Veteran Mario Matt wins World Cup slalom race

Associated Press

VAL D'ISERE, France (AP) — Veteran Mario Matt of Austria safely protected his first-run lead to win a World Cup slalom race Sunday on a day when other contenders struggled on the notoriously tough Stade Olympique de Bellevarde course.

A two-time former slalom world champion, the 34-year-old Matt beat Sweden's Mattias Hargin by 0.53 seconds and Italian veteran Patrick Thaler — second after the first run — by 0.78.

Matt, who was second last month in the slalom at Levi, Finland, has 15 World Cup wins — 14 in slalom and one in supercombined.

His most recent win was at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, in March 2011, while his first was nearly 14 years ago at Kitzbuehel, Austria.

It was another disappointing day for the United States. Neither Ted Ligety, who finished the first run in 39th, nor Bode Miller, who went off course, qualified for the second run.

Austrian Marcel Hirscher also failed to qualify. He won Saturday's GS but struggled on the tricky top section and finished way down in 41st as those who started their runs later profited from better conditions.

Matt, the slalom world champion in 2001 and '07, is coming into form at just the right time for February's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Hargin was fifth at Levi and it was his first podium since finishing third at Schladming, Austria, in January 2011.

"It feels really good to be back on the podium. I've been working a lot the last two years," the 28-year-old Hargin said. "I've been fighting a lot and it meant a lot to get the podium today. We've worked really hard and we have a new coach this season."

Thaler's only other podium — also third in a slalom at Kitzbuehel, Austria — was even longer ago, in January 2009.

Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Grange finished fourth, 0.04 behind Thaler, and Sweden's Markus Larsson was fifth in a far-from-usual top five.

Grange looked set for a podium spot but lost time on the bottom section.

Hirscher has won four races overall at Val d'Isere and has tallied seven podiums. He was aiming for a second consecutive podium double after winning last year's GS and finishing third in the slalom, but hopes of a repeat double ended when he made a huge error on the top section and never recovered, finishing 4 seconds slower than Matt in the first run.

Matt was 0.32 seconds faster than Thaler and 0.49 ahead of Grange after an early-morning run under clear, blue skies but with temperatures bitingly cold.

Ligety, 11th at Levi and who on Saturday failed to make a GS second run for the first time in nearly five years, was 3.59 slower than Matt. Miller almost fell on the treacherous top section, recovered, but then lost control.

Pre-race contenders found it tough, with Frenchman Alexis Pinturault — who was fourth in GS — going off course near the bottom as he tried to make up time, while Austria's Manfred Pranger also veered off after starting strongly.

"It was difficult to get a grip on the slope. It changed a lot and it was hard to find the right compromise," Pinturault said. "It's only the start of the season, we'll try and sort everything out ... I'm lacking consistency in slalom, I need a strong performance to get my confidence back."

On a brighter note for the Americans, 29-year-old David Chodounsky finished seventh for a career best slalom performance. His previous best in the discipline was 10th at Adelboden, Switzerland, in January, while he also placed fifth in parallels at the City Event in Moscow that month.

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