FasterSkier previously shared a press release from the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) giving the where and when of the 2016/2017 SuperTour schedule for high-level domestic racing. This article provides the why – why are the season’s first races not in West Yellowstone? Why are some U.S. SuperTour races in Canada? Why are U.S. nationals returning to Soldier Hollow after just two years away? And so on. FasterSkier spoke with various members of the American cross-country ski community to help get some answers about why the country’s top skiers will be going where when this winter.
Period One: Western Swing (but no West Yellowstone)
The single most noteworthy change to this year’s schedule may be the move away from West Yellowstone for the season’s opening races. Skiers have flocked to West Yellowstone in search of early-season snow, and often raced there, for a very long time. For how long? And why the change now?
As FasterSkier previously reported, elite skiers have made the Thanksgiving-week pilgrimage to West for nearly forty years: It was 1978 when the U.S. Ski Team held its first Fall Camp there, “with then-U.S. Ski Team coach Marty Hall and skiers like Bill Koch, Dan Simoneau and Tim Caldwell. Koch didn’t come too many years after because of exercise-induced asthma, which worsened with altitude.” People kept coming back. In 2004, Fall Camp, which had long since expanded to include a range of citizen skiers from around the country, was renamed the Yellowstone Ski Festival, with a full slate of clinics, demos, and a gear expo.
So why the change? Well, here’s another number from our article on the history of early-season skiing in West Yellowstone: “6,663: Elevation of West Yellowstone. The Rendezvous Ski Trails are about 6,800 feet above sea level (2,000 meters), and the South Plateau just outside the park is about 1,000 feet higher.”
That’s pretty high. That’s higher than the upper altitude limit for International Ski Federation (FIS)-legal races of 1,800 meters, or just over 5,900 feet. And West Yellowstone can be sort of cold, too. The combination can make for a brutal start to the season.
The athletes have noticed. Bill Koch evidently noticed in the early 1980s. More recently, as Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier Reese Hanneman blogged in December 2015, “For as long as I have been racing, these first two weekends of elite racing have been held in the high mountain west, at illegally high altitude (according to FIS), which always makes them a little funky.”
USSA and club coaches noticed, too. As Robert Lazzaroni, USSA’s nordic domestic program director, explained in a phone interview, the impetus to move away from opening the season in West Yellowstone “came from the club coaches when we met in Craftsbury” following last season’s SuperTour Finals in March. The decision to move elsewhere was close to a consensus, Lazzaroni said: “It was very clear that the season starts too early. It’s too early – November 23rd – to start to chase points, when we want the athletes to peak at Nationals [in early January].”
West Yellowstone, known as “West” for short, is also at altitude, Lazzaroni noted. And finally, Lazzaroni made the uncontroversial observation that “West can be very cold.”
Putting all that together, he said, it just seemed like too much to ask of the athletes: “When you ask the athletes for the first race of the season to be at full speed, and to be fit, and in a cold place – it can be too much. And it puts their season in jeopardy. The risk was too big in their [the club coaches’] mind – too early, too high and the weather can be difficult. And that’s not good that early in the season.”
Hence the move from West in late November to Bozeman in early December: later, lower, and hopefully a little warmer.
So what will be left in West Yellowstone over Thanksgiving week, without elite athletes eyeing the competition, washing their hands, and chasing SuperTour points? Quite a bit, both USSA and West Yellowstone boosters agree.
As Lazzaroni noted, it was a “bummer” to lose the SuperTour component of the Yellowstone Ski Festival, but the festival “will continue. They will still have the junior race, they will still have the Masters race. It will just not be a SuperTour. … We believe a lot of the clubs will be there, training.”
Moira Dow seemed to agree. The program director of the Yellowstone Ski Festival, Dow said on the phone that she was “disappointed” to lose out on the opportunity to host the SuperTour races, but had no hard feelings toward USSA and appreciated the need to structure a race series to support athlete development.
“We understand that the athletes have to look out for the best of their development on the national stage,” Dow said. “While we recognize that, we are disappointed. We think that having the SuperTour held in a small town of West Yellowstone is fun and exciting. So we’re disappointed, but we understand the need.”
Dow admitted that the schedule change “was a surprise” to the organizers of the Yellowstone Ski Festival.
