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Two Didiers carry Swiss hopes at historic race

Two Didiers - will they be smiling after the Lauberhorn downhill? Keystone

Swiss skiers Didier Cuche and Didier Défago have little time to ponder their Olympic medal prospects during a January World Cup schedule stacked with classic races.

None is more important to the two Didiers than Switzerland’s signature sports event: the Lauberhorn downhill at Wengen on Saturday.

Défago will defend his title down the historic two-and-a-half-minute run beneath the Eiger and Jungfrau mountains, the longest race on the World Cup circuit.

Cuche, a two-time World Cup downhill champion who leads this season’s standings, seeks his first win after two near misses.

“Of course, it’s the biggest dream to win here,” said Cuche, who was pipped by an inspired Bode Miller in 2007 and 2008. “It’s in the heart of Switzerland as a nation.

I’m going to do everything possible for the win on Saturday. But I’m happy that I’ve twice come close to making the perfect downhill run.”

Défago delivered the race of his life to deny Miller’s hat-trick and win his first World Cup downhill aged 31.

“It’s a good feeling to be here again, but it’s different to last year,” said Défago, who then completed a historic double by winning Austria’s classic downhill at Kitzbühel seven days later.

“Now it’s very important that I concentrate on 2010. January is a long month, a big month, and after that we have the Olympic Games. It will be very hard psychologically.”

Ups and downs

The two Didiers enter the Olympic year healthy after recent injury scares. Défago fractured a thumb in an October training fall and Cuche cracked a rib crashing in practice at Val d’Isère, France, last month.

Though still third in the overall World Cup standings, Cuche has lost some of the momentum he gained by winning the season-opening giant slalom and downhill races.

“For sure it was a good start and I feel good,” he said. “But I don’t see everything going as easily as I had at Sölden [Austria] or in Lake Louise [Canada]. Everybody has to fight, and me too, to be fast.”

Défago showed his speed when he finished second last month at Bormio, Italy, a bumpy track even more physically demanding than the longer, 4.5-kilometre Lauberhorn.

“Bormio was a crazy and good downhill for me,” said Défago, who is sixth in the overall standings. “Since the beginning of the season I have had ups and downs but I hope now that I’ve found my cruising altitude.”

Better than Federer

Both Didiers are working well with new speed coach Mauro Pini after long-time mentor Patrice Morisod opted to join the French team last year.

Both independently rang Pini to help tempt him from his job as personal coach to Swiss teenage talent Lara Gut.

“It was not easy for Mauro to bring new impulse to a team that was already doing well,” Défago said.

While Gut won two world championship silver medals last February, Cuche made history as the oldest men’s world champion with victory in the super-G at Val d’Isère.

He added silver in downhill – just 0.04 seconds behind Canada’s John Kucera – to confirm his place in the hearts of Swiss fans and media.

They voted him Switzerland’s top sports star of 2009 ahead of Roger Federer, whose victories at Roland Garros and Wimbledon gave him a record 15 grand slam titles.

“That was also surprising for me. Roger deserved it,“ said Cuche, who combines Federer-like humility with an acute awareness that the Swiss team spent many years being mocked for its inability to keep up with neighbouring Austria’s “Wunderteam”.

Olympic ambitions

Cuche also would be the oldest Olympic champion if he wins on Whistler Mountain during the Vancouver Games, being held from February 12-28.

Norway’s Kjetil André Aamodt was 34 years, six months when he won the super-G at Turin four years ago.

Vancouver is likely to be Cuche’s last chance to add to his super-G silver medal from the 1998 Nagano Games.

Défago is aiming for the 2014 Sochi Games to fulfil an ambition of racing in Russia.

“If I can win the medal this winter, so much the better,” he said.

First, Cuche and Défago must arrive in Canada safely – Wengen and Kitzbühel are unforgiving when punishing mistakes.

“You must make the physical preparation for every race the same,” Défago said. “And if I concentrate only on the Olympic Games and I lose it all, I’ve lost a whole season.”

Being secluded in the Olympic athletes’ village also offers respite compared with the intense attention that surrounds the 80th annual Lauberhorn meeting.

“The demands of the public, the sponsors, the media are always bigger and so it’s difficult to limit all that and be focused on the races,” Cuche said.

“Everyone wants the same thing … to have the fastest possible form at the Olympic Games. It’s a hard process.” and agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR