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Max Franz ends Austria’s downhill drought with Val Gardena win

Austria’s Max Franz speeds down the course during an alpine ski, men’s World Cup downhill, in Val Gardena, Italy, Saturday, Dec.17, 2016. (Marco Trovati / Associated Press)
Austria’s Max Franz speeds down the course during an alpine ski, men’s World Cup downhill, in Val Gardena, Italy, Saturday, Dec.17, 2016. (Marco Trovati / Associated Press)
By Andrew Dampf Associated Press

VAL GARDENA, Italy – Max Franz stunned the field to win a World Cup downhill Saturday, ending Austria’s 13-race drought in skiing’s signature event with his first career victory.

Starting with the No. 26 bib after all of the favorites had already come down the Saslong course, Franz finished a slim 0.04 seconds ahead of Norwegian standout Aksel Lund Svindal and 0.41 in front of Val Gardena specialist Steven Nyman.

The previous Austrian man to win a downhill was Hannes Reichelt in Kvitfjell, Norway, in March last year.

Austria, once known as the sport’s “Wunderteam” for producing downhillers like Franz Klammer, Stephan Eberharter, Hermann Maier and Michael Walchhofer, didn’t win a single downhill all of last season.

“It’s a big relief,” Franz said. “We knew that all we needed was a little something and then the pressure would let up and now we can all ski without this external pressure.”

Matthias Mayer of Austria won the downhill at the 2014 Sochi Olympics but he had his season cut short last year with a horrific crash in Val Gardena, breaking two vertebrae. Having returned to action earlier this season, Mayer finished 17th Saturday.

Franz also had injury problems last season, missing several races due to knee and ankle problems.

“Of course it’s an individual sport but this is going to help the entire team,” Franz said in German through a translator.

The 27-year-old Franz’s previous best results were two runner-ups and one third-place.

Svindal was already being interviewed as the presumed winner when Franz came down and made up a deficit in the final interval.

Upon seeing his result, Franz whipped his poles around wildly while Svindal took his hat off and Nyman applauded.

Svindal swept both the super-G and downhill in Val Gardena last season and was looking for his first victory since missing much of last season following a crash and knee injury in Kitzbuehel.

Nyman, meanwhile, needed one more win to match Klammer and Italian standout Kristian Ghedina for a record fourth downhill win in Val Gardena.

The highlights of the Saslong are the camel bumps, which launch skiers into the air for nearly 80 meters (90 yards), and the twisty and technical “ciaslat” section – two areas that come right after another midway down. There are also numerous little bumps and jumps, providing constant air time.

Svindal made a major error midway through his run, landing a jump far outside the race line, prompting him to brake to clear the next gate.

“You don’t win races with mistakes,” Svindal said. “The other guys are too fast. … I knew it wasn’t really perfect.”

Nyman also struggled, sitting down on his skis while landing the bigger camel jump. Still, the American was able to regain his speed.

“I was just telling myself, `You got to keep pushing. The first thing in my mind was that the knees didn’t pop so things are OK. Let’s keep going, keep charging. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,“’ Nyman said

All three of Nyman’s wins have come in Val Gardena.

“I can’t not be happy about a podium,” Nyman said. “I’m really happy to perform the way I did with a mistake.”

Adrien Theaux of France finished fourth and 2013 winner Erik Guay of Canada was fifth.

In a strong day for the U.S. Ski Team, Travis Ganong came seventh and Bryce Bennett was eighth.

Kjetil Jansrud, the Norwegian who had won the opening three speed races of the season – including Friday’s super-G on the Saslong, was only 12th.

The men travel over the Gardena pass into Alta Badia for a giant slalom and a parallel slalom Sunday and Monday, respectively.

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