SOELDEN  - Defending champions Lindsey Vonn and Marcel Hirscher go into the World Cup season-opener this weekend with differing expectations at the start of a testing new campaign.

The women will have the honour of starting on Saturday with the giant slalom in the Austrian resort of Soelden, followed by the men on Sunday in the same discipline. And after a seven-month break from international competition -- nevertheless packed with equipment tests and training sessions in the southern hemisphere -- 28-year-old Vonn is raring to go. 

Her win here last year -- a rare top finish in the giant slalom for the downhill and super-G specialist -- positioned her from the start to take the overall World Cup title in March, her fourth in five years.

"Every season, I'm freshly motivated. I want victories, I want to ski fast," she told journalists Thursday.

She has also caused ripples in the sport by saying she wants the opportunity to compete against men at Lake Louise in Canada on November 24.

On the men's side, local boy Hirscher remained cool on his chances.

"I could live with a top-10 finish in Soelden," said the 23-year-old Austrian, whose early sixth place didn't stop him from taking the giant slalom and overall crystal globe last season.

"The fact is that I've never trained as hard and as consistently as I have this year," he added however in a veiled warning to his rivals.

While Soelden will inevitably be a test of fitness for the skiers ahead of five relentless months of competition, culminating in the World Cup finals in March in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, extra attention will also focus on their equipment.

New rules on ski length and width, imposed by the International Ski Federation (FIS) this year, have been hotly debated among national teams and ski manufacturers, with many skiers complaining the changes will make it harder to handle turns and will be especially felt in the giant slalom.

The FIS on the other hand has argued the new specifications will make racing safer and reduce the number of injuries.

US skier Ted Ligety, one of the main opponents of the changes, has now admitted he finds it easier to use the new skis, something that could help him in Soelden, where he has repeatedly landed on the podium including a first-place finish last year.

Meanwhile, Germany's Viktoria Rebensburg, the defending giant slalom World Cup winner, will be challenging Vonn for the first win of the season.  

Last year, she came second to the US star in Soelden but she was confident ahead of Saturday.

"I really like the slope, it's steep, steep and difficult, but I like that," the 23-year-old, who recorded her very first World Cup win here two years ago, told journalists Thursday.

"I had a very good preparation for this season and I'm well equipped for the giant slalom."

On the Rettenbach glacier this weekend, several big names will be absent.

Beat Feuz of Switzerland, last season's World Cup runner-up and a likely key contender again this year, was still uncertain, citing a lack of training following injury.

France's Alexis Pinturault, US Olympic medallist Bode Miller, Switzerland's Daniel Albrecht and Germany's Felix Neureuther will also be missing.

Meanwhile, Austria's Marlies Schild and 2009 giant slalom world champion Kathrin Hoelzl were out of the women's race.

Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch has recovered from a cold and was due to start although she said she was still not up to full fitness.

Skiers spoke of soft snow conditions during training sessions this week on the glacier, but temperatures were due to drop to below freezing in time for the start of competition.