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ON SKIING

New man of mountain

Irreverent Miller sport's top draw

Whenever a European at a World Cup ski site spots an American, there is a nearly universal reaction. The European will give an enthusiastic thumbs-up and chant "Bode!" -- a term of sheer pleasure in the universal language of ski racing aficionados around the world.

Just why and how Bode Miller has become the world's most adored ski racer, much more revered in Europe than in the United States, is hard to say.

But make no mistake -- in Austria, the current capital of ski racing, in Switzerland, Italy, and yes, France, Bode Miller is the top draw. He is the World Cup champion, the reigning superstar. Aside from his dominant performance on his Atomics most of the season, it's easy to conclude the universal reverence for Miller stems from the New Hampshire native's very irreverence. He is utterly authentic. On some level everyone loves a rebel. But when the rebel is a worldbeater, he is irresistible.

That he is now in safe possession of the most coveted title in the sport -- along with the discipline title in super-G -- gives all his fans reason to breathe a little easier for the first time in a month.

Following the world championships in Bormio, Italy, in February, where he won two gold medals, Miller's overall lead over Austrian Benjamin Raich, once nearly 400 points, began to diminish.

Where Raich was solid and consistent, Miller was ragged. Where Raich banged smoothly through slalom gates, Miller hooked tips or missed gates. His coaches sighed that he skied unstrategically. Other critics offered that his insistence on skiing every race, speed and technical, on the circuit was wearing him down.

By his own admission, Miller is so battered after the 34-race season that "I can hardly walk up a flight of stairs."

Before the four-race finale in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Phil Mahre, the last American male to win the overall World Cup title, bet against Miller, giving him less than a 50-50 chance with a grim summation: "Raich is red hot. Miller is stone cold."

Even after Miller last weekend went on to win the title going away, Mahre grumbled that had he skied more strategically, "He could have won it in February."

But Miller's very charm is what often infuriates his coaches and keeps fans on edge. His unorthodox style, his approach to training, the freewheeling of his political and social opinions simply keep many on edge while creating the charisma that draws fans to him by the thousands. A brief compendium from this season:

In October, Miller endorsed John Kerry for president, and joked about the possibility of staying overseas until President Bush was out of office. When asked about the falling of the Old Man visage from the granite ledge above his native Franconia Notch, Miller said he was glad it was gone because as a symbol, it was a fraud. Despite the fact that the Old Man was on every New Hampshire highway sign, state coin, and tourist brochure, Miller's assessment sounded more like pure Thoreau:

"If you ever saw it, it was like a travesty of nature," said Miller. "It was all man-made, manufactured. It was chained up there. One of the cool things about it was supposed to be natural, but it was man-made. It should have fallen off years ago."

By midseason, Miller said he was tired of his high profile, and yet his actions on and off the race course -- such as traveling Europe in a motor home driven by a childhood buddy -- only raised it higher. He finished third in one of the world's toughest downhills -- Wengen, Switzerland -- even though he skipped the course inspection.

In February, he won gold at the worlds in the downhill and then lost the medal, and began talking about starting his own ski team and tour, apart from the US Team.

At those same games in Bormio, though he won two golds, Miller lost a ski in the downhill combined and continued down the steep course for more than a minute on one ski, drawing a tremendous ovation from fans in the stadium, and ire from US men's coach Phil McNichol, who complained that his star skier could have injured himself because of his "immature choice."

McNichol later reacted to Miller's very public proclivity for the party life. "The message Bode likes to give his opponents is, `See, I can stay out all night drinking beer and still kick your [butt]," he said.

But when Miller's season seemed in a tailspin, the chortling stopped, at least for a while. Like bicycling's yellow jersey, the red bib is worn by the ski racer leading the overall World Cup. Miller opened the season with a tremendous burst, taking four of the first five races and winning races in all four disciplines in the shortest time in history -- 16 days.

But following the world championships, a series of bad to mediocre races resulted in Miller's lead slipping from more than 300 points to a scant 52 going into the finals. While Miller fans didn't exactly jump off the bandwagon, there were some doubts raised as Raich put on his charge, proclaiming at one point: "Bode is stronger than me right now, but if he gives me hope, I can catch him."

But as consistent as Raich may be, Miller's style is to soar like a meteor and crash like one. In 34 races this season, Miller won seven times, finished in the top five of the rest he survived, but crashed or otherwise DNF-ed in 13 races. But across the generations -- from Austrian legend Toni Sailer to Italian Alberto Tomba -- expert opinions now hail Miller as the dominant ski racer of his generation.

"Only a few people have managed it in the past," said Austrian Marc Girardelli, who, racing for Luxembourg, won the overall title five times.

Speaking to Ski Racing magazine's Nate Vinton, Girardelli added: "The movements in downhill are completely different from slalom and giant slalom. You have to combat specialists. They only train in their specialist event. You have no recreation time for your mind."

Whatever is said about Miller from this season forward, two things are certain: The 27-year-old who grew up terrorizing Cannon Mountain and a few teachers at Maine's Carrabassett Valley Academy has won the highest honor in ski racing. And he will, for sure, find recreation for his mind.

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