The mother of all American ski races, the American Birkebeiner, lived up to its hype. Oh jeez you betcha it did! This year was the 30th anniversary of North America’s largest ski race and although limited snow had everyone holding their breath, thousands of skiers and Birke (pronounced birk-ee) fanatics took over the towns of Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin for the weekend of events and festivities.
The Birke Sprints kicked off the action on Thursday in downtown Hayward. The event attracted many elite skiers including top sprinters from Team Rossignol and the Subaru Factory Team, as well as racers from Italy, Norway, and Estonia.
This event is a true Sprint. Two person heats, down the street around a pole and back, winners advance. Heats averaged about 35 seconds short.
The sun created a big advantage for one side of the coarse. The mid morning sun cast a shadow that covered one lane of the course giving the lucky skier in that lane a big advantage with colder faster snow. Lets just say that it’s a good thing the Birke Sprints are not a FIS competition. I believe the FIS technical delegate in attendance for the events would have soiled himself if he had been officiating this one. Norwegian Rune Torseth won the men’s final against Jason Lemieux and in the Women’s final it was Kristina Joder picking up the victory against Natalie Ward. Check out the finals on video at skinnyski.com.
In addition to racing, the American Birkebeiner has evolved into a ski festival that includes a product expo, on snow demos, wax clinics, opening and closing ceremonies, parties, and even Birke radio broadcasts that include original Birke songs. My favorite song was titled “Just get me to the start on time.”
I had decided to race the Korteloppet (23km race) this year as part of my duties for Team Rossignol. The sponsored teams like to have a presence in as many events as possible at the Birkebeiner, so being one of the new guys on the team I took the responsibility. I look forward to racing the full birkebeiner next season, but competing in the Korteloppet was a great experience. The best part about it was the thrill of starting in a wave of almost 1,000 people, something I would have missed out on if I had started in the smaller elite Birke wave. Sprinting out of the starting stadium with about 999 crazed skiers in hot pursuit of me is not something I will soon forget. What a rush! Pamplona and Cable, Wisconsin have a lot in common.
Okay so you probably already know who won the races. (Some Italians with nice tans) But I bet you don’t know about Eric from Denver, who was a prime candidate for dead last in this year’s Birkebeiner. Eric was a friend of the generous family that hosts Team Rossignol each year and had come out from Denver to participate in the Birke. It didn’t take long into our conversation at dinner one night for me to figure out that I had an exceptional personality on my hands. Two years ago, at the 2001 Birkebeiner, Eric finished the 50km ski race in approximately 7 hours. At one point in the race, officials attempted to convince Eric that he should quit the race and take a ride to the finish. He refused. He finished dead last, but he finished. So why is Eric’s story that exceptional. That day two years ago, was Eric’s first ever time on cross-country skis. I believe skiing a 50km race your first time on skis would be a lot like buying a box of rubber bands and heading off to a local bridge to do a little bungee jumping.
Now I’d love to tell you that Eric had gone home from that experience with a burning desire to become a better cross country skier, but this was not to be. You see Eric returned to the Birke, two years later, with the intention of skiing the Birkebeiner on his second day ever on cross-country skis! He ended up finishing in about 6 hours and 15 minutes. If he could keep that rate of improvement going he could be winning world cups by next season.
The American Birkebeiner is no ordinary ski race and now I understand how people catch the infamous Birke fever. I can’t wait until next year!