| BEAVER CREEK, Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado The giant slalom on Friday is the final chance for American Ted Ligety to defend one of his three alpine ski championship gold medals in what could produce one of the classic battles of the competition.
Ligety, the world and Olympic champion in the discipline known as Mr. GS for his domination of the event, has seen his reign challenged by Austrian slalom maestro Marcel Hirscher, who has already claimed the American's combined world title.
Hirscher, the three-times overall World Cup champion, has invaded Ligety's territory this season by winning four of five giant slaloms and finishing third in the other.
Ligety, who has owned the GS crown since the 2011 worlds, has 39 World Cup giant slalom podiums and 23 career wins but this season has reached the top step on the podium just once.
That lone win, however, came in Beaver Creek on the same Birds of Prey track skiers will challenge on Friday.
"If there's a hill I think I have a really good chance on it's a hill like this," Ligety told Reuters. "It is a hill I've had lots of good results on.
"I've always had a good track record racing in the United States. I don't see it as a burden, I see it as more of an advantage."
Certainly no skier has taken more advantage of home snow than Ligety with eight giant slalom podiums at Beaver Creek, including four straight wins.
He has not missed landing a podium finish in the GS at the posh Colorado resort since a fourth place in late 2009.
Alexis Pinturault, bronze medallist at the Sochi Olympics, could make it a three-way fight for the gold.
The Frenchman is third in the giant slalom standings behind Hirscher and Ligety and has a pair of runner-up finishes this season, including a second behind Ligety at Beaver Creek.
Swiss Carlo Janka, the 2010 Olympic and 2009 world giant slalom gold medallist, signalled his return to top form in Beaver Creek by crossing fourth in the downhill.
Janka claimed the coveted World Cup overall title in 2010 but the following year underwent heart surgery to correct an irregular rhythm.
He returned to top-flight racing 10 days later and won a race in Kranjska Gora but has struggled ever since to rediscover his dominating form, finally ending a four-year victory drought last month with a super-combined victory in Wengen.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)