KRANJSKA GORA, Slovenia (AP) — Olympic champion Ted Ligety overcame a softening course and a challenge by Austrian veteran Benjamin Raich to win a men’s World Cup giant slalom on Saturday.
It was the American’s sixth career win in the Slovenian resort, making him the first man to win six World Cup races in one discipline at the same venue.
“It’s definitely a cool hill, it has so much personality,” Ligety said. “It has some steep parts, some rolls, it has a little bit of gliding sections. It’s a true GS skier’s hill.”
Ligety held on to his first-run lead and finished in an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 30.80 seconds to beat Raich by just 0.18. The 36-year-old Austrian trailed by 1.61 after the opening run before posting the fastest second-run time and making up almost 1 1/2 seconds on the American.
Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway was 0.25 behind in third for his first career GS podium, four days after winning the junior world title in GS.
In spring-like conditions on the Podkoren course, Ligety didn’t take too many risks in his final run and saw his comfortable lead shrank at every split time.
“I am not the kind of person that tries to cut off lines so I just tried to ski smart and be clean as much as I could,” said Ligety, who earned his fourth GS win of the season and 21st overall. He also won a super-combined event in Switzerland in January.
The victory also puts Ligety back in contention for the World Cup title in the discipline. He reduced his deficit to leader Marcel Hirscher, who came fourth, to 50 points with one race remaining and each victory worth 100 points.
“At this point the giant slalom globe isn’t a huge goal of mine,” Ligety said. “I have to win and he has to falter which is not a really good strategy. If it was anybody else besides Marcel I would say it’s doable, but Marcel is not the kind of guy that gives anybody any gifts.”
Raich returned to a World Cup podium for the first time since February 2012, when he won a super-G in Crans Montana, Switzerland. The Austrian was “surprised how close I’ve come to Ted.”
“I am very happy with second place, that’s a great result,” said the 2007 overall champion, who will decide on his future after the season is over. “I am still having fun and I can still be fast.”
The 19-year-old Kristoffersen added another chapter to his fairytale breakthrough season, which includes his first World Cup win – in a slalom two months ago – and an Olympic bronze medal.
“It’s been a really good couple of weeks,” Kristoffersen said. “I am really happy about my skiing, that is the most important thing. If I end up 10th and I’ve skied the two best runs of my life, I have to be happy. If I am on the podium, it’s even more exciting.”
Kristoffersen said the support of his dad Lars, who also coaches him, helped him. Lars Kristofferson wasn’t in Sochi but is accompanying his son for the last two weeks on the World Cup.
“He was standing on the hill. It’s for sure great to have my dad here,” Henrik Kristoffersen said. “Usually he is watching the TV and I call him before I run. Now it’s really nice to have him here for the last two weeks.”
Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway finished 17th and remained in the overall lead, 41 points clear of Hirscher. The Austrian can overtake Svindal after Sunday’s slalom, which the Norwegian will skip.
“I wish I was faster obviously because that would be the way, especially for my overall chances, to put some pressure on Marcel,” Svindal said. “I have to be realistic. Downhill and super-G is where I should do the work.”
Hirscher called the race “brutally hard.”
“For me those are useful points,” the Austrian said. “I have managed to reduce my deficit. It remains tight. If I can win tomorrow, that would be cool, I would have some buffer.”
Hirscher is chasing his third straight overall title and would become the first Austrian to achieve the feat. Only Italy’s Gustav Thoeni (1971-73), Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark (1976-78) and American Phil Mahre (1981-83) have done it.
Leif Kristian Haugen posted faster intermediate times than Ligety in the opening run but had a nasty crash just before the finish. The Norwegian led Ligety by 0.10 when he lost his balance and fell through the final gate before sliding over the finish line. But as his skis had passed the gate correctly, he avoided disqualification.
Haugen finished the race in 15th, 1.75 behind Ligety.