With Warm Conditions, Many Crashes, and No Freezing in Sight, Questions of Olympic Course Safety Return

Chelsea LittleFebruary 10, 2014
Mashed potato snow on the trails as Jean Philippe Le Guellec of Canada leads a pack of skiers in today's Olympic biathlon pursuit.
Mashed potato snow on the trails as Jean Philippe Le Guellec of Canada leads a pack of skiers in today’s Olympic biathlon pursuit.

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SOCHI, Russia – When Jean Philippe Le Guellec crashed on a fast downhill corner in today’s Olympic pursuit race, he was hardly alone.

True, the crash may have been extra painful for Le Guellec, who was in the lead at the time with about half of the race under his belt. But two other athletes crashed on the same corner on the first lap, and then one crashed in the same spot a second time.

“The course itself is very, very technical,” said U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb, who is serving as the technical delegate for the Olympic biathlon races. “You go into these downhill corners pretty fast. You have to be really on it to get around them okay.”

Course safety was brought up as a concern by athletes after the World Cup test event here last winter, when Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov crashed on an S-turn and went flying over an embankment into the forest. Organizers have since removed that corner from the race course, but as athletes found today, that didn’t mean that the course got so much easier.

The crashes were a new feature of Olympic racing, as the men’s sprint went off more or less without a hitch on Saturday. In Sunday’s women’s sprint, Ekaterina Shumilova of Russia crashed badly and broke the stock off of her rifle.

Le Guellec chalked all the crashes up to the fact that the snow was considerably slushier than it had been for the previous men’s race on Saturday.

“It was really hard today, it was completely different conditions,” he said. “It was super soft, unlike in the sprint. And it made it really hard to manage on the downhills, because the snow was really heavy and there were a lot of deep ruts. And it’s hard to step turn with little steps because you have to step really high to get over the ruts.”

Other racers agreed that the skiing was quite challenging – and not just on that one corner where four of 59 racers crashed.

“The downhill with the big corner there, I thought was okay,” U.S. biathlete Tim Burke said. “It was tricky for sure, especially if you’re going through three people wide. But it was doable. One of the other downhills, though, was so deep that it was just really tough to keep your skis going straight.”

Race winner Martin Fourcade, too, nearly fell coming down the hill into stadium for the final time.

The reason for the crashes – two of which came on the very first lap – seemed to be just that racers were not expecting such tough conditions. Besides the fact that they had not competed in such deep slush on Saturday, conditions seemed to have changed slightly since warm-up.

“From where I skied today, I didn’t see how you could fall,” Le Guellec’s coach Jean Paquet said. “But with fast skis, with good speed… they will try to address it for sure, I’m thinking.”

Cobb, however, said that there wasn’t much more that could be done.

“The problem that we face is that it has been really warm for the past few days,” Cobb said after he finished up his work for the day. “Today it was plus five, plus six [degrees Celsius] during the day, and it didn’t really get below freezing last night. So the conditions are going to be soft. We have almost two weeks of racing going on here so we can’t really salt the course at this point, especially in a head-to-head race where conditions are the same for everybody.”

While salting the course would initially freeze it up and speed up the conditions, Cobb explained that after about four days the course would begin to resemble “mashed potatoes.” He didn’t want to face those conditions for an entire week of racing, but said that salting the courses for Thursday and Friday’s individual competitions may be inevitable. He was hoping to at least make it through tomorrow’s women’s pursuit without using salt.

There is no end in sight for the warm weather. Nighttime freezing is not forecasted until sometime next week.

“It’s really hard to get a good course when it’s warming up all day,” Cobb said. “It’s a south-facing slope with really aggressive turns. I’m happy with how the organizing committee did everything that we asked, they got on the grooming as soon as possible and then got off it as soon as possible.”

Burke suggested that some snow could be removed from the downhills, to make the slush less deep.

“They could do the same thing they did on the uphills today,” Burke said. “They were really soft when we were warming up, and they kind of scraped them down to make it not so deep. But they just left the downhills the way they were, and I think they could definitely improve on that.”

Cobb, however, indicated that the technique was already in use, and course officials had been hand-raking the downhills in between each lap of skiing. All that was left was to hope that the skiers could recognize and adjust to the conditions.

While cross country skiers had today off from competition, the conditions and crashes in the biathlon race, situated on a trail system which adjoins the cross country venue, may indicate what’s to come for the world’s best skiers in tomorrow’s sprints and later in the week.

“You definitely have to be tactically aware and smart when the conditions are bad,” Cobb said. “It’s hard because when it gets deep sometimes there’s a little bit of structure to the ruts underneath, so you step on what looks like a smooth surface, and actually it’s got something that’s not smooth underneath it. That can throw you…. The athletes, obviously they’re World Cup athletes and they’re good at it. Sometimes you make a mistake and sometimes it’s just bad luck to get caught in a rut that you couldn’t see.”

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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