Wengen (Switzerland) (AFP) - One of the highlights of the alpine skiing at next month's Winter Olympics will no doubt be the men's slalom, a discipline in which top-15 rivalries are pushing competition to a new level.
Austrian Marcel Hirscher remains the skier to beat, the world champion sitting atop the slalom standings on 340 points from compatriot Mario Mattt (250).
Hirscher, however, could only finish third at Sunday's Wengen slalom behind second-placed German Felix Neureuther, the current world silver medallist, and winner Alexis Pinturault of France.
The 22-year-old French tyro has enjoyed a disastrous start to his slalom season, failing to finish Levi and Val d'Isere before a disqualification in Bormio and then only managing 23rd in Adelboden.
But he was on fire on the Lauberhorn, putting in a seventh-best first run before a superb, near-flawless attacking second run that blew away his rivals.
Often guilty of forcing the edge, he contained himself enough to get across the line twice and fire out a real warning to an incredibly competitive group of rivals.
Apart from Pinturault, Hirscher and Neureuther, Swedish pair Mattias Hargin and Andre Myhrer, Italian duo Patrick Thaler and Manfred Moelgg, Norwegian upstart Henrik Kristoffersen, France's Jean-Baptiste Grange and German Fritz Dopfer are all also regularly pushing for podium places.
Then you have the likes of Austrians Matt, Benjamin Raich and Reinfried Herbst pressing, with veteran Croat Ivica Kostelic also lingering in the shadows.
"It's really, really good for the sport," Hirscher said of the increased competition.
"Right now in the top 15 each of them can win a race and it has changed a bit over the last three or four years, with everything getting closer.
"For the crowd and the sport and people interested in it it's a really good thing to have all these rivalries.
"For us it is tough, we have to go and push ourselves to our personal limits."
Hirscher was magnanimous in defeat to a racer he said he really admired.
"We have a lot of good skiers and Alexis is one of the best slalom skiers in the world," the Austrian said.
"If he gives his personal 100 percent or even 110 percent and makes no mistakes, he can be really really fast, no question."
Pinturault, 22, clocked a combined total of 1min 42.87sec over Sunday's two legs, with Neureuther at 0.34sec and Hirscher at 0.63.
It was Pinturault's first victory on this season's World Cup circuit and just the fifth of his career, leaving him bellowing out loud in relief.
"It's above all reward and satisfaction after some tough times I had at the start of the season in slalom," he said.
"At the moment, there's a very good standard in slalom and giant slalom and when you win, victory is beautiful.
"I finished ahead of a world gold and silver medallist, it's true. But in slalom, it's never just anyone. There's only big names, top skiers. Therein lies the beauty of skiing."