Standing on the knoll perched atop the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center course at Copper Mountain, it's nothing but a banner of white that winds down Andy's Encore to Rosi's Run and runs out at the base of the Super Bee Chairlift.
Under the adversity of warm days that hardly hint it's winter anymore after last week's snowfall, Copper's snowmakers have cranked out a course that's ready for the national teams to train. It opens to athletes today, two weeks earlier than last year's inaugural course - which means two more weeks to train on a "world-class" downhill course before kicking off competition at Lake Louise in Canada.
On Wednesday, Copper brought together valued passholders who'd entered to win a chance to ski the course alongside athletes prior to both the speed center's and the mountain's opening day. More than 200 skiers and snowboarders entered the Super Bee queue to learn more about the course and how the athletes interact with it. Once standing on top of Copper's easternmost mountain, the brown of the valley far below stood out against the white of the course.
It starts off steep, with the face of Andy's Encore comprising the section called Andy's Drop. It winds down and around into the first jump, a roller that drops off into nothingness, sending athletes sailing through the air.
"You come up a little with the legs and hips and it's really fun," World Cup and Europa Cup downhill coach Jeff Pickering said, adding that it's his and others' jobs on the course to relay the conditions to athletes as they start their run. Everything from ideal speeds entering the jumps to flight times to light and conditions help the athletes plan their runs.
Racers are challenged with flats between steep sections, where skills in maintaining speed are tested. They tuck close to the slope in an aerodynamic ball whipping across the snow surface at speeds creeping toward 70 and 80 mph.
"You minimize your edge angle on flats so as not to grind ice," said Tommy Ford, who holds eight U.S. titles in slalom and combined. Next, athletes encounter the Oh No jump, out of which racers accelerate into the latter half of the course, across Black Bear Flats, and into Lights Out and Rosi's Face to finish the run.
The course takes athletes roughly a minute and a half to execute. It's not quite comparable to World Cup tracks, which keep racers on their edges for two-and-a-half to three minutes. The Copper facility offers the longest course with the best snow available to ski racers at the start of the World Cup season, but it's flatter and shorter than the athletes will experience on the racing circuit.
Still, it's better than a 50-second training run found on glaciers. And athletes get plush benefits, like waking up at the base of the mountain, walking to the training facility, access to a gym and being close to town and all its amenities.
The 2012 opening of the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center marks the second year of a partnership between Copper Mountain and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association to provide an outstanding facility for the downhill racing teams before natural snow is available. More than 80 snow guns are dedicated to creating a hard racing surface that allows racers to gain speed, getting accustomed to winter snow following training and competition in South America's spring conditions.
Former speed racer, world record holder and Breckenridge resident CJ Mueller was invited to tour the course and ski with athletes afterward.
"I had goosebumps at the bottom looking up the hill, just the idea the ski team has this," said the 60-year-old who now has two new hips, allowing him to ski steep and fast again.
"It's a little frustrating, being on 178 (cm skis) and having straight poles," Mueller said with a laugh.
Memories flooded back as Mueller rode the chairlift with industry companions he's known or met along the way - like when he ran Copper's downhill courses in the 1980s as the forerunner. He marveled at the sparkle of the snow, shining under Wednesday's vast blue skies that had seemingly infinite visibility, as he reminisced the past.
"It's great to see downhill racing being embraced instead of fading away," he said. "Downhill ski racing is just the epitome of skiing. That, and powder."
Now that Mueller has his legs under him, he's ready for the snow to fall.
So, too, is athlete Travis Ganong, who hails from Squaw Valley and mixes downhill speed in with big mountain skiing - making an appearance in this year's Warren Miller film. He pulled up pictures of some steep, deep turns off one of Squaw's ridges during last week's storm as he spoke of his two loves: steep, fast racing and steep, deep powder runs.
Copper's surface was far from powder Wednesday, but it was slick and fast - exactly what racers want. Ganong pointed out that the fairest courses are those that are injected with water to make them icy and hard so no one racer has the advantage over another.
NorAm slalom titlist Will Brandenberg (who holds plenty of other elite titles) spoke for his teammates when he said thanks to the Copper clientele for supporting the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center.
"Thank you for sharing your amazing mountain with us ... It's amazing training and helps us get ready for this year's World Cup season and next year's Olympic season," he said.