“Going into the [USSA] Congress [in mid-May] I thought it was still up for debate,” she said.
But given “the way it was presented at Congress,” Dow continued, “the athletes made their statement – I think the schedule was decided before Congress.”
Despite the surprise, Dow underscored that she had no hard feelings, and certainly did not view the schedule change as a personal attack on her or the festival. And she emphasized that everything that citizen skiers have come to expect from West Yellowstone in Thanksgiving week – clinics, demos, etc. – will still be there, including the races: “We’ll be holding just as many races, they just won’t be designated SuperTour” races, she said.
“SuperTours are not the most important part of our festival,” concluded an upbeat Dow. “We hope to see you in West Yellowstone.”
(So will the SuperTour return to West next year? The short answer is that likely nobody knows. In August 2015, quoting then-USSA nordic manager Joey Caterinichio, we reported, “West is the perennial host for Period I and could potentially rotate with Alaska, although, ‘there is no intention of changing West Yellowstone,’ according to Caterinichio.” That obviously didn’t last long. As Dow said when asked about her plans for November 2017, “we’re waiting to see – it changes from year to year.” She added, reflecting the development of this year’s schedule, “we find out in May what the athletes are looking to do to help put them on the national stage,” and then respond to that.)
So the opening SuperTour weekend will be in Bozeman, Mont., starting with a skate sprint on Saturday, Dec. 3. A 10/15 kilometer classic individual start follows on Dec. 4. It will be a short week before athletes return to action with a classic sprint at Sovereign Lake in Vernon, British Columbia, on the evening of Friday, Dec. 9, with another short turnaround before 10/15 k skate interval starts the next day. (A relay that is not scored for SuperTour points will be held at the same venue on Sunday.)
If the move away from West Yellowstone was the first thing that struck many skiers about this year’s schedule, the move across the border was probably the second thing of note. The races in Silver Star will be a joint SuperTour/NorAm weekend (that is, they will be held together with the Canadian high-level domestic race series), an arrangement that has occurred in the past but not for some time. Ski representatives from both countries – which are identified as “children of a common mother” in the inscription on the Peace Arch at the border crossing between Blaine, Wash., and Surrey, B.C. – agree that the cooperation is welcome.
As Cross Country Canada (CCC) High Performance Director Tom Holland said on the phone earlier this summer, “We had a couple of phone meetings this year and there’s a willingness to work more together on a NorAm/SuperTour. Why not? To have more of these North-South relationships in the East and the West so people don’t have to travel so far. We’re sort of repeating history here. We’ve wanted to do this, but we did a lot of it in the ’90s, if you look at the results there were some great races back then. So it’s kind of a common-sense thing to have a North American race circuit where we compete against each other. We went down to West Yellowstone the last couple of years. It would be nice if there was more than that one weekend, but the U.S. has some other commitments in December. It would be nice if we had three or four weekends. The Euros ski more than us before Christmas, so the more we do the better.”
Holland continued, “We have those races every year anyway. It’s more about getting a high level of competition so we’re competing against the best in each nation and get warmed up for the season. There’s lots of examples of it working in the past, but it sort of faded as the SuperTour got stronger at one point. Anyway, we’re totally committed, and the U.S. is making a commitment, and we’re happy about U23/World Juniors being down there. So we’re going to do our trials down there. There’s a lot of cross-border stuff going on this year. I hope that sets a good tone for the future.”
Lazzaroni concurred, explaining that USSA wanted to hold consecutive race weekends relatively close together in order to make transportation somewhat easier. He also said they were pleased to combine with Canada in order to create a larger and more competitive field. Lazzaroni said that he hoped to have more joint SuperTour/NorAm weekends in the future.
Period Two: SoHo and Truckee
Athletes will have nearly a month off before racing resumes with U.S. Cross Country Championships in January at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. There is a 10/15 k skate individual start on Jan. 7, a full classic sprint the next day, and a 20/30 k classic mass start on Jan. 10. A qualification-only skate sprint event rounds out the week on Jan. 12.
U.S. nationals visited Soldier Hollow fairly recently. The races were held there in 2013 and 2014, before moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for 2015 and 2016. The move back to Utah after only two years away is atypical.
The “main reason” for the quick return to Soldier Hollow, Lazzaroni said, “is because of World Juniors.”
