U.S. skier Ted Ligety flies downhill during a downhill training run ahead… (Clive Rose / Getty Images )
SOCHI, Russia — There is a compelling race taking place in the mountains that has nothing to do with Austrians, timing devices or finish lines.
It's the mad dash to complete the Olympic Alpine events before the snow melts and Rosa Khutor becomes a water slide.
The hill has held up well through three Alpine races thanks to meticulous course grooming and the injection of hardening agents (salt).
FRAMEWORK: Best images from Sochi
The downhill portion of Friday's men's super-combined race, however, has been moved from 11 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the hope one less hour of sunlight will help keep the track firm.
The snow is as soft as America's start in Alpine but, with seven events remaining, the super combined could provide a much-needed kick-start.
The last two Olympic winners in the event — Ted Ligety in 2006 and Bode Miller in 2010 — ski for the U.S.
Four Alpine gold medals have been handed out in Sochi and the United States hasn't come close to a sniff.
An Austrian won the men's downhill, a German won the women's super combined and racers from Slovenia and Switzerland tied in the women's downhill.
The best the U.S. has managed was Julia Mancuso's surprise bronze in the women's super combined.
Miller and Mancuso finished a disappointing eighth in the downhill after dominating the hill in practice rounds.
Help is on the way, though. Ligety arrived midweek in Sochi after training in Austria. He is a medal contender in combined and super-G and the prohibitive gold-medal favorite in giant slalom.
Ligety swept all three events at last year's World Championships in Austria.
This isn't the same Olympic "combined" event Ligety won in 2006. There were two slalom runs then, now there is one.
It was thought two slalom runs gave too much advantage to the technical skiers.
The change would have doomed Ligety in 2006, but he has become a better all-event racer.
"I'm a much better downhill skier than I was then and probably a worse slalom skier than I was then," he said. "I've kind of evened my skill base out a little."
The top racers think soft snow will favor the technical skiers on Friday because the speed racers will have a tougher time negotiating a slippery slalom.
"It's a short downhill and a difficult slalom," Switzerland's Carlo Janka explained after Thursday's training run.
That is probably better news for Ligety than Miller, the defending Olympic champion.
Miller could dominate the downhill portion but may have trouble standing up through a slalom finish line.
"The conditions are tough," Miller said. "It's marginal. We're salting and trying to keep the snow hard."
Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal is another speed racer who may be disadvantaged by soft conditions.
The mushy snow could favor French star Alexis Pinturault, who has finished first, second, sixth, second and first in the last five combined races in World Cup.
Pinturault is an excellent giant slalom and slalom skier who will be in prime medal shape if he can stay close to the leaderboard in the morning downhill.
And never count out Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, who won silver behind Ligety and Miller in the last two Olympic combined events.
Ligety finished a respectable 11th in Thursday's final combined downhill training run, 1.46 seconds behind the leader.
"I want to be able to try to get on the podium, or win," Ligety said. "I think that's well within my grasp if I ski well."
Joining Ligety and Miller in the combined will be Americans Andrew Weibrecht and Jared Goldberg.
Weibrecht has struggled since earning a surprise super-G bronze four years ago in Vancouver.
"I'd love to replicate that," he said Thursday. "It's been kind of a tough go the last couple years with all the injuries and stuff."
Weibrecht is nicknamed "The War Horse" for his fearless skiing style.
"He is actually the fastest skier in the world for 20 seconds in every single event," Ligety joked of his teammate. "He definitely has the technique to be really fast. He's an amazing skier, he just makes a lot of mistakes."