Continental CupGeneralA (Long) First-Person Perspective on Homologation – It’s Easier and Harder than You Think!

Avatar Chelsea LittleOctober 30, 2010

Back in June, Nat Herz ran a piece on homologation called “It’s Not as Boring as You Think.” Since then, I’ve gone through most of the process while working for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. Nat was right. It’s not boring. However, the relative ease or difficulty of some parts of the process took me by surprise.

Since Nat introduced the concept of homologation on a theoretical level, I thought I would provide a first-person perspective to show what homologation was really like on a practical level. You should read his article before diving into this one – I’m assuming the reader is familiar with homologation’s basic concepts.

The trails we are homologating are used year-round for many different applications.

Step One: Make a Map!

The first thing you need to do is to make a high-quality map. You will eventually have to hand in a map at a 1:5000 meter scale with one-meter contour lines, so you might as well start there.

For us, this was the easy part, because I was already working on making a new trail map for the Center. We had purchased a GPS unit and had received a grant of GIS software, so we had everything necessary to make a fairly accurate map.

(Quick primer on acronyms: a Geographic Positioning System (GPS) unit takes data from satellites to tell you where you are at any particular moment, with varying levels of accuracy. A Geographic Information System (GIS) is basically a huge database of, well, geographic information. You can add GPS data into the GIS program as a layer, along with other data such as elevation maps, lot lines, streams and rivers, town boundaries, or pretty much anything else you can imagine.)

If you have a decent GPS unit (or can borrow one), it is very easy to collect this portion of the data yourself.

What comes next is a little harder. In order to get your GPS data, which shows the exact location of your trail system, into a GIS system, you have to post-process it. I used a program called DNRGarmin, which you can get online for free, to import my GPS data into GIS.

Once your course is visible – and accurately projected – in your GIS program, you need to add the contour lines. This, too, is a little tricky. I used a digital elevation model (DEM) to get elevation data. A DEM is made from data gathered by a airplane, which flies over an area and shoots laser beams down at the ground.

There are DEM’s for almost everywhere in the U.S., but depending on where you live, a DEM may be quite accurate or quite general. In Craftsbury, Vermont, there isn’t much reason for anyone to pay to make a super-accurate DEM, so some smaller terrain features didn’t appear on the model. But in other places, it really did show what was going on.

In the end, I had a map.

The map of Craftsbury's "Race Loop," which was produced during the homologation process.

If you don’t have GIS capabilities, or can’t convince a local college student to do this for a class project, or someone who works at an organization with a GIS program to volunteer their time, you’re going to have to pay for it, which could be expensive.

Step Two: Look at Your Course!

Based on your map, you should be able to tell what types of climbs your course contains. The contour lines may not be 100 percent accurate, but if you know that an “A” climb needs at least 30 meters of height differential, and your biggest climb appears to only have 20, then you know that you probably have your work cut out for you.

If you think that the contour lines are wrong, head out onto the trails with any surveying tool you can get your hands on, and try measuring the elevation change by hand. This won’t be entirely accurate either, but you’ll get a better understanding of the actual terrain on your course.

Next, check the FIS Homologation Manual to see how many climbs of each type your course requires. You should also check the width requirements in the manual: If you want to use your course for mass start skate races, you’re looking at nine meters of width on the uphills, which is tough to achieve. But if you only want to use the course for interval start races, you only need four meters of width on the uphills.

For both terrain and width, not everything needs to be perfect at this point. While the manual spells out some very specific requirements, there is flexibility in the process. If your course isn’t wide enough, but you could easily make it so, you don’t have to do it yet – don’t do the work until you know you have to.

We worked with FIS Homologation Inspector Al Serrano, who reminded us repeatedly that the most important aspect of a homologated race course is that it be fair. If your second “A” climb isn’t quite big enough, there may be some reason that the inspector will certify it anyway – and he or she may also have some solution to the problem that you haven’t thought of yet. If you are close, but not perfect, don’t despair – all is not necessarily lost! (Although it might be, too.)

So: Do you think that this course will meet the requirements, or not?

Step Three: Just Like Starting Over…

If your course doesn’t seem like it’s going to fit, you have two options. One is to do some major trailwork to add to your climbs. The other is to come up with a new course.

While it might feel like you’re starting over, this isn’t exactly true. You have a much better understanding of your trails and terrain than you did the first time, and you can use the suitable parts of your original course in your next one.

When I was going through this process, I mapped out at least ten different courses of various lengths before we decided which ones were our priorities.

So, repeat steps one and two until you have something you’re excited about.

Step Four: Tackle the FIS “Eibl” Software

The last thing you need to do before sending all your data to an International Ski Association (FIS) Homologation Inspector is to put it through its paces with the FIS software. You can get the software for free; it’s referred to as “Eibl” after the guy who wrote it, but it’s also called “Homologation 2.0.”

This name makes me wonder what Homologation 1.0 was like, because if it was any worse than 2.0…yikes. There isn’t a help file, so you’re pretty much on your own for solving any problems and difficulties you run into. When you open up the software, try typing in a few arbitrary data points – make a course with, say, five points – and try clicking through all the buttons at the top to figure out what they do.

