YANQING, China -- Clement Noel claimed France's first alpine skiing gold medal of the Beijing Olympics when he won the men's slalom on Wednesday.
Noel, sixth fastest after the first run, laid down the quickest second run to clock a combined total of 1min 44.09sec down the "Ice River" course in Yanqing in bitterly cold and sunny conditions.
Austria's Johannes Strolz, already a gold medallist in the alpine combined at these Games, took silver 0.61sec behind, while Norwegian Sebastian Foss-Solevaag claimed bronze at 0.70sec.
Strolz had been fastest in the first run, but he faded in his second leg, leaving Noel roaring with delight as the Austrian came through the finish line and it was clear the Frenchman had taken the gold.
"That was one of the most important races in my career. It's not often that you are able to win a medal in the Olympic Games," said 24-year-old Noel.
"It's one shot - one minute and 40 seconds every four years.
"I knew that I was in shape. My races in January were not good but training here was really good, I was fast.
"This is the best I can do. I have no words to describe it. Olympic champion ... wooh!"
Noel's gold completed a full house for the French men's ski team after veteran Johan Clarey bagged downhill silver and Mathieu Faivre took a bronze medal in the giant slalom.
The most technical race on the alpine ski programme had promised to be one of the most open contests in recent history and so it proved.
Of the six World Cup races held this season, there have been five different winners, including Noel, while 14 different racers have made the podium.
Switzerland's Daniel Yule, 13th fastest in the first leg, set the pace before Noel took the lead with just five racers remaining.
Germany's Linus Strasser and Switzerland's Loic Meillard failed to bother Noel, leaving the top trio from the first run to chance their arm.
- Strolz comes up short -
First down was world champ Foss-Solevaag, the Norwegian paying the price for a mistake midway down the icy course.
His teammate Henrik Kristoffersen, a bronze medallist from the 2014 Sochi Games, pushed hard to increase his lead of 0.36sec, but he faded badly in the lower section.
All eyes then turned to Strolz, who was dropped from the national team last year and even worked as a traffic policeman to pay his way.
The Austrian, who emulated his father Hubert's feat at the 1988 Calgary Games in winning the combined gold, held his nerve out of the startgate.
But he faded in the bottom half of the demanding piste and Noel raised a ski aloft in victory.
"The first run was very good, I found the limit. I tried to be aggressive in the second run too, I really tried to go for it, Strolz said, describing his silver as "totally crazy... magical"
Britain's Dave Ryding could not replicate the form that saw him win last month's prestigious Kitzbuehel slalom on the World Cup circuit.
"I didn’t quite have the flow from half way down the first run, never got it back," the 35-year-old said after finishing 13th, 1.48sec off the pace, in his fourth Olympics.
"It’s disappointing obviously because I know I can do it. It’s really hard to put it out there against these guys and today I just didn’t quite have it.
"The margins are just too fine to have a bad day and expect to do well."
© Agence France-Presse