Men at Work: U.S. Ski Team Takes on Torsby Ski Tunnel

Gavin KentchAugust 21, 2022
USST athletes and coaches in the Torsby Ski Tunnel, August 2022. Back row, from left: athletes Johnny Hagenbuch, Kevin Bolger, Finn O’Connell, JC Schoonmaker, Ben Ogden, and Walker Hall. Kneeling, from left: coaches Greta Anderson, Kristen Bourne, and Matt Whitcomb. (photo: François Faivre)

If it’s August, it must be time to ski.

Head Coach Matt Whitcomb and roughly half the men on the U.S. Ski Team, accompanied by a couple of well-known distaff guests, have spent the last week on snow in the Torsby Ski Tunnel in southwest Sweden. They raced in the nearby Inge Bråten Memorial rollerski race earlier today, and will compete in the Toppidrettsveka rollerski series in Norway starting on Thursday. It’s a multi-stage Scandinavian adventure to help prepare for next year’s race season.

American World Cup skiers have pursued a variety of options for summer snow over the years, depending on budget, logistics, travel time, and team size. The Alaskans historically gravitate to Eagle Glacier, spending three one-week camps on snow in the Chugach Mountains between June and August. Athletes from the rest of the country have traveled to one or more of the Snow Farm (New Zealand), Falls Creek (Australia), Sognefjellet (Norway), Dachstein Glacier (Austria), Passo dello Stelvio (Italy), Oberhof ski tunnel (Germany), Torsby ski tunnel (Sweden), or Planica ski tunnel (Slovenia), typically toward the end of the northern-hemisphere summer.

(Elsewhere this summer, Jessie Diggins and Julia Kern are currently midway through a three-week stay in Falls Creek, while several other SMS women are in Oberhof. The Alaskans are generally staying put, hoping for groomed trails at Hatcher Pass in as little as seven weeks from now.)

Early-season skiing at Hatcher Pass, October 6, 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

This year, for Whitcomb and six national-team men, the answer is Torsby. Whitcomb flew across the Atlantic on August 12, joined by athletes Johnny Hagenbuch, Kevin Bolger, Finn O’Connell, JC Schoonmaker, Ben Ogden, and Walker Hall, as well as USST coaches Greta Anderson and Kristen Bourne. Their two-week trip includes a week-plus on snow in Torsby, a rollerski race in nearby Sunne, and rollerski races in the Trondheim region.

This year’s trip roster has “just six men,” Whitcomb said in a phone call while driving to the airport last Friday.

Johnny Hagenbuch, Torsby Ski Tunnel, August 2022. (photo: Greta Anderson)

“We’ve been whittled down after Covid,” he said, which among public names claimed Sophia Laukli after her recent brace of wins in the Stranda Fjord trail race and Lysebotn Opp rollerski race. That said, the American men were joined by well-known Swedish guests Maja Dahlqvist and Frida Karlsson, as well as much of the German team. (Dahlqvist and Bolger are dating.)

So why Torsby? In part because it presents a strong training option on the merits, in part because of money.

As for the training facility, it’s not just the ski tunnel. In addition to the roughly two-kilometer-long ski track inside a refrigerated tunnel, the area also contains “a rollerskiing track, biathlon stadium (outside and in the tunnel), extensive running trails through the surrounding hills and forests, and a fully equipped gym attached to the tunnel,” as Norway-based Canadian athlete Maks Zechel wrote on this site in 2017.

And as for money, Torsby is closer and cheaper than the southern hemisphere. “We weren’t able to fit it into the budget to have a bunch of people go down to New Zealand or Australia, and the Eagle Glacier facility is closed still,” Whitcomb said. “So we wanted to have an option for those that were maybe already on the East Coast or willing to travel. So we’re pretty excited.”

Kevin Bolger leads Ben Ogden, Torsby Ski Tunnel, August 2022. (photo: Greta Anderson)

“It’s been about 10 years since I’ve been to Torsby,” Whitcomb continued. “We brought the women’s team there in 2012 in a joint camp with the Swedes.”

Whitcomb also noted the relative ease of travel within Scandinavia: “In terms of itinerary, it’s a two-hour drive from Oslo [to Torsby]. When we get back to Oslo on the 21st to fly to Trondheim, that’s a 55-minute flight in the middle of the day, so it’s all fairly simple travel once we’re over there. It’s like traveling around New England.”

