at the start of the pandemic. Kilde earned the crystal globe by a slim 54 points over Pinturault, who was a significant favorite after winning the Soelden opener last year.

Had the virus not wiped out the last two weekends, and Kilde and Pinturault repeated their average results per discipline, Kilde would have prevailed by just 28 points.

Kilde’s previous best overall finish was seventh in the era of Hirscher’s record eight straight overall titles. The 28-year-old from the same hometown as Magnus Carlsen owns zero senior world championships medals and won a single race in the 2019-20 season.

He eked by Pinturault with his consistency. The Frenchman won six races but had five fewer top-10s than Kilde.

But both Pinturault and, perhaps even more, Kristoffersen are targeted this season.

Kilde excels in the speed events of downhill and super-G. This year’s schedule includes a greater percentage than last year of the technical events of slalom and giant slalom -- specialties for Pinturault and Kristoffersen.

If all three men repeat their average results per discipline from last season, Kristoffersen will win the overall by 124 points over Kilde.

“Henrik is the great favorite this year with this calendar,” Pinturault told French TV, according to Olympic Channel. “He’s a great slalomer, and slalom is the discipline with most races this year.”

Kristoffersen was ticketed as Hirscher’s successor in early 2014 -- when he became, at 19, the youngest World Cup male race winner in 32 years and the youngest Olympic male Alpine skiing medalist in history. Kristoffersen, like Hirscher, is coached by his dad. He finished second or third in the overall each of the last five seasons.

Then there’s Pinturault, the most accomplished of the trio across disciplines with wins in super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined. The 29-year-old led last season’s overall going into what turned out to be the last race, a downhill where Kilde finished second to move ahead.

Pinturault’s Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski from age 2. He went from failing to finish or qualify for the second run in his first 14 World Cup starts to becoming France’s career wins leader and a triple Olympic medalist.

He had a volatile 2019-20. Pinturault won three giant slaloms, but finished no better than eighth in the other four. Pinturault earned his first slalom win in nearly six years, but he failed to finish four other slaloms.

“Pinturault still has yet to show that he can be consistent from the beginning of the year to the end,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said. “Kristoffersen has marginally done so more to where he is more of a favorite for the overall, particularly because it’s tech heavy.”

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