The U23/Junior World Championships will be held at Soldier Hollow from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5, 2017, and will include roughly 750 athletes from dozens of nations. Some of those athletes will be junior and U23 skiers from the U.S., and Lazzaroni said that USSA wants to provide American skiers with a home-field advantage: “It was very important to us to bring the Championships back to the U.S., to show our commitment to FIS, and also to provide our athletes home-field advantage.” Lazzaroni explained that the best way to give American athletes this advantage was to give them an additional chance to race at Soldier Hollow in advance of the championships.
Therefore, Lazzaroni explained, USSA did not look back to the last time when U.S. nationals were held at Soldier Hollow in setting this year’s schedule. Rather, they looked forward, asking how best to prepare American athletes for Junior Worlds. And the answer was to let them race at Soldier Hollow in January before – for some skiers – racing there again in February.
But there will be something missing from this year’s edition of U.S. nationals: a national championship skate sprint. Instead, in the 2016/2017 season only, the national championship skate sprint will be held at the season-ending SuperTour Finals, as part of a race series colloquially known as Spring Series.
This schedule change, Lazzaroni explained, is due to the overall load on the Soldier Hollow volunteers and local community. It is “asking a lot of the venue” to hold both U.S. nationals and Junior Worlds at Soldier Hollow within the same month, Lazzaroni said. Among other inconveniences, he noted that there is an elementary school at Soldier Hollow, which also serves as the timing building and race headquarters, that has to be shut down when high-level races are held. Lazzaroni said that the local community was unable to commit to a full U.S. nationals schedule, including a full skate sprint day, on top of its other hosting obligations.
The initial solution was just to take away the sprint race, moving U.S. nationals week from four races down to three. But, Lazzaroni said, this created a problem from the perspective of U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, who needs to oversee the selection of the U.S. team for the 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland, later this winter.
The races in Lahti include an individual skate sprint and a team classic sprint. The first half of the SuperTour schedule includes two classic sprints, but only one skate sprint.
The compromise, Lazzaroni explained, was a qualification-only skate sprint event at Soldier Hollow on Jan. 12. This was acceptable to Soldier Hollow event organizers and volunteers. And, Lazzaroni states, he feels that this “was a good compromise.” This way, “Grover can still have a qualification to make sure he has the best skiers to go to Lahti, and we don’t burn out the skiers and volunteers at Soldier Hollow.” The result will be a qualification-only skate sprint day, with no rounds contested. Results from the qualification will be used for purposes of qualifying for the U.S. World Championships team, but will not be scored for SuperTour points.
Following the skate-sprint qualification event, athletes have nine days off before racing on the Auburn, Calif., trail system in late January. A classic sprint will be held on Jan. 21, and a 5/10 k skate individual start on Jan. 22.
Period Three: Why not Ishpeming?
Roughly a month later, the SuperTour resumes with two races in Ishpeming, Mich., about 15 miles outside of Marquette on the state’s Upper Peninsula. There will be a skate sprint on Friday, Feb. 17, and a 5/10 k classic individual start on Sunday. (A 15/20 k mass start skate race, which will be a FIS-sanctioned collegiate race but will not be scored for SuperTour points, will be held on Saturday.) The race weekend will be held in conjunction with the NCAA Central Region Championships hosted by Northern Michigan University.
The trails at Ishpeming’s Al Quaal Recreation Area last hosted a FIS event in February 2016. Before that, the previous and only entry for Ishpeming in the FIS results database is for a race weekend in February 1993. Suffice to say that it’s been a while.
So why Ishpeming? As Lazzaroni explained, repeating part of a reporter’s question, “You say, ‘Why Ishpeming?’ I would say, ‘Why not Ishpeming?’ ”
He said USSA attempts to rotate the SuperTour sites within the regions each year, and that this year the mid-season races are coming to the Midwest. It also recognized that the American Birkebeiner is held in the Midwest in late February, so there is an incentive to keep the SuperTour in the area. And Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis is undergoing construction work at present, and so was unable to host SuperTour races this year.
