A challenging day for Aspen racers and course workers
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” In the chilly early morning Saturday, nearly five hours before Julia Mancuso pushed out of the start gate wearing bib No. 1, a dedicated group of 30 to 35 local volunteers slipped the icy race course on Aspen Mountain in the dark.
That effort didn’t go unnoticed later in the day by the toughest critics on the mountain: World Cup racers and coaches.
Just like last year, heavy, unrelenting snow made for difficult conditions for the first scheduled race of Aspen’s Winternational. But Mancuso said the course couldn’t have been in better shape, considering the circumstances.
“It was really good. They did a really great job of pushing all the snow off,” the 24-year-old Californian said after her seventh place finish. “It was icy actually. I wasn’t nervous about the snow. The course is in really good shape.”
While working on a World Cup course crew may not be a glamorous job, it’s not thankless, either. Local chief of race Jim Hancock enjoyed hearing that racers were pleased with the conditions of the track, but after two years of coping with unforgiving snowstorms, he added he is more than ready for something a little less challenging.
“We’d love to have a race one day when it was cold and clear and sunny and beautiful,” Hancock said. “I think we’d all be more happy.”
Workers and snowcat drivers worked into the night Friday moving fresh snow off the course. Then, at around 5 in the morning Saturday, the Shadow Mountain chairlift started running so slippers could scrape fresh snow off the mountain. While Hancock praised the efforts of his crew, he said all the diligent preparation done over the previous month is what really ensured Saturday’s race went off as planned.
“By putting all the water in the snow last weekend and getting such an incredibly firm base, it enabled us to deal with approximately a foot of snow,” he said. “Otherwise, it would have been too soft. It was really long hours for a lot of people and a lot of good fortune. But, like other things in life, a lot of that fortune was because of good preparation.”
Still, this being a World Cup race, the snowy conditions proved to be difficult for all 61 skiers in the field. Sixteen racers skied off course during the first run, and France’s Anne Sophie Barthet opted not to step into the start gate.
Spain’s Maria Jose Rienda, who won the Winternational GS three years ago, was one of two skiers to earn an unenviable trip down the mountain in a toboggan after crashing. Rienda reportedly broke her ankle.
There was also the sight of Austria’s Nicole Hosp ” the World Cup overall champion two years ago ” limping away from the finish area after a crash near the top of the course. An Austrian team official confirmed that Hosp had one of her knees evaluated at Aspen Valley Hospital but said there was no cause for concern.
Meanwhile, the defending overall champion, Lindsey Vonn, said the falling snow and limited visibility made the decision to race on a bruised left knee that much more difficult. The decision paid off with a fourth-place showing ” Vonn’s best finish ever in a World Cup GS.
“The hardest part was the visibility combined with the snow,” Vonn said. “It was pretty bumpy snow. It held up great, but it was still bumpy and you had to fight through it. It was tough for me because of my knee injury. It was pretty much the worst possible conditions for a bruised knee. It wasn’t the best, but I just knew I had to forget about my knee and go 100 percent and I did that.”
U.S. teammate and fellow Ski Club Vail alumna Sarah Schleper agreed the snow made for a tougher race, but added that it wasn’t anything the best female ski racers in the world couldn’t handle.
“It’s World Cup conditions,” she said. “They injected the snow and it’s pretty slick, it’s difficult, there’s a lot of turns, there’s a lot of terrain, there’s a lot of direction changes. This is why we race World Cup, to get the most extreme conditions. The best skiers are going to prevail here.”
“It was challenging, both physically and mentally,” added U.S. women’s coach Jim Tracy. “It’s a great hill, and the conditions were tough. But basically they have to make a plan and then stick to that plan and they did a good job. Jim and the whole crew were awesome. I’m very impressed.”
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A driver looking to squeeze one last four-wheel drive up Aspen Mountain discovered that it’s not the ascent but the descent that poses a challenge.