BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) – Austrian star Michael Walchhofer led downhill training Wednesday on the Birds of Prey course, two days before the prestigious race that Americans have dominated the last three years.

“It was good to show them who’s the boss,” said Walchhofer, the two-time reigning World Cup downhill champion and Olympic silver medalist.

Walchhofer finished in 1 minute, 46.36 seconds, with compatriot Christoph Gruber second, 0.18 behind. Swiss veteran Didier Cuche was third, 0.25 back.

Daron Rahlves, the most decorated U.S. speed event skier in history, won the last edition of the only U.S. downhill in 2005 as well as the one in 2003. Bode Miller won in 2004.

But Rahlves is now retired and Miller has been short on form since the start of the season, and crossed back in 26th during training after a big mistake, more than 2 seconds off the pace.

The top American was the promising T.J. Lanning, who started way back in 83rd position. He was ninth, 1.21 back. Lanning – the top junior in the world in slalom and super-G in 2001 – is returning to the team after a string of injuries.

The last Austrian to win the Birds of Prey downhill was Hermann Maier, who won a second downhill in 2003 that was moved from Val d’Isere to Beaver Creek because of poor conditions at the French resort.

Liechtenstein’s Marco Buechel, the winner of the only other downhill this season, crossed fourth, half a second out.

“I remember every year on this course it’s very smooth but today it was surprisingly bumpy and I was racing No. 8,” said Buechel, who won in Lake Louise, Alberta, last week despite breaking his rib just two weeks before. “It will be hard, especially with my rib. It’s a lot of pain. It’s totally broken, right next to my spine. I need another 4-6 weeks to heal.

“But it didn’t stop me from winning the Lake Louise.”

Steve Nyman, whose best downhill result here was 23rd last season, crossed 15th, 1.56 behind.

“The Birds of Prey is a great course. It’s fast, it’s hard, it’s icy, it’s going to be gnarly,” he said. “Beaver Creek has everything. It’s got the gliding sections, but deep gnarly turns and then the big air. All the aspects are wound into one, so it’s great for viewing.

“And since there’s the combined on there, there’s going to be more (racers) doing the training runs and it’s going to get rough and going to be a fun race, a good one to watch.”

Having a super-combi – a race which adds the times from a downhill and a single slalom run – means more traffic on the course, and that leads to ruts.

There were 95 racers entered in Wednesday’s downhill training. Normally, only 50-60 racers enter a downhill. The increase in numbers is because both technical and speed racers will be running the downhill, the speedsters as a true event, the gate specialists as practice for the super-combi.

The super-combi is scheduled for Thursday, the downhill on Friday. The men will also will run a giant slalom Saturday and a slalom Sunday.

The resort could pick up a number of races that were orphaned after two World Cup events in Europe were wiped out.

Men’s races in Val d’Isere, France and women’s events St. Moritz, Switzerland, originally slated for Dec. 9-10, had insufficient snow and warm weather prevented proper snowmaking.

AP-ES-11-29-06 1827EST

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