Another thing in common with New England: klister-cover skiing. Whitcomb described the snow inside the tunnel as manmade – snow guns are visible near the entrance – but as infrequently refreshed. “And so depending on when you’re there, it can be varying degrees of aged snow, but it tends to be fairly stable,” he said. “A variety of classic skis will work, and a variety of waxes will work. Generally a bit of a violet or some sort of 45 base covered tends to work, and some sort of medium grind.”

JC Schoonmaker, left, and Ben Ogden near the entrance of the Torsby Ski Tunnel, August 2022. (photo: Greta Anderson)

The tunnel is a valuable resource, but its terrain is “by no means ideal” as a direct replica of a World Cup course, Whitcomb acknowledged. The tunnel has two hills per lap, Zechel wrote, “which are steeper in one direction and more gradual in the other, making for a great place to work on striding. Most senior men would one-skate the hills at race pace, but they are still steep enough for offset technique work at lower speeds.”

But what does the tunnel have? Snow. Which is, to state the obvious, “a slippery surface,” per Whitcomb. This is specifically opposed to the “surefire kick” of the rollerskis that are most athletes’ go-to summer training modality.

Conditions in the tunnel can sometimes be “mealy,” Whitcomb observes, “even if you’re skating. It requires you to not just set the ski down, but to be able to ride it and negotiate the unpredictable nature of snow. Having a dose of that in the middle of summer has always been, we feel, a beneficial addition to the overall [training] plan.”

Whitcomb drills down on these dynamics when asked about the specific appeal of estival snow, especially what he’s learned over the last two years following no time on snow in summer 2020. Here’s his answer, quoted in full because it’s intriguing:

“One of the things that I have come to believe more and more over the last several years is that all great technique starts with the ability to use our feet well. You have to be able to stand well in your boots. Your boots have to be really comfortable, and that might mean you have to have insoles, or maybe it doesn’t; it might mean you have to have custom boots, maybe it doesn’t.

“And then you have to have a ski that you’re comfortable standing on. And all of that has to do with how comfortable you are with standing on a slippery surface below all of that. It’s like this four-layer deal where you have the body, the boot, the ski, and then the snow. And for anyone that has a hard time being stable on their feet, it’s going to be very difficult to ski well in the rest of the body. And so I think snow definitely allows us to focus by simply dropping our poles and learning to use the feet, just skiing easy for 20 or 30 minutes every session without poles, skating or classic.

“Because for those of us that don’t naturally use our feet well we often tend to use our poles as crutches, and it sort of masks the stiffnesses and the instabilities that we all have, myself included. But you take those poles away and you’re exposed to nothing but your balance, your ability to gain traction by kicking properly. And so that’s something that snow can do for you.”

*   *   *

The plan was to spend 20–25 hours on snow in the tunnel this past week, with secondary workouts on hillier outdoor terrain when necessary. Intensity in the tunnel was focused on speed; “we want to be a little bit mindful of breathing too hard,” Whitcomb noted.

He explained, “The Swedes are often talking about the challenges of coming from outdoor temperatures into the tunnel, which is quite humid – or at least cold, I don’t know if it’s humid – but they feel like it can irritate the lungs. So any intensity that we’ll do in the tunnel will be more along the lines of controlled threshold, and we’ll be masked up for those that have sensitive airways.”

After all that work on snow, it was time to race. The men competed in the Inge Bråten Memorial sprint race in Sunne earlier today, with Ogden and Schoonmaker taking 4th and 6th in the final, respectively, in a stacked field.

(Whitcomb calls Bråten, who died in 2012 at age 63, “an old friend of the team, somebody I knew.” A full article on the rollerski races is forthcoming on FasterSkier later this week, but you can find results from Sunne here now, and results from Toppidrettsveka here starting on August 25.)

JC Schoonmaker, Torsby Ski Tunnel, August 2022. (photo: Greta Anderson)

Tomorrow the team flies from Oslo to Trondheim, where “we’ll live out near Aure on an oil facility,” Whitcomb notes. “And we’ll train there and sort of prepare for Toppidrettsveka, which is a four-stage event over three days. And then we’ll fly home on that Sunday,” August 28.

The men will have logged 20+ hours of on-snow time at almost precisely the midpoint between Bend Camp (late May) and the start of the World Cup season (late November). They will have explored the difference between rollerski kick and setting the wax on slippery surfaces. And they will have gotten to engage in high-level rollerski races with other top athletes. They’re all small pieces of the puzzle as the athletes build toward the season-opening races three months from now, be that in Ruka or closer to home.

Related reading:

A summer without snow: Athletes and coaches on a year with no summer skiing (October 2020)

Closing the gap: Summer skiing (August 2017)

Pro Workout: Ski Tunnel race prep time trial with Noah Hoffman (November 2011)

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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