Most of the time, the FIS Cross-Country World Cup visits towns and ski trails the racers already know well.
Some venues, like Norway’s Holmenkollen and Switzerland’s Davos, are visited every year. Others, like France’s La Clusaz, are on the schedule every few years but are still always popular.
“I’ve been on the World Cup for ten or eleven years, and we go to the same venues all the time,” the U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen said.
But every once in a while, a new place is thrown into the mix. Last weekend it was Ulricehamn, a town of 10,000 people in southern Sweden.
The rave reviews from athletes, coaches and fans made it clear that Ulricehamn aced their World Cup hosting duties on the first try, giving other venues something to aspire to.
The venue even faced some significant challenges, like how to prepare a race course in above-freezing temperatures. No matter – the races went off without a hitch.
“This was the best World Cup venue of the year — by far,” Canadian skier Devon Kershaw wrote in an email. “The volunteers are so friendly and helpful and to have a five kilometer track with thousands and thousands of supporters lining the whole way was just so much fun. I’ve never raced in an atmosphere like this other than the legendary Holmenkollen.”
Teammate Alex Harvey – who won the 15 k and won bronze in the relay together with Kershaw, Knute Johnsgaard, and Len Valjas – put it this way: there were so many spectators that it was impossible to find a quite moment to oneself.
“On the warmup loop, there were people along the whole course,” Harvey said. “I couldn’t even take a piss in my warm up. Usually I take like six pisses in an hour, and I was like, ‘Man, I just can’t piss!’ There were people everywhere. It was fun. They were cheering my name the whole warmup, and the whole race too. In Scandinavia, they are always a well-educated crowd. This was like a championship crowd, like Falun or Oslo. It was awesome.”
The Ulricehamn organizing committee reported that there were about 30,000 people in attendance each day.
“If you go back and watch all the races (except maybe Lillehammer) this year, there have been like 1000-2000 spectators max,” Kershaw wrote. “Some venues had like 100 people, it seemed. So this was a big improvement… Bringing events to where people actually care and are passionate about the sport is always best, I feel. I mean, as an athlete to race in an atmosphere like this is really motivating. It looks way better on TV, and people are having a great time out there – which is what we want to promote as ski racing (I feel).”
King Carl XVI Gustaf even came to watch Sweden win bronze in the women’s relay and silver in the men’s relay.
“I watched the races on television yesterday and couldn’t help it [to come here],” he told the local newspaper. “I think I’ve had just as much fun as everyone else had here. It has been a fantastic day of skiing in Ulricehamn and extra fun to [hear] the athletes say they felt such powerful public support.”
Anchoring the women’s relay was Hanna Falk, who grew up in Ulricehamn. The King personally congratulated her.
“It seems that all the skiers have been very pleased,” Falk told the Skövde Nyheter newspaper, according to a translation. “I’ve heard many good things from many different countries, so that makes me a bit extra proud.”
The venue’s success over the weekend is already being cited as a reason for other Swedish municipalities to invest into their ski infrastructure. For instance, some in Marcus Hellner’s hometown of Skövde, just over an hour north, would like to see a similar effort.
“It shows that hard work, persistence and courage pays off,” a commentator from Göteborg, the nearest major city, wrote. “That you do not have to be the biggest to be the best is also a nice reminder in these times of centralization … Among the city’s 10,000 residents, there were people who wanted to do something special, people who love their homeland, their sports and who love to show off their hidden treasure for the rest of the world. Talk about daring, talk about winning.”
Ulricehamn is already planning to host another World Cup weekend in 2019, and may continue getting awarded competitions if the success of their first event is any indication.
Meanwhile, the World Cup will return back to North America in March. World Cup Finals were awarded to Quebec after being moved from Tyumen, Russia, due to a doping scandal.
Some athletes felt that Canadian and U.S. ski fans could learn a thing or two about how to earn these rave reviews from athletes – the kinds of reviews that could eventually promote a venue to being a regular or semi-regular World Cup host.
“Of course the fans were wonderful in Quebec last year, but when you see the amount of people on the courses here in Sweden, it is an insane amount,” Stephen said. “I would like to put it our there as a challenge for fans who are close to Quebec to come out. Let’s try to be as big as Sweden there, because the more the athletes have fun… I heard everyone talking about the crowds, on every team, even the Norwegians. When that kind of talk happens, more World Cups are given to that city or host venue.
“All the fans who are thinking about maybe coming up, don’t think about it, just come,” she concluded. “It makes the atmosphere very appealing to the teams, and especially us athletes. It’s really fun.”
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.