America’s Downhill at Aspen back in World Cup spotlight
"It's a very good course. ... You have to be willing to go like hell."
When the world’s best downhill skiers finally take to the course Wednesday after two days of training and years of waiting, they’ll know what to expect from America’s Downhill — but it won’t make it any easier or less intimidating.
A fluid mix of gliding at the top, heart-pounding drops in the middle and a technical section to finish, the history of Aspen Mountain’s downhill course will be on display again for the world after years of dormancy.
“It’s a real classic downhill. It has all the elements. It has good gliding. It has great technical turns,” Aspen local Casey Puckett said of the ski run. “It’s really what this town was all about for a long time, and it still is.”
The history of World Cup skiing in Aspen — and especially that of the downhill course — is a story unto itself, and one that can’t be told without Bob Beattie. Beattie, who lives in Woody Creek, co-founded the World Cup in 1966 and was the man behind the creation of the U.S. Ski Team.
The greatest ski-racing event in Aspen history is arguably the 1950 World Championships. Beginning with the first races in 1968, Aspen has hosted more than 70 World Cup races.
Aspen Mountain has become a regular stop for the women’s technical skiers, although it’s been few and far between for the downhillers.
“All kinds of people have lots of memories and emotional attachments to America’s Downhill,” said President and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co. Mike Kaplan. “And to have the World Cup Finals here is super exciting.”
The last time a World Cup downhill was held in Aspen was 2007, a women’s race won by Canada’s Britt Janyk.
The men haven’t competed in a World Cup downhill race in Aspen since 1995, when American A.J. Kitt won and then was stripped of his victory because poor weather conditions did not allow the entire field to start the race.
“It’s a very good course — one of the best,” Beattie said. “You have to be willing to go like hell. You need to be able to turn your skis at high levels.”
A STARTING POINT
Aspen native and race Chief of Course Pat Callahan, who as a teenager was a forerunner for World Cup races at Ajax, said the 2,700-meter long downhill (more than a mile and a half) is a daunting course, although its rather mellow start can lull even the best skiers into a false sense of confidence.
The downhill course begins at 10,604 feet (3,232 meters), at the top of Ruthie’s Run. Other than a few man-made jumps, the first quarter of the course is fairly flat, allowing skiers to gain only moderate speed.
“This section is really about gliding. Someone like Lindsey Vonn should kill it up here, because she is so good at riding the flat ski,” Callahan said of the Vail skier who has more World Cup wins than any women in history. “It’s not a real technical section. It’s gliding, which is a skill. Now as you drop into Aztec it becomes game on at this point. The bottom drops out.”
Dubbed “America’s Downhill,” Puckett said Aspen’s speed course is unique. And this is coming from a man who has competed on all of the world’s notable courses, including the infamous Kitzbuehel in Austria.
“Aspen isn’t quite technically as difficult as Kitzbuehel,” Puckett said, “but Aztec, Spring Pitch, Strawpile, it’s all very technical and it’s very quick.”
Puckett, who spends most of his time now coaching with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, spent more than a decade on the U.S. Ski Team and raced in four Olympics.
A well-rounded skier who had an affinity for super-G events, Puckett was among those to compete in a slalom on Aspen Mountain in 2001, the last time the men’s World Cup athletes were here.
The heart and soul of the downhill and super-G courses is Aztec.
Skiers will come across Aztec Flats and then, as the town of Aspen comes into view below, the fun really begins. One of the steepest and most sudden descents on the course, racers will reach upward of 80 miles per hour by the time they reach the bottom of the 55 percent gradient.
“It’s the iconic shot,” said John Rigney, vice president of sales and events for Aspen Skiing Co. “It’s an outrageous drop at a high rate of speed into a severe banked turn, and that’s the moment of truth on that race course.”
From Aztec, skiers will get onto Spring Pitch and then the aptly named Airplane Turn, a wide, sweeping arc where racers often need to extend their arms out, like an airplane, in order to avoid crashing into the A-nets of the Berlin Wall, which would bring an unfortunate end to their race.
“You can’t necessarily win it there, but you can lose it. Coming off Aztec going into Spring Pitch, that’s a big turn,” Puckett said. “It’s super important because you come in there with a lot of heat and because of that you build a lot of G-forces on your right leg.”
As daunting as Aztec and the Airplane Turn may be, it’s not where the race will be won. Coming off the most adrenaline-filled portion of the course, skiers enter Summer Road — also known as Diego Road — a final flat section that can lull racers into believing they’ve basically made it.
Believing this can be costly.
“Basically, from the time you drop into Aztec to the bottom of the course, it’s very technical and things are coming at you very fast. At no point do you want to be off your game going through any of those sections,” Puckett said. “That just happens a lot in downhill where you are gliding and everything is fine and all of a sudden the wheels start to come off. It’s hang on until you reach the finish.”
When Summer Road ends, racers drop into a technically challenging Strawpile, head skiers’ left around Norway Island, and rip around 5th Avenue to the finish line at 8,301 feet (2,530 meters), roughly two minutes after leaving the start gate and dropping 2,303 feet to the finish.
“It brings back memories, for all of us. I can remember being here the last time in the ‘90s, and there is nothing like downhill and speed events,” Kaplan said. “The incredible power and fluidity and the noise it makes of those men and women going by you at 60, 70, pushing 80 miles per hour — it’s the coolest sight.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon contributed to this report.
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