FeatureGeneralNewsOlympicsRacingOlympics Preview: What We Know About the Courses and Venue

Gavin KentchJanuary 18, 2022

The season’s biggest races start in less than a month at a venue that is by all accounts well-designed, but also has yet to host an official FIS race. Here’s some of what is currently known about the National Cross-Country Skiing Centre in Zhangjiakou, 100-plus miles northwest of Beijing in the Hebei province of China.

The Courses

The races will be held at altitude. The stadium is located at an elevation of roughly 1,650 meters above sea level (appr. 5,400 feet), according to the homologation certificates, and the 8.3 k loop reaches an elevation of 1,721 meters. The last comparable global championship was the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the stadium in nearby Soldier Hollow is between those two heights. It is not coincidence that the presumptive American Olympic team is spending this month in some or all of Seefeld, AUT, Livigno, ITA or Park City, UT to log more time at altitude in advance of the Games.

You can find full homologation certificates for all of the Zhangjiakou courses here. Here are excerpts from some of the course profiles. Note the color key, which indicates that an A-Climb is highlighted in yellow, a B-Climb in orange, descents in blue, and undulating terrain in green. 

Zhangjiakou sprint course. (screenshot from FIS homologation certificate)
Zhangjiakou 3.3 k course. (screenshot from FIS homologation certificate)
Zhangjiakou 5 k course. (screenshot from FIS homologation certificate)
Zhangjiakou 8.3 k course. (screenshot from FIS homologation certificate)

Going off of simple math alone, the sprint course features a maximum climb of 30 meters, the same as the sprint course in Falun, SWE. The distance courses feature roughly 39 meters of climbing per kilometer, at the high end of the allowable homologation range but very much in line with other championship courses. You can consult the homologation certificates for a more nuanced look at overall gradient, course flow, and associated statistics.

More holistically, the 14-meter climb back up to the stadium, in the final half-kilometer of all courses, is notable, at least in contrast to venues that feature a downhill into the stadium. A follow-up article in the next few weeks will compare this aspect of the Zhangjiakou courses to other recent championship courses.

A recent Instagram post from Rene Altenburger-Koch, a tech for the German biathlon team, provides a firsthand look at skiing some parts of the courses, including the stadium. Additional ephemera may be gleaned from other Instagram posts tagged as coming from Zhangjiakou.

Intriguingly, rumor has it that the warmup track at the venue is underground. This is perhaps less noteworthy in track and field, where major international stadia often have a small warmup track near the athletes’ call room, near bathrooms and out of view of spectators. It seems more notable when it appears to describe a ski tunnel–like environment.

Conditions

It is widely expected to be cold and dry. This was presaged in a research paper in the Journal of Science in Sport and Exercise blurbed on this site last May, which was summarized as stating, “The Beijing venue has a very high probability of temperatures near the lower limit permitted for FIS races (-20C). Combining cold with higher elevation and low humidity results in suggested pacing adjustments to ensure good lung function at the end of races.” Matt Whitcomb, in discussing the Period 1 races held near this temperature limit early in this World Cup season, similarly referred to these races as being good prep for the Olympics.

Screenshot image of Olympic venue in late December 2021, taken from video published on news site ruptly.tv. (original video)

Expect entirely manmade snow throughout the venue; natural snowfall in the region is negligible, and two weeks ago the ground was bare everywhere outside the ski trails and stadium (see background of photo above, or background of this Instagram post). A comparable preview article published two weeks ago on SkiRacing.com and discussing the alpine venue at Xiaohaituo Mountain (A+ title: “What to expect when you’re inspecting”) unpacks some implications of this for waxing and ski performance. This is not to say that precisely the same conditions will be present in Zhangjiakou, dozens of miles away at a different venue, but rather to flag some relevant issues to consider here.

For the alpine runs, for example, that author foresaw “average annual snowfall of 5cm/2 inches, high winds, very low temperatures, sunny days and clear nights,” all of which also describes likely conditions in Zhangjiakou. She also noted the possibility of “sand blowing in from Mongolia and debris from the massive earthmoving during trail construction” being present in the snow. She described one wax manufacturer formulating a “special series of Beijing waxes for extreme cold temperatures, extremely aggressive snow and massive daily temperature swings due to sun exposure.” This is all likely broadly applicable to conditions at Zhangjiakou as well.

