FIS Mulls New Format for Poland World Cup

Nathaniel HerzOctober 5, 201012
Justyna Kowalczyk navigates a descent in the sprint at the 2010 Olympic Games.

So much for Justyna Kowalczyk’s home-field advantage.

For the first time in her career, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has scheduled World Cup races in Kowalczyk’s native Poland, in February of 2012. But if officials at FIS have their way, Kowalczyk, a notoriously poor descender, will have to successfully navigate five kilometers of technical downhill before she can step onto the podium there.

According to FIS Cross-Country Race Director Jürg Capol, a federation committee discussed a new type of event last weekend at its fall meetings in Switzerland: five kilometers of uphill, followed by five kilometers of technical descending—perhaps even including slalom-style gates. A test race is in the works for this coming spring, after which FIS will decide whether or not to introduce the format at the Polish World Cup in 2012.

In an interview, Capol said that the idea for the race grew out of the federation’s desire to inject some excitement into the sport during the lull that typically follows the Tour de Ski—especially in 2012, a year without an Olympic Games or World Championships.

“We would like to have a kind of story here, [in] the second part of the season,” Capol said, adding that he was looking for something that would be “appetizing for fans.”

The Polish venue, in the resort town of Szklarska Poręba, had an alpine slope that was suitable for the new format, and Capol made a visit to examine the site in September.

The course, he said, is distinct from the climb that ends the Tour de Ski, on Italy’s Alpe Cermis: It’s not as steep, and of course, it includes the descent.

“It would be kind of a Super-G—some gates…to reduce the speed a little bit,” Capol said, referring to the alpine skiing discipline of the super-giant slalom. “It should be a part of the game, the downhill.”

While it’s fast for cross-country skiing, Capol maintained that the descent was tame by alpine standards. And according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard

Ivan Babikov, pictured here in last year's SuperTour Finals in Fort Kent, excels in uphill climbs. The event proposed for the World Cup in Poland could suit him - as long as he can stay on his feet on the downhill.

Association (USSA) Nordic Director John Farra, who attended the meetings in Switzerland, the total amount of climbing in the course—504 meters—isn’t much more than is included in a typical 10-kilometer race. FIS-sanctioned competitions of that distance normally include between 250 and 420 meters of uphill.

“It’s a subtle shift, and I think there’s a true desire…for being open to different formats, being open to different concepts,” Farra said.

Indeed, Capol and FIS Cross-Country Committee Chair Vegard Ulvang have been credited with the success of several new fan-friendly formats and rules introduced on the World Cup circuit over the past few years. But earlier this year, a number of athletes criticized the federation for abdicating tradition and taking those innovations too far—especially when the individual-start 50-kilometer race, an event with a rich history, was left off the calendar for the 2010-2011 season.

Capol acknowledged those concerns, and he noted that the individual-start 50-kilometer would return next year.

“All stakeholders are important, and of course, athletes are the main stakeholders, because they are doing the show—they are the gladiators,” he said. “Of course, we try to integrate those inputs.”

However, Capol said that he had not yet consulted athletes about the proposed new format; he maintained that soliciting too much feedback in the planning stages could stymie the sport’s growth. “We’re still in the stages of the idea,” he said.

Before that idea can come to fruition, Szklarska Poręba will have to hold the test race, which Capol said he would like to schedule for the end of the season, in late March or early April. Ideally, he said, a few World Cup athletes would be able to take part.

A positive test would likely pave the way for the World Cup in 2012, though that decision would not be made until next spring’s FIS meetings. If there are problems, Capol said, the Polish races would simply revert to standard formats, held on courses nearby.

Meanwhile, Kowalczyk will have to work on her technique. She lost her lead in the Olympic sprint final to Norway’s Marit Bjoergen on the last downhill corner, and at a race later that year, she admitted that her descending could use some work.

“For me, better up than down,” she said.

Nathaniel Herz

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.

