Alpine skiing stars begin long road to Olympic glory
Croatia's Ivica Kostelic attends a training session on the Rettenbach glacier in Solden, Austria, prior to the FIS Ski World Cup season opening, on October 25, 2013
US ski idol Lindsey Vonn, controversial Bode Miller, Swiss up-and-comer Beat Feuz and Austrian slalom queen Marlies Schild will be seeking to lead the field again as they did before going down with injury.
But they face a tough challenge from world champions Ted Ligety, Tina Maze and Mikaela Shiffrin.
Ligety and Maze's wins in Soelden a year ago set the ball rolling for sensational seasons that saw the US skier bag three world championship golds, while Slovenian Maze went on to win three crystal globes and the overall World Cup title.
Vonn, 29, said she will sit out the giant slalom in Soelden -- a race she won in 2011 -- to train a little more following her knee injury in a horrific crash at world championships in February.
But the Olympic champion and four-time overall World Cup winner's ambitions were clear.
"I will go home to Vail and continue my preparation for the Beaver Creek races and my ultimate goal in February," she said, looking ahead to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Further Olympic gold was no doubt also on the mind of Bode Miller, 36, who took three medals in Vancouver in 2010 -- one of each colour -- but last competed in a World Cup race in February 2012.
Skiing's baddest boy, as he was once described by the media, took last year off to recover from knee problems.
But Miller, who will be taking part in his fifth Olympics in Sochi, was back on form in pre-season training in Soelden and issuing warnings to his rivals.
"My physical preparation is probably the best it's been in a long time.
"I know 2014 will be my last Olympics. I have a chance to finish my competitive career on a really high note and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen," he said.
The pressure is on for his US colleague Ligety to keep up his winning streak.
In Soelden last year, he won with a 2.75sec lead. If he finishes first again on Sunday, he will be the first person to score three consecutive wins at the Austrian venue.
Olympics or not, last season's giant slalom World Cup winner plans to give his all from the very start of the season.
"If you try to plan your season too much around the Olympics, you're going to get to the end of the season with nothing," he said.
"I think the World Cup is the best way to prepare for the Olympics: if you're having a good World Cup season leading up to the Olympics I think you're in a much better place to win."
Maze also refuses to rest on her laurels despite her overwhelming dominance of the women's disciplines last season.
"Now we start from scratch. All that was is forgotten. When they release us from the boxes, we'll see who has the most horsepower," she wrote on her blog.
Neither Beat Feuz, the 2012 overall World Cup runner-up, nor five-time crystal globe winner Marlies Schild will race in Soelden, but both plan to rejoin the circuit in November.
The US team, the Austrians -- led by overall World Cup winner Marcel Hirscher -- and the Germans have all had the opportunity to train at Soelden ahead of the races and might have a leg up on the competition this weekend.
Slalom world champion Hirscher has the hopes of a ski-crazed nation resting on his shoulders and will certainly be offering more nail-biting duels with Ligety throughout the season.
The weekend's races on the Rettenbach glacier, at 3,000 metres (9,840 feet) altitude, begin with the women's giant slalom on Saturday, followed by the men on Sunday.