What about the waxing

To paint in very broad strokes here on a potentially touchy subject, the American skiers appear to have had “good” skis for some races in Pyeongchang, but, shall we say, “not as good” skis for some races in Seefeld and Oberstdorf. Given that euphemistic use of “not as good,” keep in mind as you read this section the norms that generally govern reporting on or public statements about the efficacy of wax jobs in this country: By the time an athlete is expressing polite concern about her wax job to the American press, it is probably the case that her skis were, objectively speaking, noticeably worse than other athletes’.

You may have seen this photo before: Jessie Diggins (14) edges Sweden’s Stina Nilsson (r) for gold, while Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla (l) races to bronze, in the women’s freestyle team sprint final at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Photo: Noah Hoffman)

Regarding Pyeongchang, the 2018 Winter Olympics, if you’re reading this website you are probably familiar with a certain highlight that ends with Chad Salmela’s epochal cri de cœur (“Here comes Diggins!”). But rewind 56 seconds, to the descent off the top of the final downhill coming into the stadium, and you will see Diggins rocket into contention midway though the downhill. Her skis were, it appears from this video, at worst “competitive,” and at best “fastest in the field.” The air temperature for this race was -5.4 C and the snow temp was -10.1 C, according to the official results.

Regarding Seefeld, the 2019 World Championships, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen told this website, following the 30-kilometer freestyle at the end of two weeks of racing, that while she generally felt good on course, “It’s just so hard because you can’t control what you have on your feet a lot of the time.” She added, “At this level you have to have your skis at a level that can compete if you’re going to fight for a medal or even top 10, top 20. And there were some races this week that that was not the case.” Air temp for this race was +5.6 C and the snow temp was -0.3 C, according to the official results. (Disclosure: In this same article, teammate Jessie Diggins said, of the same race in the same conditions, “I had the best skis in the world.”)

Jessie Diggins races in the skiathlon in Oberstdorf, February 2021. (photo: Modica/NordicFocus)

Finally, regarding Oberstdorf, the 2021 World Championships, the ever-upbeat Diggins contemporaneously told this website, following a rough day in the skiathlon for the entire American women’s team, “I think that is so promising to see how well [my teammates] skied given the disadvantage that we had today. I think, to me, that is really impressive because it is easy to put together a good race when you have the fastest wax in the field. It is harder to just never give up and keep fighting [in less advantageous conditions], and to me, that is so much more impressive.” Air temp for this race was +3.2 C and the snow temp was -0.6 C.

Writing several months later in the Boulder Nordic Sport catalog (page 6 of this PDF), U.S. Ski Team coach and wax tech Jason Cork spoke more bluntly when discussing this race and the championships more broadly: “I thought Jessie should medal in the 10km, and she missed the bronze by 5.1 seconds. I thought she could medal in the skiathlon; I’ve never been more sick and angrier about screwing up skis as I did that afternoon. We’d hoped to finally get the women the championship relay podium they’ve been chasing since 2013, and we weren’t able to deliver skis competitive enough to make it a reality. It was warm and soft, course access was severely limited, we got outsmarted and outgunned. We stood in the way of a lot of dreams in Oberstdorf.”

Zach Caldwell, for his part, has voiced the opinion that the Americans’ relative lack of tech resources, specifically the lack of an on-site stonegrinder and a centralized grind system, has harmed them in the last two championships held in warm and sloppy conditions. If some of these premises are correct, then forecast waxing conditions in Zhangjiakou that are far more akin to those in Pyeongchang than to those in Seefeld or Oberstdorf could be beneficial for the American tech team. (Find more insights into the challenges ski technicians will likely face during the Games in the latest episode of The Devon Kershaw Show, featuring Caldwell. Spoiler alert: These dynamics are in fact a whole lot more complicated than just “cold = easy, warm = difficult,” and Caldwell knows a heck of a lot more about this area than this reporter, so you should probably listen to him.

The first cross-country race in this year’s 2022 Winter Olympic Games will be the women’s skiathlon, held on February 5.

Related reading:

Olympics Preview: Team Quotas, or, Why as Few as Five American Men Could be Going to Beijing (FasterSkier, December 2021)

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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