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.”
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.
June 30, 2010 at 7:10 am
Great article. I’d always wondered what homologation was all about. Thanks Fasterskier…
June 30, 2010 at 7:57 am
“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.” – Bob Gross
My opinion is that this is a very good question. Sorry to continue to draw parallels to cycling, however, some of the most exciting mass start events in cycling occur on narrow roads. This causes a fight for position to get to these narrow sections first and creates a level of excitement not seen in the wide open highway races. In skiing we have seen and plenty have complained about the boring nature of the races, primarily the mass starts. I’m not sure the tactic of creating completely homogeneous track 100% of the way around is the best idea. I can understand the “fair play” aspect of it, but isn’t there a level of sterilization that is a little boring and almost weird? I guess when it’s all about the points and not the placings it swings politics and policy in that direction.
I wonder if these homologations will have to be applied to small FIS races such as the college circuit. That could be a lot of trouble.
June 30, 2010 at 10:04 am
I do some work for Jackson XC and from the PR perspective I was concerned when I learned the amount of earth-moving needed to homologate its Wave competition trail network. Was it going to turn fabulous “New Englandy” terrain into a generic super-highway? My worries were misplaced. Thom worked with John and Dave at Morton Trails to retain the “forest experience” while meeting the FIS standards. Ironically by making the trails more competitive for racers they have also become better for recreational skiers by making them wider and replacing most bridges with earth-covered culverts. As a weekend “warriette” there were a few minutes last year when I cursed a class A climb tossed into the middle of a 30K citizens race, but I am sure I am a better person for my efforts.
June 30, 2010 at 10:24 am
What are the six US sites that are homologated? I’m guessing Trapps, Kincaid, Soldier Hollow and maybe Rumford are four of them? What are the others?
June 30, 2010 at 10:29 am
Houghton and Jackson, NH are the two others. For a complete list, go to pages 20 and 21: http://www.fis-ski.com/data/document/homologated-courses-june-2010.pdf
June 30, 2010 at 10:54 am
Are the USSA homologation standards in the USSA guide different from the FIS ones?
June 30, 2010 at 6:43 pm
FIS is not following it’s own guidance since the most watched races are held on courses that cannot possibly meet homologation standards–Munich, Prague, Dusseldorf, Alpe Cermis, Toblach–all these races were held on courses that couldn’t meet the current standards and yet were instrumental in moving the sport onto television screens around the planet. FIS points and World Cup points are regularly scored on non-standard courses. Additionally, the SuperTour Final did not meet homologation standards nor will next year’s SuperTour Final–this a good thing. The homologation standards place an undue burden on hosting clubs and makes it nearly impossible for most sites to host a spectator friendly race. Different certification standards for mass start, interval start, wave start, classic, skate, sprint, distance, male, female, ad nauseum, ad infinitum make it nearly impossible for a club to host major events without undue financial and administrative cost. Our volunteers need to be involved in promoting the sport and not becoming surveyors and earth movers. Make safety the only requirement in course certification and let areas have the own local flair. If you want a standard course–it’s called track. Spectators are lined up watching the races in Dusseldorf and on Alpe Cermis because they are exciting. The USSA needs to tell FIS that the Homologation standard should only be a recommendation and not a requirement and then let us have our fun watching the battles on the non-homologated Tour de Ski and SuperTour.
June 30, 2010 at 6:48 pm
I wonder how this will affect RMISA college races with the very high altitudes that the races are held at.
June 30, 2010 at 9:38 pm
Tuck–If you read carefully, there’s a quote in the piece about how there are exceptions in the homologation rules for city sprints and uphill climbs.
Nexer–not quite sure what you’re referring to with the USSA guide, but my recollection from these conversations was that there was a separate set of USSA homologation standards at some point, but that these are pretty much obsolete now.
July 1, 2010 at 12:20 am
The point I am making is that the exceptions and non-certified courses still count for the same World Cup points as the homologated courses. FIS hands out World Cup points for dead flat courses and courses with over 300m of unbroken climb. Over half the races in last year’s Tour de Ski would not meet the homologation standard to include a 20/10k point to point distance race. Homologating for the sake of homologating does not necessarily improve the skiing and siphons precious financial and time resources away from clubs that need to perform the real business of skiing. Canada has four certified venues and France only three, compared to our six. Yet their lack of certified courses does not seem to stem the ability to produce top notch skiers or host World Cup races on an annual basis. Many western venues are situated on Forest Service land and the environmental analysis for the required major construction would paralyze most ski clubs. Course homologation is not a limiting factor to the improvement of skiing in the US, many of our favorite race venues are not certified and never will be–this does make the skiing any better or worse, the best skiers still win. If we are going to ask ski clubs to spend many thousands of dollars, let’s make it for programs that will have a serious impact on the direction of skiing and not merely for regulation.
July 1, 2010 at 9:17 pm
Good point. Put the money where it is most imortant (development/developing talent) , let private market fund a national team, and dont waste association dues on paying obnoxious fees to Mr. Marolt.
Plus, adding longer distances, longer climbs and decents will only increase the excitment of the sport from a tv/spectator perspective, as it has in cycling. This is most important given the advances in the last 25 years in ski design and (mostly) grind/wax tech. which results in most every mass start event, under cureent FIS course/climb standards, resulting in a multi-person sprint for the win which are boring to watch.
Revise these FIS standards to allow much longer/steeper climbs, and more challenging decents, and make the all races 10% longer accross the board – my opinion as one who likes to watch. Why does FIS rule anyhow, versus a professioal assoctaion and professional govering body like in all other sports at their higest level? Guess x-c/alpine skiers just not smart or organized enough to govern themselves – too bad.
July 2, 2010 at 12:41 pm
On one hand the USSA, the FIS and skiing enthusiasts around the world say that we need to grow the sport of xc ski racing. But now xc ski racing decision makers are saying that ski racing can only be “approved” on six courses in the US that are personally approved by some guy in Europe named Hermod. And Hermod’s puppet strings can be traced to European television companies.
Uhmmm … how did US xc ski racing get here? And do we really want to be here? It seems that policies that would allow more ski venues, not less, to host FIS races would be a good thing for xc ski racing world-wide. Travel and lodging costs in particular would be reduced. Adding additional costs to trail systems (surveying, homologation consultants, inspections) will only drive the cost of ski racing up further. And that won’t help grow the sport, especially in these days of the Great Recession. It sure seems that the FIS has a serious disconnect with the economic realities of the world today. And it seems to some degree that the USSA has this same disconnect, which could likely be solved by using the rarely used word ‘No’ when the FIS imposes a rule that drives up the cost of xc ski racing.
July 13, 2010 at 4:44 pm
This is not as big a deal as it looks–name three sites in the East,Central, West, Far West and 2 sites in Alaska—they are the known sites and these are the places that get the Super Series, Nationals and any other international type races for the near future. As other sites develop bigger programs and endeavor to join in the fray—then they homologate.
Races have to rotate in the regions—maybe Stowe holds 2 competitions a year—I think they do already–maybe even 3 races were on the calendar this year.
USSA can ID these places—you have a good start with the 6 locations you have now—-FIS’s little push will help NA get moving a little faster—in 2-3 years this won’t even be an issue. Mark my words!