KITZBUEHEL, Austria (AP) — Defending overall champion Marcel Hirscher posted the fastest time in the first run of a World Cup slalom in heavy snow Friday.
The Austrian opened the race in 56.92 seconds. Felix Neureuther of Germany was 0.38 behind to become the only racer within a second of the lead.
Luca Aerni of Switzerland, who started 27th, finished 1.36 behind in third, closely followed by Fritz Dopfer of Germany and Alexis Pinturault of France, who won the slalom in Wengen last week.
"Visibilty was obviously bad," said Hirscher, who wiped his goggles immediately after crossing the finish line.
Mario Matt of Austria skied out in the first run, which means Hirscher will remain in the lead of the slalom standings regardless the outcome of the second run. Hirscher is aiming to become the first slalom skier to win back-to-back crystal globes since Thomas Sykora in 1997 and '98.
It's the final slalom before nations have to name their Alpine skiing teams for the Sochi Olympics.
After days of mild weather, course workers salted the piste in order to harden up the surface, but the fresh snow made for difficult conditions. Furthermore, the unusual placing of some gates by Croatian coach Ante Kostelic made racing even harder.
"On such a tough course the field gets torn apart," Hirscher said.
Kostelic, the father of former overall champions Ivica and Janica, has made a name for setting challenging courses. A year ago in Kitzbuehel, the jury rejected a course set by Kostelic, deeming it as "unskiable."
The course wasn't that extraordinary this time, though Neureuther said it was "by far the most difficult slalom in Kitzbuehel I have ever done."
"Visibility is brutal, the course setting is extreme, and the piste is bad," the German said. "It's extreme but we are the best ski racers so we have to adapt to these conditions. I managed that quite well in the first run. I think nobody feels really well today."