Meet slalom sensation Clement Noel

Marcel Hirscher's dominance of technical events is under threat as France's 'Bon Noel' goes from strength to strength.

While his surname might be associated with the December festival of Christmas, it's January that's proved a special time of year for Clement Noel.

The 21-year-old Frenchman scored his first World Cup slalom victory in Wengen on 20th January.

Six days later, he made it two in a row at Kitzbuehel and landed himself on the front page of France's daily sports newspaper L'Equipe.

'Clement Noel, The New Star' - front page headline of L'Equipe on Sunday 27th January 2019

Despite straddling a gate on the first run at Schladming on Tuesday (29th January), Noel has had a month to remember.

Double Olympic champion Marcel Hirscher almost certainly won't be caught in the World Cup slalom, giant slalom, or overall standings this season.

But Noel is a big threat to the Austrian's hopes of claiming a third slalom title at next month's Alpine World Ski Championships in Are, Sweden.

"Room for improvement"

Italian Simone Del Dio works with Noel in his role as French team coach.

And he believes there is more to come.

Del Dio told Olympic Channel, "His physical attributes already give him a strong base, but he's still young and he has plenty of room for improvement.

"He’s tall, over 1.90m, and this helps in modern slalom where you need long levers."

Clement Noel on his way to his first World Cup victory at Wengen on 20th January 2019
Clement Noel on his way to his first World Cup victory at Wengen on 20th January 2019Clement Noel on his way to his first World Cup victory at Wengen on 20th January 2019

"In a single race, at this moment, he has everything to win. I don’t see him lacking in any department, apart from experience." - French team coach Simone Del Dio told Olympic Channel about Clement Noel

Early steps

Noel was born in May 1997 in Remiremont in France's eastern Vosges region.

He moved to Val d’Isere aged 15 and joined the national 'B' team in 2015.

Competing across all four disciplines, Noel had mixed results and failed to finish on a number of occasions.

As he continued to grow into his unusually tall (for a skier) 1.91m frame, Noel concentrated more on the slalom and giant slalom.

He won an FIS slalom in Ushuaia, Argentina, in September 2016 and made his World Cup debut six weeks later in Levi, Finland, where he failed to qualify for the second run.

But he first showed real potential at the French National Championships in Lelex in March 2017.

With Olympic medallist Alexis Pinturault skiing out, Noel took victory ahead of World Cup regular Victor Muffat-Jeandet and twice world champion Jean-Baptiste Grange.

While that was not the springboard to immediate success, he would move on to bigger and better things the following season.

Rapid rise

Noel scored his first World Cup points on home snow in Val d'Isere, taking 20th place in the slalom in December.

Three days later, he was on the podium in the second-tier European Cup in Obereggen, Italy.

At the start of 2018, he had three disappointments in the World Cup before finishing 23rd at Wengen.

But he made his breakthrough at Kitzbuehel when, wearing start bib 47, he managed to finish eighth.

Clement Noel on his way to his first World Cup top-10 finish, eighth place, at Kitzbuehel in January 2018
Clement Noel on his way to his first World Cup top-10 finish, eighth place, at Kitzbuehel in January 2018Clement Noel on his way to his first World Cup top-10 finish, eighth place, at Kitzbuehel in January 2018

Two days later at Schladming, he proved this was no fluke with sixth place.

Then came the 2018 World Junior Championships in Davos.

Swiss skier Marco Odermatt dominated proceedings, winning four individual titles and team gold.

At the end of a long week, Odermatt chose not to compete in the slalom and it was Noel who took full advantage.

Putting his World Cup experience to good use, Noel won by a massive 2.77 seconds from Italy's Alex Vinatzer.

Winter Olympic Experience

Two weeks later, Clement Noel competed in the slalom at PyeongChang 2018.

With hot favourite Hirscher sliding out on the first run, Noel was seventh at the midway point and in with a chance of a medal.

He eventually finished fourth, missing out on bronze by just 0.04 seconds.

Noel was fourth again in the World Cup slalom at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, and second in the team event at the World Cup Finals in Are, Sweden.

He made a solid if unspectacular start to this season before exploding this month.

After another fourth place in Zagreb, Noel was second in Adelboden, Switzerland behind the great Hirscher and ahead of double Olympic medallist Henrik Kristoffersen.

A week later, he scored his first win in Wengen before following up at Kitzbuehel.

Beating the best

So what has been the difference?

Noel predicted in mid-November that having lower start numbers, meaning he skis in better conditions before the course becomes rutted, would improve his performances.

But his results from last season have also seen him grow in confidence and change his mental approach.

"Finding myself in the starting cabin around the best, having greater expectations and more eyes upon me... I think this could help me."

That has certainly been the case and his tranquil demeanour also helps.

He told Le Monde, "I'm pretty calm and right now it helps me. At the start of a second run, I feel serene. That's how I have to be if I want to go fast."

Clement Noel celebrates his second World Cup slalom victory at Kitzbuehel on 26th January 2019
Clement Noel celebrates his second World Cup slalom victory at Kitzbuehel on 26th January 2019Clement Noel celebrates his second World Cup slalom victory at Kitzbuehel on 26th January 2019

Coach Del Dio has echoed those sentiments, and praised the influence of experienced team-mates Grange and Julien Lizeroux.

"Clement is still very calm and hasn’t changed from last season when he joined us as just a kid.

"He always thanks the two 'oldies' (Grange and Lizeroux) because they helped him greatly in his professional growth and he was lucky to have them.

"France has a good tradition in slalom. He's the future of the team, for sure.

"Off the course he’s very calm, very polite, almost shy. But he’s not a yes man. When he has something to say, he’s not afraid to voice his ideas.

"He’s smart, very pragmatic, good at analysing situations." - Simone Del Dio on Clement Noel

Before Noel's Wengen success, no Frenchman had won a World Cup slalom since Pinturault at the same course in 2014.

Grange secured World Championship gold in 2011 and 2015, with Hirscher taking the title in 2013 and 2017.

In 2019, could it be the turn of another Frenchman at the top of the podium?

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