What do a GPS, a retired airline pilot, and a Norwegian guru named Hermod Bjorkestol have in common?
All are key components of a plan to bring many of the U.S.’s biggest venues in line with International Ski Federation (FIS) standards.
At its annual meetings in Turkey in early June, FIS made it clear to American officials that a longstanding exception would be revoked: starting in the winter of 2011-2012, all races held in the U.S. that are sanctioned and scored by the Federation will have to take place on certified trails—“homologated courses,” in official parlance.
Since all U.S. SuperTour and national championship events are scored using FIS points, any venue that plans to host a high-caliber race next winter will have to have its courses inspected and certified. And even if a ski area wants to hold scored races this year, FIS is asking that they have a plan to have their trails homologated by 2011-2012, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Nordic Director John Farra.
Only six ski areas in the country currently have FIS certification, few of which are traditional SuperTour venues, and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) is spearheading a new effort to bring more trail networks up to speed. What does that entail, exactly? FasterSkier spoke with a handful of experts to find out what this homologation thing is all about. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with milk.
What the Heck is Homologation?
If you really want to know every last detail about the homologation process, you can download and read the fifth edition of the FIS Cross-Country Homologation Manual, a 69-page document that contains terms like “partial height differential,” specific guidelines for creating “undulating terrain,” and an alphabet stew of abbreviations and acronyms.
For the rest of the country, there’s Bob Gross, a retired airline pilot and avid marathon skier who represents USSA on the FIS subcommittee for rules and controls.
Gross got involved in the technical side of skiing in the lead-up to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and he now is qualified as a homologation inspector—an official responsible for ensuring that courses meet FIS’s specifications. Along with Farra, Gross will coordinate the homologations of the nation’s major courses.
In a phone conversation, Gross explained the rationale behind the rules requiring homologation. Because all FIS-sanctioned races award ranking points to finishers—which in turn can determine seeding and start positions in big international races—it’s important for the Federation to maintain consistent standards for courses across different nations.
Then, there are also more basic logistical issues, like maintaining adequate trail width so that skiers aren’t stepping all over each other, or ensuring that the stadium is well laid-out. Safety is a concern, too—downhills can’t send skiers plunging into trees or ditches—and even details like spectator access are also considered.
The process sounds complicated, but Gross says it’s not—it boils down to ensuring that courses are “adequate to run, safe and fair.”
“It’s trying to get the courses so that they are standard…throughout the world. So that a skier who skis on a course here will have a course which is similar to [one] that’s being skied in New Zealand or Japan or Europe,” Gross said. “That is the basic philosophy.”
According to Gross, the homologation process will unfold differently depending on the status of each venue. If you’re starting from scratch in the woods in your backyard, homologation will obviously be a more arduous process than if you run an established ski area with pre-existing, elite-level trails.
Regardless of the amount of work that needs to be done at a given venue, the finished product must meet specific FIS standards outlined in the homologation manual—the most important of which concern the course layout.
If there are trails at a venue that are already close to meeting FIS’s requirements, the certification process can begin promptly. Whenever possible, course designers and venue managers will homologate existing trails rather than constructing new ones, since work like logging and excavating trails can be pricey. At Kincaid Park in Anchorage, which recently had its trails re-homologated, workers got especially creative: they used leftover fill from nearby roadwork to make sure that the steepness of one of their uphills met FIS standards.
But if a ski area does not have a suitable course to start with, they may have to bring in a trail designer to help lay one out.
According to John Morton, who along with David Lindahl operates the trail design firm Morton Trails, the backbone of a homologated course is its climbs.
“The climbs are the very first thing that we look for,” he said. “Then it’s kind of piecing all these other pieces together.”
FIS’s demands for the uphills are specific. A homologated 5 k, Morton said, must have two major, or “A” climbs, each 30 meters from the low point to the high point—and technically, neither should come in the first or last kilometer of the course. The gradient must average around six percent.
Morton and Lindahl use a variety of tools to help them measure the uphills and other elements, including highly-sensitive GPS units, computer software like Google Earth, and an instrument called a clinometer, which is used to measure slope.
Once the major climbs are locked in, there are other aspects of the course design that must be incorporated, like several smaller “B” uphills, downhills, and stadium layout.
