BORMIO, Italy (AP) – Austrians used to rule the Stelvio course. Lately, it’s become the domain of Americans.

The past three speed races held there have been won by U.S. skiers. Bode Miller took the downhill and super-G at the 2005 world championships, and Daron Rahlves won last year’s World Cup race.

Two World Cup downhills are scheduled for Thursday and Friday. With Rahlves retired, Miller is the favorite for both.

“Last year I would have said the Austrians are the ones to beat, but this year it’s Miller,” said Marco Buechel, who won the season-opening downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta.

The Austrian men’s team hasn’t won for 13 races, and these downhills may provide an opportunity to end the streak. Austrians have won nine of the 14 World Cup downhills held on this course and swept the podium on six occasions.

But even the Austrians are starting to doubt themselves.

“This has always been a downhill for Austrians, but all of the last seasons have also been for Austrians, so let’s wait and see,” said Fritz Strobl, who led Wednesday’s training.

Miller had the fastest split time in training, then made a couple of errors and finished fifth.

“It’s only one training run. You don’t have much time to figure things out,” Miller said. “I’ve run it a lot of times so it’s not so bad.”

The Stelvio course is one of the most punishing on the World Cup circuit. Buechel put it on a par with the circuit’s longest course – Wengen – for fatigue.

“The problem is the visibility is bad and it’s bumpy, so that makes you tired. When you don’t see the bumps and it’s just throwing you around, that makes you very tired,” Buechel said. “You got to work all the time. Turn after turn it’s bumpy.”

It’s also the only course on the circuit where you can see the finish line from the start gate.

“It’s for real, no question about that,” Miller said. “It’s pretty sketchy.”

Strobl, who has finished on the podium six times in his career on this slope, led training for the ninth time. But he has had only one win – in 2001.

Two other Austrians – Michael Walchhofer and Hermann Maier – could also challenge Miller.

Walchhofer was second in training while Maier, who won the downhill here in 1997 and 1998, was fourth.

“There’s other guys who could win, though,” Miller said. “(Didier) Cuche for sure, he’s really fast. You’ve got to count Aksel (Lund Svindal) as a threat. He’s a strong kid and he’s big.”

Cuche leads the downhill standings and was third in training. Svindal has a slim 31-point lead over Miller atop the overall standings and will be hard-pressed to maintain the advantage after these two races.

“I’m going to try to ski well and see what happens,” said Svindal, who was 30th in training but finished seventh in the downhill at this site at the world championships.

Miller’s American teammate, Steven Nyman, fell toward the end of his training run but wasn’t hurt. He won the last downhill in Val Gardena for his first career victory and is second in the downhill standings.

“It’s more of a learning experience here,” Nyman said. “I know I can consistently be in the top 10 and if I’m not, I’m disappointed. I don’t place certain expectations, though. I know I can win if I understand what I need to do. I have the physique and I have the ability to do it, it’s just a matter of understanding.”

Nyman is starting to make a habit of crashing in training. He also fell in the first training session in Val Gardena and Italy’s retired downhiller, Kristian Ghedina, has criticized him for taking too many risks.

Head coach Phil McNichol and speed coach John McBride are home for the holidays, leaving downhill coach Chris Brigham in charge of the American team.

AP-ES-12-27-06 1248EST

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