The premise of the software is that for each point you designate along the course, there are three pieces of data: the distance from the last point, the elevation, and the grade. If you type in any two of these three pieces of data, it will calculate the third.

So, to import your course into Homologation 2.0, you have to select locations on your trail where you think the gradient is changing – from a flat to an uphill, or a gradual uphill to a steep uphill, etc. – and measure the distance and the elevation. The gradients will be automatically calculated for you. Then, you can produce a course profile with the climbs marked, and a data sheet that shows the percentage of the course made up of “A” climbs, “B” climbs, and “C” climbs, as well as the maximum climb and total climb.

The preliminary course profile produced for the "Race Loop" 5k.

One piece of advice I’ll give you right away is to load the correct language file. Another is that while “B” climbs are automatically defined, you have to set the size of the “A” climbs, because they vary over different course distances.

You can also manually define a specific climb – for instance, if you have a long uphill with a bit of undulating terrain in the middle, it might still be an “A” climb, but the program won’t pick that up.

The preliminary course data sheet.

Step 5: Go for a Walk

At this point, you can send your map and the homologation file to a FIS Homologation Inspector for review. If everything seems to be in place, the inspector will want to come see the course in person. Get ready for a lot of walking – and you’ll need to pay the inspector, too.

As I mentioned before, Al Serrano was the inspector assigned to our case. There are several inspectors you could end up working with, and they all report to a regional higher-up, in this case John Aalberg, who is responsible for all FIS and Continental Cup courses in the United States and Canada. Serrano said he was working on three other projects right now.

Besides just walking the courses we had picked out, Serrano wanted to see what other terrain we had available, so we ended up walking most of our trail system. We also spent a lot of time discussing stadium layout. While Serrrano said that the two courses we had submitted looked fine, all of us wanted to make sure that we homologated the best possible courses we could – which meant a lot of looking, walking, and thinking.

At the end of the meeting, you will know whether your course(s) can be homologated or not. And you’ll likely have a list of things you need to fix up: new cutoffs for your trail, widening, or other improvements.

You’ll also have more data, because the inspector will bring a wheel to measure distance and an inclinometer to measure the gradients of your climbs. You might have thought you were done working with data, but this is absolutely not the case.

Your stadium layout is one thing a homologation inspector will want to examine.

Step 6: Make the Improvements

This is pretty self explanatory. You need to actually make the trail improvements that you said you would. In Craftsbury, this meant renting an excavator and sending the boys out with chainsaws. Depending on what your course looks like, this could be pretty expensive – or it could be a non-issue.

Step 7: Eibl, again

If you thought that working with Homologation 2.0 was a pain in the butt the first time around, you had no idea what you were in for.

You will have different points to work with this time – the ones chosen by the homologation inspector. Rather than typing in the distance and elevation, you will be typing in the distance and gradient. If you add the elevation of your starting point, the elevations will be automatically calculated for the other points.

The hitch here is that if your gradients aren’t perfectly accurate, which they probably aren’t, your elevations won’t be perfectly accurate either. This is compounded by the fact that the program only calculates elevation to the nearest meter – which sounds fine in theory, but if you are up to half a meter off at each data point, the inaccuracies will compound. By the time you get to the end of the course, your finishing point may be several meters (or more) above or below the start, even though they are in the same stadium!

To deal with this, I recreated the program in Microsoft Excel so that I could keep all the decimal places. This made things a little better, but not much – the main problem was that the gradients weren’t perfectly accurate. In the end, you will  have to manually adjust the gradients until everything comes out even. To make sure you’re not losing anything in the lurch, use some points from the DEM that you think are really accurate as a reference. Then plug everything back into Eibl and try to match them up as well as you can.

I hesitate to say this, but at this point in the process, I got fairly disillusioned. It was supposed to be the time when everything became more accurate, but that clearly wasn’t the case. It took a lot of time, and I ended up fudging some of the data anyway. I was disappointed.

Step 8: Final Inspection

We haven’t gotten to this step yet, but in theory, once you’ve made your improvements and sent the new homologation files, the inspector will check that you’ve done everything you said you would, and then he’ll submit the course to the Aalberg, along with some of his comments and descriptions. If Aalberg thinks it’s a good course, then you’re all set! All you have to do is pay 100 Swiss Francs and you’ll have your certificate in two or so months.

Bill Koch League racers enjoying the same Lemon's Haunt hill that elite racers will ski on once the course is homologated.

Conclusion

As I mentioned in the title, some parts of the homologation process are easier than expected, and some are harder. In the end, I spent many, many hours on this project. If you outsource the work, it will be less difficult but more expensive.

If you have any questions about the specifics of the process, feel free to contact me or ask them in the comments. Or, find out who the inspector is for your region; they would be happy to answer questions if you are considering a homologation project of your own.

The last thought that I’ll leave you with is that after Nat’s article ran, there was a lot of negativity about the concept of homologation. People complained that courses would turn into superhighways lacking in character. This might be true in some cases, but it’s possible to avoid, too. We are homologating our “Race Loop,” which is a classic course, for interval-start races only. There will be some minor changes in spots to make things more fair, but almost everything about the course, including its character, will remain the same.

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Chelsea Little

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