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Aspen is in good shape for return of World Cup

When the weather turned cold at Halloween, it warmed Jimmy Hancock’s heart.

Hancock, you see, is chief of race for Aspen’s World Cup ski events. Any cold temperatures we have up to the day of the races Nov. 24-25 make his job of getting the courses prepared much, much easier.

“For the purposes of the races, snowmaking is even more important than natural snow,” said Hancock. “We’re making good progress, although we’re not ready to send the first person down yet.”

Snowmaking guns blasted for 60 straight hours when the cold weather struck at Halloween, according to Mike Kaplan, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of operations. It has continued at regular intervals since then. Mother Nature has thrown in almost three feet of her own on the top of Aspen Mountain.

Ajax will host World Cup races for the first time in two years, and this will be the first women’s races that Hancock could recall since 1989.

Aspen will have the distinction of holding the first World Cup speed event of the season when the Super G race is held Friday, Nov. 24. U.S. skiing superstar Picabo Street is expected to make her return after sitting out last year because of injury.

A slalom race will be held Saturday, Nov. 25. Along with home-country favorites Street and Kristina Koznick, the race will feature U.S. Ski Team members and Aspenites Katie Monahan and Alex Shaffer as well as Sarah Schleper of Vail.

Shaffer has been singled out for strong training this preseason by U.S. women’s coach Marjan Cernigoj, according to a story posted on the U.S. Ski Team’s Web site. However, the entire team performed poorly at a giant slalom race Oct. 28 in Soelden, Austria, the only World Cup event held thus far.

The American racers, as well as most of the Europeans, are in Colorado to train for the next events. Prior to the races in Aspen, Park City, Utah, will host the men and women for World Cup races Nov. 16-19.

They will trickle into Aspen after the Park City races finish, and training runs will likely be held on Ajax Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 22 and 23.

To prepare, Skico snowmaking crews have been geared up for some time; Steve Fisher and his grooming crew have been pushing the man-made snow onto the course; and chief of course Jack Anderson’s crews have started erecting fencing and safety nets.

The International Ski Federation ordered extra safety netting at two spots on the course – extending existing netting at the Berlin Wall to below the wall and at Norway Island, according to Hancock.

Two U.S. coaches and one from Austria toured the course Thursday.

“Everybody agrees we’re in good position at this point,” said Hancock. “You never know what will happen, but we’re further ahead with snowmaking than we were two years ago.”

Two years ago, when the World Cup men came to town, was the first time Aspen ever hosted the world’s best racers in November. The town’s long World Cup tradition had always boasted March or late February races.

Hancock and officials at the Skico hope Aspen is back on the World Cup circuit for good starting this season. Races have already been awarded for next year, and the FIS had fed expectations that Aspen is permanently in the loop.

“They’re telling us that over a 10-year period, there may be a year or two that we’re not on it,” Hancock said.

One important commitment the Skico has made is to improve the finish area for spectators and media. Most people were packed into an uneven, icy area two years ago that made viewing next to impossible.

The Skico is breaking into its piggy bank to invest in grandstands for 1,000 spectators. Hancock hopes that thousands more spectators will line the last section of the course so Aspen demonstrates it is worthy of hosting a big-time ski event. Attendance, he said, “really depends on ski conditions on the rest of the mountain.” Tourists will show up if conditions are good.

More than 70 million people worldwide watched the races on television, according to the Skico. And ESPN will televise the races for two hours nationally.

That one-two punch provides the exposure the Skico hopes to gain from hosting the event.


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