SKIING WORLD CUP : It's Ciao Time for Tomba in Giant Slalom

TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

It was Tomba Time in the Rockies Saturday as Alberto the Great skied in a private zone, his clock considerably faster than anyone else's.

"Primo!" exclaimed the 24-year-old Italian in mock surprise when he saw the official World Cup giant slalom results. It wasn't clear whether Tomba said, "ciao" or "chow" until he added: "banana." It was a rare chance for him to grab a quick snack away from the scrutiny of his personal trainer and nutrition supervisor, Giorgio d'Urbano.

Earlier, Tomba had definitely said "ciao" to the 67 other racers by taking a 1.19-second lead in the first run en route to becoming top banana in giant slalom for the 1990-91 World Cup season.

It was a team victory, not for Italy so much as for Team Tomba, which also includes the racer's coach, four-time World Cup champion Gustavo Thoeni, a personal masseuse, and a service technician to take care of his skis.

He is still the same spontaneous, fun-loving Tomba who won two gold medals in the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, and then called himself "the messiah of skiing." But he is also different--and three years older.

Asked about these changes, Tomba said: "I am still outgoing, but not while I am training. When I used to train with the (Italian) team, my attitude was different. I was able to go all out in skiing and still have fun, too. Then things became more difficult for me, and I matured. But I still like to have fun--outside skiing."

Fun was about all Tomba had to show for his efforts in 1989 after he had partied his way through one post-Olympic celebration after another. Last winter, with his new coaching and training regimen in place, he started skiing his way back into shape and finished ninth in the World Cup overall standings.

During the summer, he continued to train hard, sometimes sharing the glacier at Stelvio, Italy, with his archrival, Marc Girardelli, who as Luxembourg's one-man ski team, also works out alone, with his father, Helmut, as coach.

Saturday, Girardelli had a faster second run than Tomba, moving up from fifth to third place, but the Italian couldn't be caught.

Tomba's total time was 2:11.92, giving him a margin of 0.47 of a second over runner-up Rudi Nierlich of Austria, the two-time world giant slalom champion, with Girardelli another 0.59 behind.

Because of his sizable first-run lead, Tomba said he tried not to take undue chances during the second run, adding: "I started carefully, got more aggressive in the middle, then had some problems in the last few gates. But I knew I had a big enough lead to manage it."

With only one more giant slalom remaining on the schedule, Tomba has clinched the World Cup title with 127 points to 86 for Nierlich and 84 for Girardelli.

In the overall standings, Tomba is second with 167 points, 63 behind Girardelli, who is seeking his fourth World Cup overall championship. "It is still a close battle," Girardelli said. "Alberto is very strong."

Since neither racer will go to Lake Louise, Canada, next weekend for the two downhills or the super-G race, Tomba will have only three more shots at Girardelli, in today's slalom here and in a slalom and giant slalom March 22-24 at Waterville Valley, N.H.

When it's all over, the 27-year-old Girardelli said, "I will come back to Colorado for more surgery on my knee by Dr. (Richard) Steadman at Vail."

Tomba, for his part, will probably take a few days off after the season to visit a girlfriend, Christina Biginani, in his hometown of Bologna, and try to sneak some pasta and red wine or beer past D'Urbano.

In the meantime, Tomba will try to stick to his diet of a "power drink" for lunch, followed by a veal or chicken dinner.

It's all part of a master plan to keep Tomba's weight down and his skiing strength up. The latter is also accomplished in a manner directly opposite to the methods employed by Girardelli, who rises early and exercises for hours each day.

Tomba prefers to wake up whenever it happens, at 9 or 10 a.m., and does no aerobic exercises, merely some limited jumping and sprinting before taking to the slopes.

Because of their contrasting natures, they enjoy exchanging barbs.

Said Tomba, when asked about his future after skiing: "Maybe I will go to Hollywood." Whereupon Girardelli chimed in: "And I will go along to do his makeup."

Girardelli has also said: "When Tomba's entourage greets him in the morning, they like to call him Albertoni (Alberto the Great). I make it a point to say hello and call him Albertino (Little Alberto)."

This morning, at the top of the slalom hill, Tomba will doubtless hear both names again.

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