IMHO: The Most Challenging Cross-Country World Cup Courses

Jason AlbertJune 4, 2019
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla leads American Jessie Diggins and Norway’s Ragnhild Haga during the 2018 Holmenkollen women’s 30 k freestyle mass start at the World Cup in Oslo, Norway. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

At the close of the season, after some striding and skating on some heavy courses, FasterSkier sent out a query to get some athletes’ opinions on which course (distance and sprint) was the most difficult? We also asked which specific World Cup climb was the deepest-dig grind.

Here are the responses. We’ve included some course profiles for reference at the end of the piece.

In your opinion what World Cup distance course is the most difficult and why do you find this course to be difficult?

Andrew Young: Lillehammer. I think I’ve raced 4 different 5k race loops there. All of them are hard. It’s a combination of a few things. There is a very little flat. The few flat sections come after long uphills so you have no speed through them. The downhills are very steep and very fast – so they are over quickly making the uphill/work to downhill/rest ratio pretty tough. In classic, a lot of the climbs are on the edge of diagonal stride or herringbone. So either you burn a lot of energy and stay in the track or you go slower and herringbone.

Andy NewellLillehammer or Ruka. Lillehammer has some massive sustained climes on it, maybe the longest being in the 4+ minute range. The downhills are also extremely fast with big sweeping corners in them. This means less time for the legs to recover. Ruka is difficult because of the sheer steepness of the climbs. There isn’t a venue in the US that compares to the grades of the Ruka hills. It takes me by surprise every year I race there.

Sadie Bjornsen: Davos- Sometimes I think the “easier” the course, the harder the race. Davos is at altitude, and because it doesn’t have any “huge” hills, there are also no extended rests, so it is just constant “work”.

Rosie Brennan: Holmenkollen is the hardest course in my opinion. It has the most climbing and more importantly, the climbs are almost all that very challenging grade that you want to kick up but have to have very good kick and be very strong to do so. I find the grade of climbs to be a more challenging factor than the length or number of climbs in most courses.

Charlotte Kalla: Lillehammer, because they have long uphills and quick downhills. It demands a lot of your capacity when you don’t get a long resting time.

Jessie Diggins: First off, it’s a little tricky, because everyone has their opinion on what makes a “good” World Cup course or what makes it “hard”.

For example, Davos is one of the flatter World Cup courses out there, but it’s incredibly hard because there’s almost no rest and it’s at altitude. Falun is a really hard course, but it’s downhills provide more rest than Lillehammer, so does that make it easier overall? You’re probably going to get a lot of conflicting answers, but here are my thoughts on it!

I think the Holmenkollen is the hardest. Somehow, this course feels like you’re always climbing without any rest at all. The downhills are really fast compared to longer more sustained climbs on the uphill on the red loop (the longer loop) and on the shorter blue loop, the downhills are all curved so you can’t get any rest, and the uphills are steeper.

I think this course is also one of the fairest courses on the World Cup, because the course is wide enough to pass at pretty much any point out there. It’s hard enough that people can’t catch a free ride the entire way, and it really separates the best in terms of fitness and technique.

Noah Hoffman: “Most difficult” is super ambiguous. “Most difficult” for me or “most difficult” in the traditional sense of the term? For me, anything flat where I have to generate sustainable high speed is going to scare me much more than the hilliest courses. I crave and live for the hilly courses. Fast flat courses that I dread include Toblach (old course), Ulricehamn and Quebec. The courses that are “most difficult” in the traditional sense of the term are Holmenkollen, Val di Fiemme, Otepaa, Kuusamo and Sochi. Those are also my favorite courses on tour, the ones where I had the most success. Of course, you can also throw altitude into the mix, which also played to my strength. The highest venue is La Clusaz. If you want my single vote for the “most difficult” for me, I’d say Ullricehamn. And for the “most difficult” in the traditional sense, I’d say Val di Fiemme (World Champs Course).

Which specific World Cup (distance course) climb is the most difficult?

Andrew Young: Mörderbacken (Murder Hill), Falun is probably the longest, toughest individual climb. Excluding Alpe Cermis. Other climbs of note are “the long hill” in Lillehammer – a series of 3 shorter climbs with short “flat” sections in-between. The final climb in Sochi – two climbs linked together with a 100m flat in-between. All of these climbs are pushing 3 minutes, if not more, of almost pure climbing for me. As I am one of the biggest guys racing world cup any climb at that length is pure hell.

