Editor’s Note: The following is an open letter written by Hannes Larsson, President of the International Association of World Loppet Skiers (IAWLS), to the Vasaloppet. The letter has been sent to a number of Swedish newspapers and is published on www.worldloppetskier.com.
Dear Vasaloppet Organizers,
The mass start used by Vasaloppet has been the object of complaints for many years. In 2009 an angry letter from a Swedish journalist who had participated in some Worldloppet races in southern Europe, was published in the newspaper Vasaloppet. Although one can easily understand the reasons of these outbursts, we will not follow that kind of model. This letter is based on facts. We will analyze the problems created by the mass start and discuss why it is unavoidable for Vasaloppet to adopt a modern start arrangement.
Vasaloppet’s start system consists in starting 15000 skiers simultaneously. The skiers are put in ten start groups (led) with the fastest skiers in front. In small races with 500 skiers this sort of start system is quite sufficient, but with the size of Vasaloppet it leads to chaos. In Sälen there is a wide flat field after the start, with many parallel tracks, on a length of about 1 km. In this area there are usually very few accidents, sometimes it is even possible to overtake. But when the skiers reach the end of this flat area, they still form a compact mass. There, after a turn to the right, begins a 2 km long climb, and at the bottom of the climb a bottleneck forms. The bottleneck, repeatedly appearing in the steep sections of the climb, is uncomfortable for the skiers. One is obliged to open the skis in a V form to avoid gliding backwards and/or to get cramps in the arms, while there are 89 km remaining. Skiers are so tightly packed that the neighbors trample or poke their poles on your skis. Apart from the fact that it is uncomfortable, a big inconvenience is the time lost in the bottleneck. The bottleneck begins with group 4, and the more you go back in the field, the more time you lose. It is usually reported that skiers starting in group 10 lose up to 45 minutes.
The bottleneck has been a feature of Vasaloppet for many years. Thirty years ago there were less skiers but the bottleneck was the same. In the following years the climb has been widened but the increase of the number of skiers has cancelled the benefits. In 2008 Vasaloppet announced on their website that they had decided to take into account the wishes of the skiers and widen the climb. Also in the newspapers the trackmaster proudly reported about this improvement which was going to strongly reduce the bottleneck. What happened? From the testimonies of skiers of the 2009 race, we know that
– skiers who started at the end of group 8 needed 60 minutes to reach the 3 km point, meaning a time loss of at least 35 minutes,
-skiers who started in group 10 needed 75 minutes to reach the 3 km point, meaning that the bottleneck cost them about 45 minutes.
Capacity of a Ski Course
Thus, the changes made before the 2009 race had a negligible effect for skiers of the later groups, i.e. those who suffer from the bottleneck the most. This was evident. To suppress the bottleneck in that climb, the track should be much wider than in the start field, i.e. some 200m or 300m. But that would lead to a clogging of the tracks on the top. The essential notion in ski races is the number of skiers per minute that the track and the food stations can handle. With a too high density of skiers, also the first descents become dangerous.
In order to preserve the quality of such a big race, the total duration of the flow of skiers at the top of the climb should be sufficiently long, say 90 minutes. That is the time between the passage of the first skier and the last. Vasaloppet’s solution to achieve this result is to create the extension of the field after the start, in the bottleneck. This is an aberration. The obvious solution is to create the extension of the field before the start. That’s what organizers of other big Worldloppet (WL) races do.
Vasaloppet is a member of WL. The WL statutes (or Constitution, as they call it) insist that the member races are high quality races. It is also stated that WL complies with the rules of FIS. The FIS guidelines for popular XC competitions state: “The start should gradually narrow to the width of the course over a distance sufficient in length to allow competitors to spread out before entering the tracks.” In other words, bottlenecks are not allowed.
Skiers do not need to know the international rules for race organizers. What they say is that Vasaloppet’s bottleneck is unfair, inhuman and an incredible tarnish for this otherwise well organized race. Vasaloppet’s refusal to admit that there is a problem is in striking contrast with the famous hospitality of people in the Dalarna area. All skiers, not only the elite skiers, should be treated with respect. The lack of response from Vasaloppet to complaints about the start arrangement has created a feeling of frustration amongst skiers, as if there was no solution to the bottleneck but it was a necessary part of Vasaloppet.