Lazzaroni explained that USSA was looking for a venue that could host SuperTour races for two weekends in a row, but was unable to find any venue that would take on this commitment. He said that they were pleased to get a taker for just one weekend in Ishpeming (population approximately 6,500), which has newly homologated trails and was eager to show them off. When the discussion was opened regarding bringing the SuperTour to the Midwest, Lazzaroni said, Ishpeming jumped on board.
“They have a long tradition of nordic skiing,” Lazzaroni noted, adding that Ishpeming was hosting cross-country races as early as 1905. The National Ski Association of America, a group that would later become the modern-day USSA, was founded in Ishpeming that same year.
Ishpeming is also home to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum.
The following weekend, the American Birkebeiner will take place between Cable and Hayward, Wis., on Feb. 25. The skate race, whose distance will return to an even 50 kilometers this year, will be scored for SuperTour points.
Although last year’s Birkie was only scored for half SuperTour points, USSA has since revisited this assumption. At this year’s working group for the SuperTour schedule, Lazzaroni explained, they opened the question of whether the Birkie should count for full points or half points. Although some people had argued over the past few years that the Birkie should count for only half points, because it is often not a “normal” race distance, he clarified that the USSA Nordic Competition Guide makes “no mention that it should be half points.” Accordingly, USSA opted to follow the Comp Guide and restore the Birkie to full-points status.
Something less than a full SuperTour field typically races the Birkie; there were 17 American skiers with FIS points in the men’s elite race last year, and nine in the women’s.
Period Four: Spring Series in the Golden Heart City
A month after the Birkie, racers will travel north to end the season at Spring Series in Fairbanks, Alaska. Races will be held every other day over a week-long period from March 27 to April 2. A skiathlon, a skate sprint, a mixed club relay, and a 30/50 k mass start skate race are on the calendar. With a full skate sprint not being held at U.S. nationals in January, all events save the skiathlon will be national championship races.
Longtime Fairbanks race director John Estle is already excited. In an email to FasterSkier, Estle explained that the races will be held on a series of newly homologated and re-homologated courses at Fairbanks ski area Birch Hill. He noted that the new men’s sprint course will be “between 1500 and 1600m, which seems to be the preferred distance for sprint courses. Guys seem to like them to be about 3:30 in duration.” The women’s course will be “just a bit shorter than the men’s course.”
After explaining the combinations of homologated loops that will be used for the various races, particularly the 30 and 50 k races on the last day of the season, Estle concluded, “The courses for those races will be quite challenging.”
Of the four races at Spring Series the skiathlon stands out, for its presence as well as its non-canonical distance. The suggestion on the official schedule that the distances will be 14 k for the women and 24 k for the men is apparently not quite accurate. Rather, Estle wrote, the distances will be 15 k and 22.5 k, respectively. “That is because we will have two homologated 3.75Km courses, one for the classic leg and one for the skating leg. Two laps of each course for women, three laps of each course for men” comes to 15 k and 22.5 k.
Estle is well aware that, at the Olympic Games or World Ski Championships level, women typically race a 15 k skiathlon and men a 30 k. “But most of the feedback I got from coaches and athletes was that at the end of a long, long World Cup season 30Km would just be too much,” Estle wrote. “At the World Cup finals in Canmore last year they did a 30Km skiathlon on a 3.75Km course and a large chunk of the field was pulled from the race (and hence the tour) after getting lapped. That was on a really tough course on a really warm day, but still. Those were damned good skiers, and they were completely shot at the end of that race.” So 15 k and 22.5 k it is.
A skiathlon, over any distance, is a rare event at the SuperTour level. Estle recalled hosting skiathlons in Fairbanks in both 2008 and 2009, but it is unclear whether they have occurred in this country at the highest levels of domestic competition since then. (The races are often entered in the FIS database as “pursuit” rather than “skiathlon” when they are held in this country, making it difficult to search for them. They are held more broadly at the high school and citizen racer levels.)
Skiathlons may be uncommon at this level of competition, but there seems to be widespread agreement that there should be more of them.
As Estle wrote, speaking as a race director, “One of the reasons that we are doing a skiathlon is that nobody ever does them in the US. … A skier’s first experience in a format contested at the World Championships should not be at those championships: Junior WC or U23 WC. If we are thinking about developing skiers who can compete at the highest levels, and coaches who can support them, then we need to make sure that our domestic schedule (FIS or otherwise) provides the types of experiences that will prepare them for the next highest levels of competition. Our skiers need a broad spectrum of experiences, and right now, because there are very few, if any, skiathlons on the domestic schedule, we are not preparing those skiers as well as we could or should.”
