With light snow falling and 48,000 noisy fans packing the Planai slalom piste in Schladming, Reinfried Herbst gave them what they came for - an Austrian victory. Herbst won the famed "Night Slalom" for the second season in a row, matching Italy's Alberto Tomba, who claimed victories in 1997 and 1998.
"When you look around you can see it - it's a special place and a special atmosphere," said Herbst in the finish area about the spectacle that is Schladming. "All of this is important to give you the last ten percent. This win is a great day after Kitzbuehel (where Herbst, the first run leader, failed to complete his second run). I'm very happy and surprised that two days later I win here."
Herbst was second after the first run, .59 seconds behind his teammate, Manfred Pranger. However, Pranger made a significant mistake approaching the lower section of the course during his second run. He would fall back to third place, .59 seconds behind Herbst.
"With all these people making a big party, this is what we want," he said about standing on the podium along with his countryman Pranger. "Thanks to them for the atmosphere. I'm very happy about this day."
The struggling Pranger, who has only finished three of six slaloms this season, was happy about his result despite the costly mistake that lost him the race.
"It was very difficult and I was a little bit nervous," said Pranger about his second run. "I didn't know if I should go full attack or hold back. I had some mistakes, but I'm very happy about this third place."
Pranger didn't qualify for the second run in Kitzbuehel on Sunday. He has also failed to finish and score points in Zagreb, Croatia and Adelboden, Switzerland this season.
"It was very important for me to get on the podium because in the past, I've shown that I'm fast but didn't finish," he said.
Switzerland's Silvan Zurbriggen skied two solid runs to claim his second second-place finish of the season. His two-run combined time of 1:46.57 was .56 behind Herbst.
"It not easy. It's really tough because there is a lot of ice on the trip, but I had a great (2nd) run again and I'm really lucky," said the Swiss skier. "I like this piste, for me it's great."
Zurbriggen also finished second on Sunday in the Kitzbuehel combined making it two podiums in three days for the 28-year-old racer. It appears that he is peaking at just the right time with the Olympics only a few weeks away."
"I'm not thinking about Vancouver," he said. "I'm just taking things race after race. But I'm in good shape and I hope I can take that with me."
Austria's Benjamin Raich, who has won in Schladming four times including his first-ever World Cup victory in 1999, was fourth after the first run and remained there after the second. He finished .91 seconds behind Herbst.
Amazingly, Raich has now finished fourth in four consecutive slaloms this month - Adelboden, Wengen, Kitzbuehel and Schladming. However, he increased his lead in the overall World Cup standings over Switzerland's Carlo Janka, who did not race. Raich has 903 points to Janka's 829.
Germany's Felix Neureuther who won his first-ever World Cup race two days ago in Kitzbuehel straddled a gate in his first run and was disqualified.
Herbst's third victory of the season was extra special as his wife and young son were here in Schladming supporting him.
"I think he's very important and lucky for me tonight," said the Austrian champion. "I should take him to the next races. He's waiting in the hotel and I think he can't sleep tonight."
By Brian Pinelli
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