CHASING DOUBLES: A win in Bansko would make Lindsey Vonn the first female skier to win multiple races in Bulgaria since the alpine skiing World Cup returned to the country in 2009.
Lindsey Vonn really should not have been surprised by the heightened interest stirred by her arrival in Sofia. After all, three years ago when Bansko last held a women's alpine skiing World Cup event, she was mobbed by media and fans as well.
Bulgaria may not have had a notable skier for three decades, but it has plenty of avid skiers and skiing fans, as the World Cup races in 2009 and 2011 have proven. And Bansko is half-way through proving once again that it can acquit itself well in staging top-tier skiing competitions.
A week after two races in the men's World Cup, Bulgaria's premier winter resort is preparing to host the best female skiers in the world for the second time in three years. It is still a rare event for the likes of Bulgaria, which goes a long way to explain why Vonn was given a movie star's reception at Sofia Airport on February 22.
Vonn's attempts to make a quick exit dashed, she said she was excited to return to Bulgaria and was hoping for another good result. Not that she would need one, since her lead in the World Cup is virtually unassailable (1502 points to Tina Maze's 1024), with just about a quarter of the season left to go.
Vonn has won in Bansko before, of course, in the super-giant race in 2009; she also finished third in one of the two downhill races that Bansko hosted that year. She would go on to win the World Cup in both disciplines, as well as her second overall title that year.
Now chasing her fourth overall World Cup (which would make her only the second female skier after Annemarie Moser-Pröll to win more than three titles), Vonn returns to Bulgaria to race in her strongest two disciplines – downhill, where she has already secured this year's World Cup, and the super-giant, where she holds a slight lead over Austria's Anna Fenninger.
While Vonn remains the favourite ahead of the two races on February 25 and 26, an upset by Fenninger is not entirely out of the question and would be entirely in keeping with the emerging trend for Austrian skiers to do very well in Bansko.
In 2009, Andrea Fischbacher won one of the two downhill races and finished second in the other; two years later, Mario Matt took the men's slalom ahead of fellow Austrian Reinfried Herbst.
Just a week ago, yet another Austrian, Marcel Hirscher, won both the slalom and the giant slalom in Bansko – a haul that along with the points won in the parallel slalom race in Moscow a few days later gave him the lead in the overall World Cup standings.
Hirscher's success in Bansko helped him extend his lead in the slalom standings, especially since his main rival, American Ted Ligety, finished only seventh, but also bridged most of the gap to erstwhile leader Ivica Kostelic in the giant slalom standings.
Kostelic will be out for another two weeks recovering from injury, giving Hirscher the opportunity to overtake the Croatian with a good showing in the giant slalom race in Crans-Montana on February 26.
His grip on the overall World Cup lead, however, is tenuous and could soon vanish - Swiss skier Beat Feuz, who decided to skip on the Bansko races because neither discipline favours him, can easily make up the 52-points gap to catch Hirscher in the upcoming four super-giants in Crans-Montana and Kvitfjell (the latter will also host a downhill race, the other discipline Feuz excels in).
Whatever Hirschner's final standing in the World Cup, he has already written history, as far as Bansko is concerned, by becoming the first multiple winner in the short history of the alpine skiing World Cup since its return to Bulgaria after an absence spanning three decades.
Without doubt, Vonn would love nothing less than to replicate his achievement.