All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Just about every athlete we talked to at the Royal Palace Sprint in Stockholm raved about the venue, and it was easy to see why.
The location, literally on the steps of the King of Sweden’s home, overlooking the bay, cannot be beat, but the additional details that might not be evident on camera take it to another level.
First of all, there is something special about riding the subway to a ski race. Oslo, Milan and Stockholm all share that experience, with the later two obviously featuring the more urban environment.
The Stockholm sprint is actually on one of many small islands that make up part of the city.
Upon emerging from the station, the visitor heads uphill, away from the water, through narrow, twisting cobbled streets, lined with small shops, cafes and, best of all, bakeries.
The feeling is more reminiscent of Italy than Norway.
At the high point, one emerges into a series of plazas and courtyards surrounded by old churches, a few museums, and extensions of the palace. This is European old, not North America old—a completely different scale.
The contrast of this setting with the circus of World Cup ski racing is somehow beautiful. The Norwegian wax truck against the massive stone buildings, the race office in a museum, the press center around the corner on a small side street, through ancient wooden doors, Marit Bjørgen et al jogging down the cobbles for warm-ups all combine for a surreal scene.
Interviewing Ola Vigen Hattestad as he heads for the bus to Falun, dragging is rolling duffle across the cobbles, it clatters along—he could just as easily be any city-dweller headed for the train station for out-of-town business.
City sprints require such an intensive effort to pull off, and the resources that are exhausted—financial and environmental seem extreme.
Trucking thousands of cubic meters of snow into a major urban area only to haul it away again a day later seems wasteful in the extreme, and contrary to many of the traditions of the sport.
Cross-country skiing has always been about skiing in the woods. What place does it have downtown?
But if that is set aside, city sprints may be the best in terms of pure experience, in large part due to the reality altering results of taking something from its established place and putting it somewhere completely contradictory.
Moscow missed out on the chance, when Russia would not allow the sprint there to be held in the Red Square, despite the ski association’s best efforts.
Suburban races seem like the worst of both worlds.
A little crazy can go a long way. Goran Nilsson, Chief of Competition in Stockholm told us that you have to be a little nuts to be part of this type of event—in a good way.
Crazy often begets unique.
Dusseldorf, along the Rhine, with the fast, flat twisty course is supposedly great in its own right.
Drammen in front of more fans than are feasible in such a small area, climbing to the looming church and now Milan, in the heart of the fashion capital of the world, on the lawn of an ancient palace, both bring their own elements and appeal (bratwurst and gelato perhaps?).
In Stockholm, crowds grew larger as the day progressed and people got off work.
The course was packed along its entire length, and with no tickets, no entries and exits, the event was a classic city street performance where any passer-by can stop and have a look.
Of course in Sweden there were more than casual observers, and the crowd carried plenty of passion for the sport—particularly directed at the home skiers.
Skiing in such a setting takes the whole experience to another level, as the athletes will attest to.
It is hard to describe the actual feeling of double poling past the Royal Guard, sweeping around the hairpin with the bay opening up ahead.
It is much easier to put words to the actual skiing, and how tough it is.
For anyone who thinks “those hills aren’t that big, I could double pole up that,” you are wrong.
Doing a handful of loops without kick wax is another reminder of what a completely different level World Cup athletes are at when compared to the recreational racers.
Not a bad day at the office—take the train to work, stop on the walk from the station to get a cappuccino and traditional Swedish pastry, continue across the cobblestones as the city stirs to life, time for a quick ski, and then watch the best in the world duke it out in a truly royal setting—unforgettable.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.