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  • Martin Hall

    October 6, 2010 at 11:26 am

    If the event becomes a reality—trails could be designed and built to have this configuration naturally without having to put in gates. This would make it like real cross country skiing—not some contrived course that is not or should not be our way.
    In ’95 for the World Championships in Thunder Bay—my attitude for the downhills was that the level of difficulty should be such on some downhills that they could affect the out come of the race, and it did in the Women’s 30km.
    The 30km Ladies race was done on 3 xs 10km loop—and Italy’s Manueala Dicenta fell at the top of a big downhill the first time through—and the last two times through she snow plowed the better part of the downhill. She was always leading at the top of the hill and 2-3 places back after the bottom of the downhill. You had to be a good downhiller and be able to turn at high speeds—after the fall—it wasn’t happening.
    I think this has huge potential for raising the level of excitement in the racing programs through out the year and at major championships—I only hope they keep some xc skiing in the downhill section.
    No brainer for me—go for it FIS!!!

  • Tim Kelley

    October 6, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    This format will likely morph several more times and I would guess that the final course configuration would be that of an “xc ski-cross” course – a 1 to 2 km course in a stadium with climbs, sharp descending turns and a few jumps. If fan-friendly is the goal, then this thrills and spills xc ski-cross format is it.

    This is interesting in a historical perspective because in 1978 when the first FIS World Cup race was held at Telemark (Cable), WI … another race was being held at Telemark. A few local guys (forgot their names) were staging a low-profile event that they called the “World XC Ski-Cross Championships”. And you guessed it – it was a short sprint-length loop with quick climbs, jumps and sharp downhill corners. It’s funny to read that in 2010 the FIS is contemplating a radical “new” xc ski racing format, that was in existence in the US 33 years ago. Kinda makes a statement of how “progressive” Euros are when it comes to promoting the sport. If they had embraced xc ski-cross 30 years ago, over the past 3 decades perhaps less kids would have asked mom and dad for a snowboard instead of xc skis.

  • Cloxxki

    October 6, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    In USA, exactly this format is popular in mountainbike racing.

    I would reconsider safety regulations tough. At which point is a helmet and back protector more a of a necessity than a nuisance?
    Technical downhill on XC skis, preferable a natural course rather than a wide DH piste…
    Redbull telemark racers I once saw on TV were in full DH safety gear. Those races may even be tame compared to what’s being considered here?

  • Martin Hall

    October 6, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    It happened—I’m sure it was Timex that was the sponsor and Dan Simoneau was the companies on the road man—short course on xc skis–climbing, downhill, jumps etc—can’t remember the name they had for the series—actually it was a national series. I actually think I participated in one at Big Mountain Ski Area in the Spring Series in Whitefish, Montana.
    This is just another option for FIS to end up with a longer event like this—or maybe one of the sprints ends up going in this direction with 4-6 people on the course all at once. Is this crazy or is this the future—you tell me.
    Yeah—the prizes were Timex watches!!!!
    Danny Simoneau we need you to shed some light on this!!

  • kwikgren

    October 7, 2010 at 8:25 am

    This is a great idea that puts the skiing back into XC. There’s also sort of a biathlon element in that you can’t be keel over toasted at the top of the hill and still be sharp on the technical descents. Depending on the uphill/downhill ratio, it may also weed out some of the jazzed up dopers who can’t ski well, although all things being equal a doper who can ski well may still have an advantage (unfortunately).
    We also had a few ski cross races in Marquette a few years back. The courses here (and at Telemark) tended to be short, steep, and icy. A great way to get a lot out of a small alpine ski area with snowmaking. I’m guessing one of the reasons why this type of ski cross never really took off is because it’s hard to hold a plastic edged ski on ice when your legs are loaded with lactic acid from climbing, and ice is hard and nasty when you crash.
    It looks like they have something bigger (5km + 5km) which would be more like real mtn. xc skiing as opposed to small hill ski cross or skiathlon, and have more potential. The nice thing about xc skiing is that you don’t have to have a huge mountain to make this happen and there are many possibilities even in the midwest.

