There were few participants in the Tour de Ski who were still standing after the finish of that race’s final stage, the brutal ascent up the Alpe Cermis in Italy. But an even more difficult challenge may await those athletes next season: the inaugural Uphill Trophy, a new competition format tentatively slotted into the World Cup calendar in Poland next February.
The race packs a whopping 500 meters of climbing into its first four kilometers—nearly 100 more than the ascent of the Alpe. But reach the top, and you’re only halfway done: there’s still 500 vertical meters of descending, over the same distance, back to the finish.
While most ski fans worldwide were paying attention the 2011 World Championships in Oslo two weekends ago, a handful of athletes and organizers were hard at work 650 miles away, in the Polish resort town of Szklarska Poreba. They were taking part in one of two test events for next year’s Uphill Trophy race—the guinea pigs for an event that could see stars like Marit Bjoergen and Justyna Kowalczyk taking part next season.
The Uphill Trophy isn’t a done deal yet—another trial run will take place later in the season, and the idea still must be approved by FIS’s cross-country committee in a meeting in June. But despite drawing some criticism from purists in the fall, the format is beginning to crystallize.
“I hope that the idea will be good for the sport,” said Jürg Capol, the cross-country race director for the International Ski Federation (FIS), in an interview.
Capol, a former Swiss national team member, scouted the race trails for the Uphill Trophy in a visit to Szklarska Poreba in January.
In total, the course is eight kilometers long, half of it climbing, and half of it descending, with a little bit of rolling terrain at the top. The uphill, Capol said, is less steep than the one at the Tour de Ski, while the descent is also manageable.
“It’s not a black track,” Capol said. “It’s a blue track, which I would not say is a problem. When I skied, I came down [easily].”
In October, Capol had said that the downhill might include giant slalom-style gates for skiers to navigate through. But after skiing the course, he said that they would only be necessary in the first part of the descent.
“Two thirds of the downhill…is in the forest, and it’s maybe 20 meters wide,” Capol said. “So you don’t need a lot of gates, because you follow the natural way.”
The top part, though, could include a few. And the skiers would have to go through them, Capol said.
“You have to follow the course,” he said. Miss a gate? “Then you are out. Or you have to go back.”
Retracing your steps for 15 seconds to get around a gate, Capol added, wouldn’t be as much of a death sentence in cross-country as in alpine skiing, where runs can be over as quickly as a minute.
In the test race, the winning time for the men was just under 28 minutes. Forty-three skiers took part, among them Polish national team member Mariusz Michalek, who raced the Tour de Ski in January and placed 25th of 36 starters in the ascent of the Alpe Cermis.
In the trial run, Michalek crashed on the descent and fell behind the eventual winner, Radek Sretr. Michalek ultimately finishing in third place, nearly two minutes back, and afterwards, a press release from the organizers quoted him as saying that the Uphill Trophy was tougher than the climb up the Alpe Cermis.
Capol, one of the architects of the Tour de Ski, said that his hope is that the Uphill Trophy will be another “angle” for the sport, another “story to sell”—especially in next year’s calendar, which lacks a World Championships or an Olympics.
He said that the race had the potential to make for “very good” TV, though that’s not guaranteed.
“It’s [an] investment that the Polish TV has to do,” he said. “Of course, if you have the right tools to film it, and enough cameras over there, then it can be really interesting.”
If the Uphill Trophy is indeed approved by FIS’s cross-country committee in June, the event will go off in the middle of next February—with the potential for extra prize money to be awarded, or other small changes to give the race “special status,” Capol said.
If the Uphill Trophy is rejected, World Cup races will still be held in Poland on the same weekend, on homologated courses a few kilometers away.
Capol also said that he had also made a site visit to the Red Square in Moscow, where FIS hopes to hold a sprint race next season.
The test event for that sprint was held in early February, at a Moscow amusement park called Gorky Park, but Capol said that the Red Square is still his first priority.
According to Capol, the biggest challenge in holding a race on that site is logistical—a few years ago, he said, the Red Square hosted an event for snowmobiles that was noisy and resulted in damage, leaving officials wary.
“They’re not that open,” he said.
Capol said that the proposal for the race has been presented to the appropriate officials, and that the Russian Ski Federation is on the case. A decision on the Moscow sprint will also come after the June FIS meetings.
As for the terrain? A sprint on the Red Square would be no Uphill Trophy, that’s for sure: Capol said that the event would be mostly flat. But there’s still one slight uphill, he said, that would be “great [on] this course.”
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.