Miller moves into lead in downhill standings

Posted Dec. 29, 2011, at 5:46 p.m.

BORMIO, Italy — Ted Ligety owns a solid lead in the giant slalom standings and Bode Miller just earned the red bib in downhill.

With both Americans in the mix for the overall World Cup title, U.S. men’s coach Sasha Rearick is satisfied heading into the circuit’s short New Year’s holiday.

“We’ve got two guys in red bibs and two guys in there for the overall, so that’s pretty good,” Rearick said Thursday after Miller finished fifth behind Swiss winner Didier Defago on the demanding Stelvio course.

Ligety has won two of the four giant slalom races so far, while Miller took a downhill victory in Beaver Creek, Colo. He’s been putting up top results in the speed events this season.

In the downhill standings, Miller holds a nine-point lead over Klaus Kroell of Austria, with Swiss standout Didier Cuche 13 points back and previous leader Beat Feuz of Switzerland trailing by 14 points.

“There are four or five guys who can win,” Miller said.

While Lindsey Vonn has won the season-long downhill title the last four seasons, no American man has ever won it.

Miller came close in 2008, losing to Cuche by five points when the final race of the season — in Bormio — was canceled.

“I think it’s something he would like to accomplish,” Rearick said. “But he and I don’t spend a lot of time talking about those things.”

The victory by Defago, the Olympic downhill champion, showed that he has fully recovered from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season.

Defago had a nearly flawless run and clocked 2 minutes, 1.81 seconds, with fellow Swiss racer Patrick Kueng 0.29 seconds behind and Kroell third, 0.42 back.

Miller nearly touched the snow with his left hip midway down as he tried to correct his line on a traverse.

“I take a lot of risks with my skiing and when I made that mistake on the traverse, there was nowhere else to make up time,” Miller said. “I basically had to ski uphill to make the next gate.”

It was the fourth World Cup win of Defago’s career and his third in downhill, having won the classic races in Wengen and Kitzbuehel back-to-back three years ago.

Defago appeared set for greatness after earning one of the most prized gold medals at last year’s Vancouver Olympics. But in September 2010, he ruptured knee ligaments in preseason training and spent seven months off the slopes.

“I’m just happy to be racing again. Everything is positive now,” Defago said. “I’ve been waiting for this race since the start of the season. I like this course and it suits my style. I knew I could do well.”

Defago has picked a good time to regain his form, with the next downhills in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

“I had some difficult times and I suffered but the support from my family and the doctors was a big help,” Defago said. “That’s why I travel with my family — it was great to have my wife and two kids here to celebrate with them.”

Defago and Kueng also had loud support from a large group of red-clad Swiss fans, with the Swiss border only a short drive away.

“(Defago) is one of the guys who is super fit,” Miller said. “He’s probably one of the strongest guys we’ve ever seen on World Cup.”

An early starter with the No. 11 bib, Defago didn’t celebrate much at the finish with the top-ranked downhillers still to start, although he did hold up a finger to signal he was No. 1 — and that’s where he remained as a slight wind appeared to slow the later starters.

“What Didier has done after that injury is truly unbelievable. I can only bow my head and tip my hat to him,” said Cuche, who finished eighth.

Defago became the fourth different Swiss man to win this season.

Overcast conditions made visibility better than usual — since sun and shade often provide a problematic contrast on the Stelvio — but several racers still had trouble.

Christof Innerhofer of Italy, the 2008 winner here, missed a gate midway down as he struggled with the flu; and Robbie Dixon of Canada went off course on the top.

Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway finished sixth and reclaimed the lead in the overall World Cup standings from Marcel Hirscher of Austria, a technical specialist who does not race downhill.

Svindal leads Hirscher by 31 points, with Ligety third, 71 points back, and Miller fifth, 113 points behind.

After a break for New Year, the circuit resumes Jan. 5 with a slalom in Zagreb, Croatia.

Struggling with his setup in slalom, Miller will skip the race in Zagreb. He plans to return for the giant slalom and slaloms Jan. 7-8 in Adelboden, Switzerland.

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