Friday, May 30, 2008

Race Revisions, part I: Uphill Battles

In this fan's opinion, the International Ski Federation has done a good job of developing new race formats for the elite tier of cross-country skiing - the World Cup, World Championships, and Winter Olympic Games. The now-common mass start to races of all distances is perhaps the most important innovation, but the mass start complements two "new" race formats: the individual sprints, run in both techniques over distances that vary from less than a thousand meters up to about 1500 meters, and the pursuit (a.k.a. skiathlon), using both techniques during a fairly long race, most commonly, two 7.5km courses for women or 15km courses for men.*

With these two race formats now reliable - and, I think, exciting - parts of the racing calendar, the time was ripe in 2005 for the FIS to do a bit more experimenting by developing the "Tour de Ski" (so far held in the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 World Cup seasons) and, at the end of last season, the "mini tour" or "Grand Final."

As run so far, the Tour and Grand Final are, in essence, just radically compressed sets of races: respectively, seven or so discrete events staged over a week and a half and three races in three days. The TdS and GF have included a few twists such as "hunter-style" pursuits in which winning one day's race gives a skier a head start in the next day's race and, even more interestingly, the Tour's "Final Climb" - a colossally demanding distance race up a serious alpine slope, the Alpe Cermis, in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

Though it's still early days for the Final Climb as a tradition, the race has already started to acquire an aura that is matched - or, honestly, exceeded - only by the annual Holmenkollen marathon in Oslo. And no wonder: the Final Climb makes for compelling television, imposes heavy physical demands on racers (in 2007-2008, they had raced seven times in nine days), and promises to shake up the final standings of the Tour de Ski. In January, the women's climb in fact decided the Tour de Ski champion, when the young Swede Charlotte Kalla chased down and then skied away from the then-leader, Virpi Kuitunen of Finland.

Given all this, I think the FIS - and national and regional skiing organizations - ought to capitalize on the hillclimb idea. At the top level, adding a few more hillclimbs to the World Cup calendar, and maybe even to a World Championships or Olympics (if local geography permits it), would go a long way toward making XC skiing stand out as a uniquely grueling sport.

Happily, there seems to be mounting (ha!) interest in hillclimbs as a form of racing distinct from other distance events, such as, say, plain old hilly courses like those at Torino or Canmore. The 10km Horgi Opp race in Norway attracts some big names each April: the 2007 race saw Kristen Skjeldal take the win and wondergirl Therese Johaug finish seventh ahead of some top-notch men, while Anders Soedergren and Marthe Kristoffersen won their respective races in 2008.

There are probably a few other hillclimbs in Europe, but North America saw at least two such events last winter. Out west, the University of Utah staged the "Ski Up" race at the Snowbird resort in April, and out east, the Great Glen Trails in New Hampshire held the 10km "Ski to the Clouds" race in March. Elite skiers won both events: Josh Smullin and Wendy Wagner took the men's and women's Ski Up and Justin Freeman (like Wagner, an ex-Olympian) and Kelsey Allen won the men's and women's Ski to the Clouds. These two winter events followed on the "Climb to the Castle” rollerski race in New York last fall, which included just about every top-tier American ski racer. (Here in the Midwest, we're probably just looking for a big enough hill. We need someone in northern Minnesota or one of the river valleys to stage something like these races...)

Sure, these hillclimbs are few in number - so far. But with more buzz around the Final Climb of the Tour de Ski, and some luck in having that particular race actually matter to the Tour, we could soon see more of these races. In fact, the "father of the Tour de Ski," Vegard Ulvang, recently announced a plan to hold a "Tour of Barents" stage race in northernmost Europe. Among the planned events? A pursuit which will include two ascents of a 520-meter ski slope with a vertical difference of 140 meters.

This is good stuff, and suggestive of possible ways to vary the hillclimb. Mass starts versus interval starts or time trials, perhaps? Climbs followed by descents? Descents followed by climbs? Races that start at the very bottom of the climb, versus races that include some preliminary flats? A hillclimb championship each April? How about a pursuit that requires racers to swap equipment halfway up the slope? (Herringbone heaven!) Or a race up another fabled slope - L'Alpe d'Huez, anyone?

Perhaps - or certainly - the FIS need not go to any of those extremes in order to capitalize on the unique opportunity that I think the hillclimb format offers. Hell, just making sure to stage it at the end of each Tour de Ski - and maybe to plug one more such race into the regular World Cup calendar - would go a long way toward building more interest in and enthusiasm for the special character of our sport.

* Team sprints, a third new-ish race format, have so far been used too infrequently to really matter as a uniquely demanding event. According to the FIS calendar, the TSP has only been run 15 times on the World Cup since 1996, and has only been part of the big events for three scant years, having been staged at the '05 Worlds in Oberstdorf, the '06 Olympics in Torino, and the '07 Worlds in Sapporo. In other words, I think the jury is still out as to whether the TSP is still an experiment or should be considered on a par with the individual sprint or pursuit - much less the traditional races like the 10km/15km individual starts.


Colin R said...

I have mixed feelings about hill climbs. On one hand, they are strategically simple -- ski as fast as you can up a hill. While competitors might start together, the grade minimizes drafting. You can basically ignore your opponents and focus on suffering efficiently, unlike other mass start races.

On the other hand, this makes it effectively a mass-start time trial -- possibly the perfect combination of old school and new school race formats. The great thing about individual start is that there's no drafting, no sprinting, just each competitor skiing as fast as possible. The downside is that you can only tell how people are doing against one another by time checks. Mass starts, on the other hand, have more drama but more "unfairness," due to drafting.
Is a hill climb the fairness of individual start and the drama of mass start? Maybe so.

Alex said...

Fairness aside, there is one obvious con: Hill climbs suck. As much as I bet Kalla loved winning that thing, I doubt she'd want to finish every race collapsed in a heap across the finish line...