WEST YELLOWSTONE, MT – The road to Oslo starts here.
In this unlikely town of 1,500 people that has withstood sub-zero temperatures and nearly two feet of snow over the last few days, the 2011 SuperTour race series is scheduled to kick off Thursday morning with a double sprint qualifier.
After a 24-hour postponement due to cold and the foul weather that stranded timing equipment and officials 100 miles from the competition venue, highways have reopened, and temperatures for Thursday are forecasted to be above the legal limit for racing.
Many of the nation’s top athletes will be in attendance, including Olympians James Southam, Garrott Kuzzy, Caitlin Compton, and Holly Brooks, as well as clubs like Alaska Pacific University (APU), the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Olympic Development Team (SVSEF), and Central Cross Country (CXC).
The double sprint qualifier is the first of its kind in the United States. Skiers will race a 1.65 kilometer classic course at 11 a.m., followed by a nearly-identical skate course an hour later. At stake is $250 to be awarded to the man and woman with the lowest combined time, as well as ranking points that will help determine the roster of the team that the United States sends to the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Norway.
Double qualifiers are rare, even non-existent at the international level. But U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Nordic Director John Farra, who oversees the SuperTour, said that West Yellowstone’s trails are too narrow to support six-person heats. Officials put in hours of labor over the summer to get their course to meet the International Ski Federation’s standards for sprint qualifiers—but since the trail system was situated entirely within U.S. Forest Service land, there were limits to the amount of work that could be done.
“West is maybe not the right place to be having heats,” Farra said. “We just don’t have the width—we can’t just go out there with chainsaws in a national forest.”
APU Head Coach Erik Flora said that his team practiced a double qualifier a few weeks ago, in Alaska. He said the format has value—even though he wouldn’t want to see it on the circuit every week.
“You go out and hit your first prelim, and even though you’ve changed techniques, you…have another chance to loosen up and do it again,” he said. “It’s kind of instantaneous feedback—really good for learning how to race.”
Thursday’s course, especially, will take some mental discipline. It’s a little longer than standard sprint courses, and with slow snow and a healthy dose of climbing, athletes will have to be careful not to go out too hard. West Yellowstone’s altitude of 6,600 feet will not make things any easier.
“This is not a speed course. This is not something where you can just get by without working,” said Brooks, who races for APU. “It’s long and hilly, and I think it’ll really reward people that have a pretty high level of fitness.”
Indeed, the pure sprinters could have a hard time on Thursday. On the women’s side, look for all-arounders like Brooks and Compton to be in contention for the overall, while after her sixth-place finish in last season’s national championship skate sprint, 51-year-old Beth Reid could be a good dark horse pick.
The men’s field is deeper. CXC’s Kuzzy should contend for the top spot, but so should his teammate Brian Gregg. Others in the mix include SVSEF’s Mike Sinnott, and Canadians Graeme Killick, Drew Goldsack, and Graham Nishikawa.
While the long course, the format, and predicted cold temperatures will challenge athletes, one group that faces an even more brutal day are coaches and wax technicians. With two races in two techniques falling within a 60-minute window, a double qualifier will push support staffs to their limit—only pursuit races are more demanding.
Flora was out on the trails Wednesday morning, testing some 90 skis in preparation for the race. He said that APU has two technicians (not including himself), in West Yellowstone to prepare skis for the club’s 18 athletes racing on Thursday. With no trailside wax cabins and a tight competition schedule, Flora said that most of the waxing would be done Wednesday night.
“With the prelims and that kind of timing…with the facilities here, you can’t wax on the side of the trails,” he said. “So, you wax tonight, make your best guess.”
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.