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A rough run

Steve Benson

Following her winning run on Aspen Mountain in 2000, Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Janica Kostelic, of Croatia, referred to Aspen Mountain’s World Cup slalom course as “Mickey Mouse.” But that’s slalom, which typically involves a straightforward course, no matter where it’s held. Aspen Mountain’s giant slalom course is widely regarded as one of the most demanding and diverse courses on the circuit.Racers in this year’s World Cup contests will be challenged with everything from steep, tight, technical terrain to precarious flats. “[Aspen’s] giant slalom is one of the better ones,” said Bob Beattie, who until recently was involved with nearly every World Cup race in Aspen, as either the head coach of the U.S. Ski Team or a commentator. “The whole course is good because it has a lot of different terrain.”Course description

From the starting gate just below the old Ruthie’s Restaurant, racers will immediately encounter a short but steep shot down Spring Pitch before navigating a hairy turn onto Summer Road and the flat section of the course. The tight left-hand turn onto Summer Road has brought an abrupt end to more than a few World Cup runs, especially in the higher-speed downhill and super G races. As always, netting is in place to prevent out-of-control racers from tumbling off the Berlin Wall and rag-dolling down Corkscrew Gully. The flat section of Summer Road ends with a right turn onto Strawpile, which is steep and boasts big rollers this year. And the course doesn’t ease up – skiers must turn around Norway Island and drop into the bottleneck section of 5th Avenue. From there, the course opens up in a straight shot to the finish. “It’s an awesome challenge,” said Aspen resident and former U.S. Ski Team racer Katie Monahan. With such diverse terrain, it’s difficult to pinpoint the most challenging aspect of the course. But Monahan, Beattie and Casey Puckett, also an Aspen resident and ex-U.S. Ski Team member, all labeled the entry and exit of Summer Road as the most critical section of the course. The flats, not the steeps, may end up making the difference between the winner and the losers.

“The only flat part of the race is on [Summer Road], so when you come off Spring Pitch you need to be carrying speed,” said Puckett, who was coaching the women’s U.S. Ski Team in Summit County in the days leading up to the race in Aspen. “But coming off [Summer Road] is important too – you need to be tactically looking ahead to the exit onto Strawpile – it’s easy to screw up there.”Monahan said the Summer Road section is “key, both coming onto it and off of it.” “In the flats, you need to carry speed, but you don’t want to make a big mistake before the road,” she said. “Anytime there are transitions in the course, you need to do them really well.” Resi Stiegler, a 19-year-old member of the U.S. Ski Team, will be making her first trip to Aspen for the World Cup. While she’s never skied the course, she knows what to expect. “Everyone talks about how it’s one of the hardest giant slalom courses on the World Cup circuit – there’s just so much terrain,” said Stiegler, who placed sixth in an FIS (International Ski Federation) slalom race in Breckenridge last weekend. “I’m really psyched. I’m trying to get into a nice groove for the season and then I’m going to hammer it and go all-out.”

Monahan said the demanding terrain, combined with the length of the course and the relatively high altitude of Aspen, could present an extra hurdle for racers. Most competitors are accustomed to racing in Europe, where courses are typically at a lower altitude. “It will be a challenge for the racers to get used to the elevation,” she said. “It will effect all of the racers.”Aspen Mountain memoriesOver the years, there have been a number of memorable, if not freakish, moments on Aspen’s World Cup courses. In the mid-1980s, when Aspen still hosted a downhill, a Japanese racer caught errant air off a knoll on Aztec and ended up hitting a double-high gate – with his head. He stuck the landing, but was rendered momentarily blind.

“He was flying down the course with the banner over his head, dragging a couple of bamboo poles,” remembered Tommy Reynolds, a local ski instructor and World Cup course worker. “It was a sight.” Then there was the year that three top female racers from Switzerland blew out in the exact same spot on the course. As the story goes, the women tried to take an abnormally tight line near Norway Island, and all three ended up crashing – butt first – into a wooden barrier on the side of the course. “There were three holes in the wood, all in a row,” Reynolds said. Race announcers quickly renamed the area “Swiss Miss Corner.” Reynolds and his crew still refer to it as “Cheesehead Corner.”And nobody can forget the A.J. Kitt incidents on Aspen Mountain. In 1993, Kitt was leading a World Cup downhill race on Ajax when a hole began to form in the snow near one of the gates.

“It was springtime, and the snow had melted from underneath,” Beattie remembered. “It just gave way; it deteriorated.”After race officials failed to repair the hole, the race was called off, and Kitt’s potential victory melted away like the snow. Beattie said he can remember at the time that Kitt was told, “This is going to be the most famous race you ever run.” But two years later, Kitt was robbed again. Having battled and beaten a March blizzard on Aspen Mountain, Kitt was leading the downhill when race officials pulled the plug because of the weather. The subsequent controversy between Aspen and the FIS led to several years with no Aspen races at all. Puckett’s brother, Chris, also had some tough luck on the course. In 1998, prior to the race, competitors were free-skiing the super G course when something went terribly wrong. “There was kind of a screwup in the communication,” Casey said. “They didn’t rope off the left side of Spring Pitch onto [Summer Road].”

Apparently the conditions on the left side of Spring Pitch at the intersection of Summer Road were treacherous. Instead of a smooth transition onto the cat track, there was a sudden, significant drop-off. A racer skiing the course ahead of Chris hit the drop-off and exploded. Officials from below radioed the top with a warning that a racer was down on the course. The most important part of the message: Stay left.Of course, “stay left” was exactly what other racers did not want to do. Chris followed the mistaken directions and was hauling down the left side of Spring Pitch when the bottom just fell out.”He buried his tips into the road, blew up, and blew out his knee,” Casey said. “His ski popped off – the other guy was still there, he had a broken leg – and Chris’ ski came up and went right into the guy’s face.

“It was total carnage.” Aspen’s role in the circuitThe World Cup doesn’t make too many stops in the United States. After Aspen, the only other stateside destination is Beaver Creek. Then the tour leaps across the Atlantic to Europe, where it will stay for the rest of the season.For someone like Beattie, who is partly responsible for the formation of the World Cup, the Eurocentric nature of the tour could be frustrating. But Beattie maintains that the international racing community views Aspen as a marquee stop on the World Cup Tour.”European coaches are always saying, ‘I wish there were more races in Aspen,'” Beattie said. “It’s just such a perfect place.”

Monahan: “Geographically, the U.S. is so big, I can see why the sport has had such a tough time. “But in places like Aspen, there should be absolutely no reason why the whole town doesn’t come out and show their support.”After all, “It’s the founding sport of this town,” she said. Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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