Andy Newell: Lillehammer’s 4+ minute climb: It’s a tough grade. IF you feel good you can V2, if you are bonked it’s a slow grind V1 which makes it even worse. Either way, you need to mix up a lot of technique changes. It’s sustained but you have to constantly be changing between V1 and V2.

Sadie Bjornsen: Holmenkollen: It literally just keeps going up. Who knew you could ski straight uphill for 10 minutes without stopping. And then the downhill goes by so fast that you seem to be only climbing.

Charlotte Kalla: Tour de Ski’s Alpe de Cermis. It happens only one time a year and you don’t need to use that technique for uphills anywhere else.

Jessie Diggins: I would say the long climb on the Lillehammer course that goes from the bottom to the top. It’s a really long climb (several minutes) but it varies greatly from steeper pitches to almost flat sections, and that’s what makes it so hard – you have to be constantly pushing incredibly hard or you’ll find yourself losing seconds with every transition in pitch.

Noah HoffmanThe “most difficult” for me to ski effectively are the punchy climbs that are <30sec in Quebec. The “most difficult” in the traditional sense is probably the climb on the far side of the ski jump landing hill in Otepää.

Quebec is full of <30 second climbs that guys who are really effective at generating power (guys like Sim) can ski fundamentally differently from the way I’m able to ski them. I try to ski them like I ski a 4-minute climb and it’s just not very fast. I can’t generate enough power and don’t have good enough technique to ski them how they can be skied.

The far climb in Otepaa is close to 3 and a half minutes and it’s steep. It essentially is bottom to top of a K120 landing hill. It’s awesome.

Which World Cup sprint course is the most difficult?

Andrew YoungLillehammer – it’s a tough sprint course. There is a lot of climbing, and it’s a fairly long course. Pacing is an issue, it’s very easy to be over cautious of the length of the course and the final big climb. A lot of sprinters start to easy and never really get up to speed. On the flip side, if you start too hard you can haemorrhage time on the last climb. The climbs are also an awkward gradient where you never really knows which technique they should be using.

Val Mustair – The course in itself is quite normal. But this is the highest altitude we race at on the world cup circuit. Sprinting at 1700m is horrible. Whether you are acclimatised or not, it’s going to hurt.

Drammen – It used to be kick wax versus double poling that made it tricky. Now they’ve added diagonal zones. The finish is higher than the start giving it the unusual uphill finish straight. The awkward transitions on the first climb. The long left hand bend at the top of the climb. The ever-running battle of when to change from double pole to diagonal on the final climb. The whole thing is just awkward. Not to mention very limited time testing skis or skiing on the track before the race.

Andy Newell:  Sprints are funny. Flat sprints can sometimes be the hardest.. especially if the conditions are slow. Flat sprints mean you need to be working the whole time and it will be a leg burning lactate fest by the end. Even a short downhill in a sprint provides a little bit of needed rest to the legs. For sprinting it kind of depends on a combination of the length and terrain. Ruka has a monster climb but it’s one of the shortest sprints we do so nobody thinks it’s that difficult of a course. Courses like Sochi and Cogne are tough because they require a lot of grinding work and have technical quick downhills, and are both over 3.25 mins

Cogne this year was a tough one because of the altitude and any time there is a sustained climb right from the start in a sprint combined with a long running time it’s going to be tough.

Sadie BjornsenThis year I think the Val Mustair course was the hardest. The climb was super steep, and the downhill was so technical, while also trying to work the bumps they had put into the course. The combination of constant work and altitude made it a long sprint course with absolutely no rest.

Charlotte Kalla:  Kuusamo. It is a tough finish and you have to keep push hard in the finishing sprint after you have taken the challenging Kuusamo-hill.

Jessie Diggins: There are a lot of courses that are difficult simply because they’re impossible to pass on, so you have to get out in the front right away or you have a huge struggle ahead of you trying to get to the front (Seefeld, Cogne, Dresden, Val Mustair, Falun). But in terms of pure difficulty on a course that gives a fair chance to pass, I’d say Lillehammer or Ruka. Ruka, because it ends with that monster steep climb onto flat terrain where everyone is gassed but has to double pole that long finishing stretch. And Lillehammer, because there are two main climbs that really test your sprinting endurance.

Noah Hoffman: I don’t sprint (obviously) but I had to race my fair share of World Cup sprints in tours. I hated flat sprint courses. Toblach in particular.

Double click the images to enlarge. 

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Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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