Race Report: World Cup Ski Cross Kicks Off in Secret Garden, China

Phil Tremblay | | OlympicsOlympics
A dictionary definition of a spectator sport, the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup kicked off this weekend in Secret Garden, China. Photo: FIS Freestyle on Facebook. Athletes: Robert Winkler (AUT), Florian Wilmsmann (GER), Terence Tchiknavorian (FRA) & Kevin Drury (CAN).

Ski Cross has been a spectator favorite in the Olympics since its first appearance in the Vancouver 2010 games. The sport pits four athletes head to head down a wide track with banked corners, technical features, and large jumps. This season is highlighted by the event’s fourth Olympic appearance, in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February. The test event for the games served as the first world cup event of the season, on November 27th.

The races started with a bang, with mistakes from leaders causing massive upsets across the board. The first heat of the event featured top qualifier Ryan Regez from Switzerland, who mistimed one of the first features through the start section and ended up way behind the pack into the first corner. This allowed Frenchman Romain Mari and Italian Dominik Zuech into the round of 16, which was guaranteed a World Cup personal best from the Italian. Zuech had qualified 16th and Mari had qualified 32nd. The excitement continued through the rest of the heats. The second heat contained 2014 Olympic Champion Jean Frederic Chapuis from France, who found himself out of the race after a collision with German athlete Daniel Bohnacker. Secret Garden was the first race back from a major injury for 2020 Crystal Globe winner Kevin Drury from Canada. Drury suffered a fibia fracture in a World Cup event in Val Thorens, France, and missed out on most of the 2020/21 racing season. The Canadian athlete (who calls Vermont home) raced a strong first run, but a mistake in the penultimate turn left him out of contention. Other upsets through the first round included Ryo Sugai from Japan who won his round and mistakes from last year’s crystal globe winner Reece Howden which allowed Bastien Midol from France and Tim Hronek from Germany to move to the next round. The only American athlete on the Secret Garden start list, Brant Crossan from Colorado, was 3.85s off the top qualifier and did not advance to the heats. Crossan would have to settle for 54th.

One of the biggest upsets in Secret Garden was when Tim Hronek (GER), who qualified 26th, bested last year’s crystal globe winner Reece Howden (CAN) in the first round. Photo: FIS Freestyle on Facebook. Athletes: Bastien Midol (FRA), Reece Howden (CAN), Tim Hronek (GER) & Chris Del Bosco (CAN).

On the women’s side, a two-horse race was imminent from the start. 2021 World Champion Sandra Naeslund from Sweden and 2021 Crystal Globe winner Fanny Smith from Switzerland easily separated themselves from the rest of the competition. Despite strong attempts from German Daniela Maier and Canadians Tiana Gairns and Brittany Phelan, the two frontrunners eased their way to the top 8 with impressive margins. Gairns capitalized on a mistake from 2016 Youth Olympic Games champion Talina Gantenbein, to also make it into the top 8 for the 7th time in her career.

Upsets continued into the men’s round of 16. 2019 World Champion Francois Place from France was upset by young German Tobias Mueller, and Japanese athlete Ryo Sugai pulled off the second upset of his day by eliminating Austrian World Cup veteran Robert Winkler. 2018 Olympic Champion Brady Leman, who was also making his first race appearance since a major injury in the previous season, ran a competitive heat with Bastien Midol and countryman Kris Mahler. Through strong defense to the finish, Leman ensured his spot in the first top 8 of the season.

Ryo Sugai (JPN) reached his first career podium last year in Russia, and pulled off a plethora of overtakes and upsets throughout this season’s opener in China. Photo: FIS Freestyle on Facebook. Athletes: Ryo Sugai (JPN), Florian Wilmsmann (GER), Erik Mobaerg (SWE) & Robert Winkler (AUT).

The women’s final came down to top qualifier Sandra Naeslund and Swiss rival Fanny Smith. Out of the gate, Naeslund quickly disappeared from the rest of the pack. Smooth and strong skiing throughout the entire course allowed Naeslund to cross the line first by a longshot and take the 18th win of her career. Fanny Smith was challenged by Marielle Berger-Sabbatel of France and Katrin Ofner of Austria through the entire final run. Smith ran a strong defense and came down 2nd. Berger-Sabbatel would round out the podium in 3rd. In the consolation final (known as the ‘small’ final), Brittany Phelan submitted her entry for ‘pass of the year,’ with a jaw-dropping airborne double pass on the frontrunners Daniela Maier and Alizee Baron. By winning the small final Phelan ranked 5th, her best world cup result since 4th place in Idre Fjall, Sweden. Maier would finish 6th, Baron 7th and young Canadian Tiana Gairns would finish 8th after a mistake mid-course.

The Women’s podium from Secret Garden, China; 1st – Sandra Naeslund (SWE), 2nd – Fanny Smith (SUI), 3rd – Marielle Berger-Sabbatel (FRA). Photo: FIS Freestyle on Facebook

The men’s big final consisted of two Olympic medallists in Brady Leman and Sergey Ridzik, as well as Bastien Midol and Johannes Rohrweck from Austria. The race was neck-and-neck after the start section, with three athletes side by side into the first turn. Bastien Midol took an early lead after corner one, with the Russian and Canadian hot on his tails. A near-collision with the Canadian caused Rohrweck to ski out of the course and out of medal contention. Despite a strong lead which amounted to over half a second at some points in the course, a small mistake from Midol would allow the Russian to make a move into the final straight and take the second win of his career. Brady Leman would also capitalize on Midol’s mistake and came next to the Frenchman over the final jump. A massive reach for the line called for a photo-finish decision, with Leman ultimately besting Midol by a hand’s length. This was Leman’s 29th World Cup podium, and his first since another silver medal in Idre Fjall, Sweden.

With the season now in full swing, the Ski Cross tour moves on to Val Thorens, France. The town of Val Thorens is the home of 2014 Olympic Champion Jean Frederic Chapuis, and the Ski Cross track is named after him. Val Thorens hosts a Ski Cross doubleheader on December 10th and 11th.

Full results and schedule can be found on fis-ski.com

The Men’s podium from Secret Garden; 1st – Sergey Ridzik (RUS), 2nd – Brady Leman (CAN), 3rd – Bastien Midol (FRA). Photo: FIS Freestyle on Facebook.

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