Lazzaroni sounded similar notes on behalf of USSA, saying that the skiathlon is contested at various international championships, and “why not prepare our athletes for that?” Echoing Estle, he noted that athletes reported back from the most recent World Junior Championships that they had never done a skiathlon before, “And that’s not right.” Lazzaroni said that he wouldn’t expect to see “many, many more [skiathlons] in the future” – but he added, “my vision is that, yes, we should train our skiers to be better at skiathlon, to be better prepared to do skiathlon.”
U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb was in complete accord, telling FasterSkier in a recent interview, “It’s often that at the junior and even U23 level when we go internationally, that we’re scrambling last-minute to find skiathlon boots, or to teach athletes how to load an exchange zone and what the rules are. So we’ll consider this just a quick dose of education for our entire community, and I think it’s going to have a big effect.”
The athletes seem to agree as well. Lex Treinen of APU, a top domestic athlete who has recorded SuperTour podiums but has not yet raced on the World Cup (which sees a handful of skiathlons each year), wrote in an email that he had done a skiathlon in Fairbanks some years ago – but that otherwise, “I have just done a couple at World Juniors and U23s.”
As Treinen explained, “Skiathlons are great and there is a good reason that they don’t do them very often on the Supertour: they are a pain in the ass logistically … for coaches and athletes and as the APU SuperTour team operates right now, we would not have the resources to wax for a skiathlon very effectively most of the season. Fairbanks will surely be an exception, since #1 it is closer to home and #2 it is Nationals which means there is a little bit of extra tech support from our team. Either way I don’t have a doubt that the fittest person will win this March and I really think it is a positive thing to be able to race some new formats. I am very excited that the Fairbanks organizers have decided to do something novel.”
Annie Pokorny, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team, expressed similar sentiments. “The only skiathlons I’ve raced were at U23 World Champs, one in the Czech Republic and one in Italy,” Pokorny wrote in an email. “Despite my slim experience, however, I was incredibly excited to hear that USSA had integrated the skiathlon into domestic racing.”
Pokorny wrote that, “While it will certainly take some adjustment, I am always excited to see a diversified schedule on the SuperTour circuit. The more events we have, the more opportunities there are for varied competition and exposure to certain skills that our World Cup brethren see on a regular basis. Personally, the skiathlon is one of the most fun and exciting races I’ve ever entered. Having a switch in technique changes the rules of the game so there are more chances for comebacks than in a traditional mass start.”
When asked whether she was going to do anything special to prepare for this addition to the schedule, Pokorny wrote, “Few people know this, but in my first skiathlon I literally had the slowest transition time in the world, by many seconds. I don’t think I’ll need to change training much to be ready for the racing part, but it would be in my best interest to spend some time skiing while taking on and off my poles.” (Pokorny, who finished 29th in that race, is correct that her transition time ranked 48th out of 48 skiers.)
Looking to the future: Cross-country ski cross?
While this year’s SuperTour aims at selecting the U.S. team for Lahti and assigning start rights for upcoming World Cup events, USSA is also looking toward the future. And to hear Lazzaroni tell it, the future may involve cross-country ski cross.
“The cross-country cross has been a big success at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer this winter,” he said. “It’s a format that the TV likes, the athletes like, that everybody likes. … I do hear from FIS that this is a format they want to push forward. We don’t know yet where it is going to go, but this is something we are keeping our eyes open [for], and I would not be surprised if you will see cross-country cross at some of the national events in the near future.”
Lazzaroni clarified that, by “near future,” he does not mean right away – “Obviously not next winter.” He added that this could become an important event to prepare U.S. athletes for larger stages: “Again, if this is going to be an event at World Juniors down the road – in two, three, four, five years, I don’t know – at Olympics, down the road – we should prepare our kids. And we have this discussion at Congress with the club coaches at a younger age, and we did encourage them to put some cross-country cross events at the local races. And again, the kids love it, because it’s fun. It’s working on agility, and it’s working on balance, and they become better skiers. It’s not now on the calendar, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future we see more and more of this type of events.”