  • prairiekid

    October 7, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    To me this is ridiculous and does not represent at all what cross country ski racing is about. It sounded promising until the downhill part. There are technical xc courses out there with the uphills and downhills mixed within the course. And which athlete in their right mind would want to take their nice fast plastic edged ski on a downhill course like that, Good way to destroy the edges in a day. I think FIS is going the right way with the Mini Tours.

  • kwikgren

    October 8, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I agree that ideally the natural ski courses are the best for xc skiing. But if you need to come down through a large open bowl or alpine glade, some gates may be necessary to mark the course. They’re talking a few GS or SG type gates here, not rapid gate slalom.

    Personally I love the idea of skiing up and down a “mountain”. There used to be such a race on the Keweenaw Peninsula called the Brockway Mountain Challenge. To me it still is the only race that ever really “mattered”, but I live in my own little world. A course like Brockway did still favor the (an)aerobic animal on the big climb, but at least you did have the “dreaded” exciting downhill to look forward to.

    Sometimes I wonder If we haven’t tricked an entire generation of so-called xc racers into not being able to ski. They have been coddled by over tilled, soft ski trails and taught to snowplow anything that resembles a hill. Why is it when you go to a xc ski area you see so many people that ski like “little girls”, and then go to an alpine ski area and you see actual little girls skiing like big, strong men? Yeah sure, they have metal edges, but the bottom line is they have learned how to ski, not just run fast on skis, and aren’t afraid of challenge.

    The truth is that we actually do have a few strong, young xc ski racers in this country that can ski, love speed, and aren’t afraid of ice. I’m hoping that in regards to hilly challenging ski races, that some of these talented athletes will say “bring it on”.

  • Tim Kelley

    October 8, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Marty – you should remember that this exact type of course was done in the 70’s. In 1977 a course for the US Nationals at Lyndonville, VT wound up through fields until it got to the top of the Lyndon Outing Club ski hill. It then descended Alpine trails, with gates to control speed. The final drop was a screamer. A VT state trooper clocked Doug Peterson at 44 mph. Not bad for classic skis of that era, no stonegrinding and no Cera F.

    Time seems to show us that there are really very few new ideas in xc ski racing format that come out of the FIS / World Cup organizers. Mostly it’s repackaged formats that have been around since the 70’s in North America. Heck – I remember not too ong ago there was much FIS hoopla about urban sprints and two man team sprint relay events and how these “new” events would excite the fans. That’s funny – because I remember racing a two man sprint relay in an urban area, the front lawn of the Hartford, Conn. capital building, back in the mid 70’s.

    Another thing to note is the longevity of ski racing formats. Back in the 70’s the Dannon Series (the Supertour of the times) pushed new formats to popularize the sport: sprint relays, night races, urban races, races at Alpine ski hills. But did these fad formats persevere? Nope, they continue to drift in out of fad. The only constant over the years has been marathon racing. That was big back then, and even bigger now.

  • kwikgren

    October 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    How about a marathon with the big hills included. That course in Thunder Bay for example was awe inspiring. I was there in 94 as a spectator for the pre-worlds and skied part of the course and that was the fastest I ever skied in a machine set track. On the citizen level, the Noquemenon marathon has some decent downhills and finishes three hundred meters lower than the start. Plus it was icy enough to put me on my ass twice last year!

  • Reese

    October 9, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    gosh I hope this happens

  • sportalaska

    October 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm


    Name of the event/series: Timex Skiathlom (yes, with an “m”) if I remember correctly.

    I remember well that screaming downhill at the Lyndon Outing Club at SRNC. After “summiting”, you descended through fields, then go on an alpine trail. Halfway down the alpine trail was a sharp right turn (either that or hit a fence) then a steep ascent, around the top of the fence, then down the bottom 1/2 of the hill — and a turn with double tracks set at the bottom of the hill where you hit 40MPH.


    John Estle

  • nexer

    October 16, 2010 at 6:03 am

    Will they get to change skis at the top?

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