KITZBUEHEL, Austria -- Swiss ski star Didier Cuche will retire after the season despite being in contention for a record-equaling fifth World Cup downhill title.
The unexpected announcement Thursday by the 37-year-old former butcher came at a news conference leading to Saturday's classic race on the Streif course, where he is a four-time winner.
"Kitzbuehel represents something for me and I decided to make my decision here," Cuche said. "It's not a decision that I took last night or today" to make.
Cuche captured the downhill title four of the past five seasons. He won a race in Lake Louise, Alberta, in November.
"I'm in top form and I can still aspire to win races. It's in this condition that I wish to retire from the World Cup," he said.
"Today marks a very emotional moment for me," Cuche added while fighting tears. "An important milestone in my career and in my life. .. I am convinced this is the right moment to retire."
Cuche said the announcement was a relief.
"Now that I am freed from other thoughts, I can give them full throttle," he said about Friday's super-G and Saturday's downhill in Kitzbuehel. "I would like to leave my mark one way or another."
Cuche became the oldest men's world champion in 2009 when he won the super-G in Val d'Isere, France, at 34. He was a silver medalist in the super-G at the 1998 Nagano Games, but he never won an Olympic gold medal.
"Of course, that's a race I would have loved to win," Cuche said, "but being runner-up to someone like Hermann Maier made it bearable."
Cuche also is the oldest racer to win a men's World Cup race since his victory at the 2011 Kitzbuehel downhill at 36, beating Liechtenstein great Marco Buechel's record by 85 days.
Cuche is beloved in Switzerland, and on Saturday was elected the country's top personality of 2011. Hours earlier, he failed in his 13th -- and final -- attempt to win Switzerland's biggest sports event, the Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen. He was runner-up three times, twice to Bode Miller (2007, 2008).
Swiss ski federation president Urs Lehmann called Cuche "a fantastic sportsman, a wonderful person, and a superb role model."
"He has done great things for Switzerland as a skiing nation," Lehmann said. "We hope Didier will remain part of the Swiss ski sport one way or the other. That would be great."
Cuche made his first appearance in the World Cup at a downhill in Bormio, Italy, on Dec. 29, 1993. He was 57th.
After his Nagano medal, when he was beaten by Maier, Cuche's career was interrupted by injuries, including a broken leg and ruptured knee ligaments.
Cuche came back even stronger to win his first crystal globe when he was 32 as downhill World Cup champion in the 2006-07 season. Now, with four downhill trophies, Cuche trails only another Austrian great, Franz Klammer, whose five season-long titles lead the list.
Cuche also won the giant slalom World Cup title in 2009 and the super-G title last season.
In the overall standings, Cuche finished in the top three six times. His best finish was second last season behind runaway winner Ivica Kostelic of Croatia. He has four career world championship medals, with back-to-back downhill silvers in 2009 and 2010 and a giant slalom bronze in 2007.
Buechel, who retired two years ago, understood Cuche's reasoning.
"He is a great athlete and a great person," Buechel said. "I know Didier would rather go on until he is 60, but someday you feel your time has come. You have to respect such a decision."