A few years ago, at the time when Vasaloppet organized a reception for WL passport holders, the bottleneck was once mentioned and Arne Andersson said that according to doctors, the bottleneck is good for the health, because it avoids tackling the climb too fast. An outburst of protests assaulted the brave Arne. One of the participants, probably a doctor, said that those who forward such stupid arguments have never skied Vasaloppet.
I am not a doctor but I give a layman’s point of view. One must see what happens at the start. Everybody makes a 1 km sprint, as if the finish were on the bottom of the hill. This happens because of the bottleneck. If you don’t sprint, you will be passed by thousands of skiers and be stuck for a longer time in the bottleneck. At the start the skiers are not warm because they have been standing for a long time in the start area. Warm-up exercises help to avoid freezing but are not sufficient to be really warm. One does not need to be a doctor, common sense dictates that such a sprint, when the blood is not perfectly circulating in the body, is not good. The stop in the bottleneck allows one to recover the breath, but the climb occurs in fact by a succession of stops and accelerations.
This is the pernicious effect of the bottleneck. As long as the bottleneck exists, all recommendations of the organizers to take it easy at the start, are in vain. I would not be surprised if the statistics on deaths in Vasaloppet showed that deaths seldom occur towards the end, from exhaustion, but often soon after the start. This is an interesting subject for journalists to investigate.
The Ideal Start
It is perfectly possible to organize the Vasaloppet start in such a way that there is no bottleneck. In 2009 Birkebeinerrennet used a wave start with 18 waves with 5 minute intervals. No bottlenecks occurred, although the race almost reached the size of Vasaloppet with 14000 entries.
Marcialonga takes place in a narrow valley where it is impossible to make a wide course as in Vasaloppet. They had used a wave start for some years but because of the lack of space there were problems in some points along the track. In 2007 they adopted what we call the Ideal Start. It is essentially a continuous flow of skiers through a gate where the individual start times are taken. Vasaloppet’s Open Tracks also have a continuous flow of skiers, but the inconvenience is that skiers have to stand in a long line that takes up to 45 minutes for the last. Marcialonga made a clever move by dividing the flow in a succession of “waves”, each with a prescribed time for the start of the flow. Each wave starts from its own “box” and when the front door of the box is opened, the skiers walk into a transit area where they put on their skis and move slowly towards the start gate. This is comfortable for the skiers who know their starting time within the accuracy of a few minutes, the duration of the flow of their wave. Thus they can stay in the warm tent to the last minute. No need to reserve a place in the start box hours before the race as occurs in Vasaloppet. Everybody behaves with calm, there is no sprint and everybody can ski at his/her own pace right from the beginning. The total duration of the starts is designed in such a way that no bottlenecks occur along the course. In 2008 Jizerská Padesátka successfully adopted the same system.
For Vasaloppet, one can look at the problem by extrapolating from the Open Track races. I have a personal experience with the two Öppet Spår in 2004. On Sunday there were 10000 skiers, on Monday 8000 skiers. Both days I started amongst the last and observed no bottleneck. On Sunday the start took about 45 minutes. Extrapolating to 15000 skiers one can deduce that a sufficient duration of the starts is 75 minutes. Say 90 minutes, to be safe. I believe that with the Ideal Start Vasaloppet has even a potential for growth.
Yes you can
Vasaloppet had the possibility to be the first in the world to adopt the Ideal Start. You lost the opportunity, the honor goes to Marcialonga. But the honor of Vasaloppet is at stake as long as you cling to the impossible mass start.
We believe in Vasaloppet’s capacity for change. In the past we have seen two examples. When ladies were accepted after a 60 year ban, it was a landslide change. More recently, when Vasaloppet at last began accepting the payment by credit card, after years of insistent requests from the skiers, you made the best on-line payment system of the whole WL circuit. Changing the start is a technical problem that competent organizers can master easily.
Some people think that Vasaloppet clings to the mass start because it is spectacular. I don’t believe them. The Ideal Start can also be exploited for the TV. If the camera returns every 15 minutes to the start area to show the continuous flow of skiers, it gives a convincing proof of the size of the race. And interviews of happy skiers are the best possible promotion.
18-fold WL Master
17 Vasaloppets and 4 Öppet Spår
President of IAWLS, the International Association of WL Skiers