The World Cup Alpine skiing season begins this weekend with the Austrian glacial resort of Sölden hosting men's and women's giant slaloms.
Hermann Maier will once again be the man to beat, but the Austrian double Olympic, double world and double World Cup champion is expected to face a strong challenge in the giant slalom discipline from Swiss veteran Michael von Grünigen.
Third in the world rankings, von Grünigen specialises in the giant slalom and is looking for his fourth World Cup title in the event, following wins in 1996, 1997 and 1999. The Bernese Oberlander chose not to participate in the Swiss team's summer training camp this year, but is nevertheless in good shape, according to his colleagues.
"Mike is in top form," insisted the team's oldest member, 34-year-old Urs Kälin, "but we're not too far behind him."
A total of seven Swiss skiers will compete in the men's race on Sunday, with von Grünigen and Kälin joined by Didier Cuche, Paul Accola, Didier Défago, Steve Locher and Beni Hofer. But while the Swiss team sounded confident ahead of the season's start, their Austrian rivals were no less upbeat as they looked to build on last year's tremendous successes.
The Austrians accumulated a record 19,110 points last season and secured 107 podium places in the men's and women's races. Ominously Herman Maier, the man who led the way last year with a record personal tally of 2,000 points, has warned that the best is yet to come.
"I didn't attack 100 per cent last season," claimed the man whose awesome skills have seen him nicknamed 'the Herminator'. "I know I'm capable of a lot more if everything goes well."
In the women's giant slalom the competition appears to be more open, although the reigning Austrian champion Michaela Dorfmeister will start the season as favourite. Switzerland's Sonja Nef will be among her main rivals after showing flashes of brilliance last time around.
Nef will be hoping to match the start which she made to last season, when she won the opening event in Tignes by almost two seconds, a triumph which she later followed with two more victories. But the Swiss woman has yet to finish on the podium in Sölden - her best performance in the resort saw her take fifth place in 1998.
Much attention this weekend will focus on another Swiss skier, as Karin Roten Meier makes her comeback after taking time off to become a mother. The wife of cycling pro Armin Meier, Karin is looking to be the first skier since Ulli Maier to make a successful return to the sport after childbirth.
The 24-year-old from canton Valais insisted that she was not expecting anything amazing this weekend. "I have no hopes at all of making it onto the podium," she said, "but I'm certainly not coming back just to make up the numbers."
swissinfo with agencies