By Manuele Lang
ASPEN, Colorado (Reuters) - With most of her rivals in the doldrums, especially Lindsey Vonn, Tina Maze found herself in the pole position of the early World Cup season thanks to her victory in the Aspen giant slalom on Saturday.
The discipline's world champion has now won two out of three races after the season opener in Soelden two months ago, and holds a commanding lead in the overall standings with 250 points.
"I'm extremely happy. After Soelden I have the impression that it is this year or never," she said. "It's a real relief when you've worked so hard for five years with a small group and you realise it's paying off at last."
Crowned in a combined time of one minute and 59.39 seconds as she finished ahead of Austria's Kathrin Zettel and Olympic champion Vitkoria Rebensburg, Maze broke with the Slovenian federation five years to launch her own training team with her own coaches and servicemen.
Consistency is now combining with natural talent to turn her into a leading contender this season.
"It was close last year already. Now I don't want to think too far ahead," she said. "I just want to ski well and not think that I'm winning just because Lindsey is unwell. I hope to win thanks to my talent and my strengths."
While Zettel finished 0.90 seconds adrift and Rebensburg 1.54 behind, World Cup defending champion Vonn, hampered by a lingering stomach bug, finished 21st.
All eyes at the finish were on the local favourite, who had left her fans guessing whether she would compete after being hospitalised last week because of gastric problems.
"I'm just glad I was able to race here at home. Mentally I'm relieved regarding my health but also looking ahead to Lake Louise next weekend with three big races. I needed to see whether it was possible to be ready for Lake Louise," said the American, who will be seeking her 12th World Cup victory in the Canadian resort.
Vonn had been hoping to be racing with the men in the Lake Louise downhill.
But while the International Ski Federation (FIS) categorically turned down her request, she said it was finally a blessing in disguise since she probably would not have been in shape enough to enter the men's event.
"Maybe it's a sign of better things to come in the future. It was probably not the right time yet," she said.
"I'm really unwell. I'm struggling to breathe which is unusual."
Vonn told a news conference on Friday she would not be entering Sunday's slalom on the same course to concentrate on the Lake Louise program.
It will be another opportunity for Maze and her other rivals to extend their lead.
Slalom world champion and World Cup holder Marlies Schild of Austria crashed in the morning run and has yet to finish a race this season while Maria Hoefl-Riesch, winner of the Levi slalom last month, also bowed out in the first leg.
(Reporting by Manuele Lang; editing by Martyn Herman and Gene Cherry)