When the courses are close to meeting FIS standards, venue managers are then responsible for producing a sheaf of data and maps on all of the trails’ key characteristics, like distance, width, and elevation changes. How extensive? Morton and Lindahl have been known to create as many as 600 data points, while at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, their information filled a four-inch binder.
The data is submitted to one of the few FIS homologation inspectors in the U.S.—Gross is one, as are Lindahl and Morton—who enter it into a special computer program that summarizes the course.
Then, the inspector will make at least one in-person visit (paid for by the venue), to walk the course. This allows them to verify all the data, get a feel for the trails, and make judgments about key characteristics.
“There’s a lot of art involved in homologating a course.” Gross said. “If you look at a hill, for instance, there could be a break somewhere…where it leveled off or even dropped a little distance. Depending on how the homologation inspector feels that would ski, it could be two B-hills or one A-hill. That’s where the art enters in, and that’s why you have to go out and look at the course, so that you can make a judgment.”
If the inspector deems that more work needs to be done before a course meets FIS standards, they may even have to pay another visit before the process can proceed further.
However, there is a decent amount of flexibility in the rules, Gross said, especially for trails that are only being certified for domestic events. (World Cup courses must meet more stringent standards.) For example, if one of a course’s two A climbs isn’t quite tall enough, designers could pump up the other one to make up the difference. And according to Farra, city sprints and uphill climbs are exempt from FIS rules altogether.
When the inspector deems that the courses are up to snuff, the data is forwarded to FIS, where it eventually makes its way before Hermod Bjorkestol. Bjorkestol, the famed course designer and main editor of the homologation manual, has the final say on every application.
Courses are homologated at specific distances, and for specific race formats—trails certified for skate sprints have to be much wider than those that are used for individual-start classic races, for example. USSA is requesting that SuperTour venues homologate a sprint course, a 2.5 k loop, and a 5 k loop.
All told, the process could move as quickly as a month, if courses are already close to meeting FIS’s requirements. The more work that needs to be done to bring the trails in line, the longer it will take—especially if ski areas run into problems with procedural issues, like permits for logging.
In Anchorage, Kincaid Park made its upgrades slowly, starting with trail work 2006 and 2007, and didn’t finish collecting its data until 2008, according to Matt Pauli, who worked on the homologation process there. The actual FIS certification was issued in 2009.
The Big Picture
While the technical details of homologation would make even the most avid ski fan’s eyes glaze over, that’s not the point, according to Morton and Lindahl. Instead, they said, FIS’s goals are simple: to make sure that courses ski well.
“The whole point of homologation is to embody some of these things that go into…a good course,” Morton said. “Anybody who has done design knows, ‘now it’s time for a good climb.’”
One issue that arises is whether a push towards homologation might cost trails their character, by turning them all into superhighways—and Gross acknowledged that “something, I guess, is going to get lost.”
Regardless, Gross said, the U.S. has little choice, due to new race formats like mass starts and sprinting, which have been instituted by FIS to drive up spectator interest.
“You can’t run a mass start on a narrow track,” he said. “Is that a good thing? That’s a value judgment I’m not making.”
Another issue is the financial cost. Gross wouldn’t estimate the price of a typical homologation effort, given the wide range of work that might be necessary. But he did say that the more a venue or club can rely on its members and volunteers for help, equipment, and expertise, the lower the price tag would be.
Since World Cup and other high-level races are always held on homologated courses, Gross went on, bringing America’s trails up to FIS standards will only make the country’s athletes more competitive. Farra, the USSA nordic director, echoed that argument in a press release announcing the homologation effort, pointing out that while Norway has over 40 certified venues, the U.S. has just six.
Dylan Watts, an Alaska Pacific University coach who wrote an article about the homologation process for the 2010 U.S. Nationals publication, also agreed.
“If we intend to compete with the world in FIS events such as the Olympics, World Cup, U-23 [World Championships]…we need to be racing domestically on courses that are also that style,” Watts wrote in an e-mail. “You get good at what you do. If you ski on a golf course, you get good at golf course skiing. If you ski on a logging road at 8,000 feet, you get good at that. If you ski on FIS homologated-style trails, you get good at that. That is why the homologation effort is important.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.