Snowfall again getting in the way of World Cup races
ASPEN – The 35 inches of fresh powder that has blanketed Aspen Mountain in the last week has brought smiles to every local’s face. Almost everyone’s. As the snow continued to fall, Jim Hancock, chief of race for this weekend’s Aspen Winternational races, watched hours of hard work and preparation get buried. Literally.”This is a very large project and the storm which we all love for skiing has really been a battle for us,” Hancock said. “It’s one of those interesting things where you’re begging for snow, and all of a sudden you get 2 1/2 feet. Now it’s in our way.”In the constant struggle to prepare a smooth, hard surface to appease the racers who will compete in this weekend’s super G, giant slalom and slalom events, excess snow is being scraped off the course surface.Deep into the night, the headlights of groomers and snowcats light up much of Ruthie’s Run, moving forward and back in well-rehearsed rhythm.
Last night, the machines ran their tillers, mixing snow both on and below the surface in an attempt to heat it up. If all goes well, the cold temperatures coupled with added moisture will cause the surface to freeze. “We’re battling to get the surface hard enough to stand up to the pressures the racers put on it,” Hancock said.Side slippers have been busy smoothing out the ridges and workers wielding shovels and rakes will be lending their hands during the final days of preparation.”The progress has been good and we’re back to where we were [before the storm],” Hancock said. “Weather always does something that is not optimal and all we can do is react as best as possible.” With clear skies and cold temperatures in the forecast leading up to Friday’s super G – starting at 11 a.m. – Hancock and his ever-growing crew have expanded their efforts. Five miles of protective netting and strategically placed airbags have been installed. Inflatable airbags will protect racers from the television towers that continue to sprout up. The finishing area’s towers as well as the grandstand are being anchored. Company banners litter the course perimeter.The number of laborers, which was 15-20 when the process began, increases every day, Hancock said. Come Friday, more than 400 people – from course workers, coaches, U.S. Ski team and FIS officials, to food service – will be working behind the scenes to help the World Cup’s only U.S. stop for women’s alpine racing go off without a hitch.
When all the logistics and planning are finally put into place, the course will speak for itself, Hancock said. The starting gates for the giant slalom course have been moved slightly to accommodate the longer super G event, which returns to Aspen after a short hiatus.All three courses are close to the maximum vertical drop allowed per World Cup rules, Hancock said. Competitors in every discipline will be in for one of the sport’s most difficult challenges.”By most accounts, this is one of the most difficult courses they ski all year. The hill is steep and there’s a lot of variation,” Hancock said. “That makes for a good race hill. It’s not a smooth boulevard and there’s a lot of terrain features. The course is always changing and moving and that’s what you want. The racers want a challenge like that.” Those excited about the return of the speed event will also benefit from a new course design. For the first time, the bottom portion of the super G course will run to the east side – the skier’s right – of Norway Island. The change in course layout will be more direct, steep, and offer better visibility for both racers and spectators filling the grandstands, Hancock said. Race participants will have their first look at the course on Thursday at 10 a.m., during a one hour “free ski.” Because World Cup rules stipulate that racers are not allowed to ski on the course for five days prior to the event, there will be no gates. No times will be recorded. Skiers will, however, be allowed to ski at top speeds and get a feel for the slope. Following that session, participants will be permitted to side slip the course to devise and fine-tune their race-day strategy.
Hancock will continue to monitor the situation. Every morning he skis the course with FIS officials Atle Skaardal, Jan Tischhauser and Hans Pieren, pinpointing the trouble spots. Soft spots where snow has collected will be cleaned out. More fencing will be put in. A longer super G course – almost 600 meters – and higher racer speeds demands that every safety precaution be taken. Hancock firmly believes the project is on schedule. He does remain cautious as putting on the race now becomes as much a battle against the clock as the weather. Last year, he and his crew scrambled to clear the race course after a storm dropped nearly 30 inches of snow.For Hancock, the unexpected and the scrambling only adds to the excitement.”There’s a lot of pressure involved and this is fairly stressful,” he said. “You have to be willing to roll with the punches and be willing to change your mind. It’s all a part of the fun of putting on an event like this.”
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