Despite stellar race results for the team last season, Chris Cook is the only goat left in the Steinbock herd for the 2010-11 season, and he has moved back to his hometown of Rheinlander, Wisconsin. Two others are off the elite racing circuit: Zack Simons went back to school, and Andrew Johnson took a coaching position with the University of Vermont.
That leaves Cook to tend to the business side of the organization as well as his race efforts, which will get underway with nothing less than World Cup level events. As the overall winner of the 2009-2010 SuperTour and the leader of the SuperTour sprint series, the 30-year-old qualified to race in Europe as a part of the U.S. Ski Team for the first World Cup races of this season.
The team was well on its way to growing its herd last spring. They applied for funding and targeted sponsors. But with the economy still sluggish and some major grant applications falling through this year, Steinbock Racing was unable to offer the level of support that they needed to commit to the team. The result was that athletes who had showed interest in joining for 2010-2011 opted to stay with their local clubs for the season, Cook explained, adding that he is still hopeful that this will change in the future.
However, Cook is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He sees their choice to stay with their clubs as a sign that the club structure and support for cross-country skiing in North America is improving.
“The clubs and organizations across the United States have gotten good at raising funds and support for senior skiers, and that’s good for the sport,” Cook said, noting that when he graduated from college in 2003, there were only two or three teams nationwide. Now, they have multiplied, he added.
Ready to race
Being a one-goat herd is no picnic, but Cook feels confident going into the racing season. He comes off one of his best mountain biking seasons, and feels as fit as ever despite not having trained on snow during the summer. On November 15, he leaves for Sweden, where he will join the US Ski Team for the World Cup season opener in Gällivare, Sweden on November 20.
“I’ve been training hard, and I think I’ll get dialed in quickly once I get on snow,” Cook said.
There are no hitches in Cook’s motivation, and he has no problem getting the workouts done. With a decade of experience training and racing at the international level, including the 2006 Olympics and more than 30 World Cup starts, Cook knows the drill – and he knows how to design his own training plan.
“When you’ve been around this level for this long, you know what works for you and what doesn’t,” Cook said, adding that he still works closely with his former coach, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover.
With the 2011 World Championships in Oslo as his overall season goal, Cook is ready to get down to work. In order to make the Worlds team, Cook knows he’ll have to deliver solid results both at the U.S. National Championships in January, and in the early season races.
The World Cup opener in Gällivare features a 15-kilometer skate race and a relay. Cook hopes to make the relay team, but doesn’t have great expectations for the 15 k.
“The 15 k freestyle event is not one that has been a great success for me so far,” he said, explaining that his biggest goal for the Gällivare races is to regain the feel for the snow and just get the routine down.
The following weekend, Cook moves on to Kuusamo, Finland, with the U.S. Ski Team. The Finland stop features events more to Cook’s taste: a 15-kilometer classic race and a classic sprint.
But his final World Cup stop, in Davos, Switzerland, December 11 and 12, is what Cook is looking forward to the most: a 15-kilometer classic and a freestyle sprint.
“By then, I should be fully changed over and dialed in on the snow. And I’m a fan of the 15K classic. It’s always been one of the most enjoyable races for me,” Cook said.
“Especially on the sprint courses, it’s a lot different going to a venue for the first time. A huge part of the racing is getting to know the courses. When you’ve got the experience and you’re comfortable with the course, that’s one more thing you can cross off the list and not have to worry about,” Cook said.
As for his chances to make the Worlds team, Cook said there are a lot of unknowns, but he’ll give it his best shot.
“I’m not sure of the team selection process or how many they’ll even take. I try not to think about those things,” Cook said. “I know I have to race hard and do well. I’ll just have to let the chips fall where they may.”
Long-term goal: growing the herd
“I really wanted to continue the team and keep the name out there, even if it’s only me. It has been so much fun running it and being accountable for everything the team puts out there. I maintain the web site, do the Twitter and have a Facebook page,” Cook said. Over time, he said that his goal is to grow Steinbock racing back into a team. Whether that happens next season or over time is still too early to predict, Cook said.
To attract more athletes, Cook is pursuing different avenues. This year, he is getting involved with skiers at the high school level and trying to extend an arm to juniors and younger skiers. That is exactly the kind of attitude that his sponsor Ian Harvey with Toko USA admires in Cook. He has worked with Cook as a sponsor for five years, on and off.
“Cook is a representative for Toko, he has a good personality and we’re proud to sponsor him,” Harvey said, explaining that results are only one of the factors he looks for when deciding to sign an athlete.
“I look for results, but more importantly, I look for a person with enthusiasm for cross-country skiing and who enjoys working with other people. Chris is that kind of guy. I think he could easily grow his team,” Harvey said.
Cook is also doing more online community outreach, putting a lot of effort into the Steinbock Racing web site and promoting the team on social media.
The transition to a one-man show has definitely been a learning experience, but Cook said he is enjoying the team management part of the job as well, noting that he feels like he has plenty of resources to draw on when he needs to. Time is the bigger issue, but he sees light in the end of the tunnel there too.
“I still have Zack and Andrew to help me when I have questions about the web site. There are only so many hours in a day to take care of everything, but once we’re racing and traveling and staying in hotels, you’re searching for things to do, so I think it will be just fine,” Cook said.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.