Basalt’s Hembel speeds toward World Cup title |

Basalt’s Hembel speeds toward World Cup title

Aspen Times Staff Report

John “Mad Cow” Hembel of Basalt barreled into second place at the FIS Speed Skiing World Championships last week on a frigid track north of the Artic Circle in Salla, Finland.

Hembel, the current overall leader in the World Cup points race, is now in Sweden for the final event of the World Cup speed skiing tour. The final was scheduled for Grimentz, Switzerland, but an avalanche left that track devoid of snow and the event was shifted to Sweden.

“The FIS `Crystal Globe’ is in transit to Sweden to be presented to the World Cup Champion following this race,” Hembel said in an e-mail report. “At the moment I am leading the points standings, and barring a major disaster, should return to the U.S. with the globe in hand!”

“I hope to be able to send out an update immediately following this event – stay tuned!”

Hembel, the current North America top-speed record holder at 153.01 mph, posted last spring at Les Arcs, France, has never claimed the overall World Cup title.

Following a World Cup race in Cervinia, Italy, March 14-16, Hembel and traveling partner Chris Wirkler of Carbondale stopped over in Uvdal, Norway, for the Norwegian Championships before the World Championships in Finland.

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“The Norwegian race turned out to be two days of good practice at just under 100 mph and included a full day of racing in variable conditions,” Hembel said.

Wirkler finished in fourth place and Hembel finished second.

“We left the venue on the afternoon of the race with the intention of driving north five or six hours before resting for the night. … But we arrived 21 hours later, tired but safe, and with plenty of time to rest before practice.”

The speed skiing community had been anticipating this event for the last two years, when it was first announced, Hembel said. Organized by the President of FIS Speed Skiing, and Finnish skiing icon Kalevi “Hakka” Hakkinen, this year’s event was to be the benchmark by which all other events should be compared.

“Hakka held a weeklong speed ski training camp in Salla last November, which I am very glad I attended,” Hembel noted. “Even though temperatures at that time were extremely cold -10 to 18 below zero with 80 percent humidity! – I was able to make 65 training runs, which I contribute to some of my success this season.”

Competitors from 13 countries arrived for the opening ceremony, which was a huge success, Hembel said. Hundreds of Finnish spectators were on hand as well as Finnish television media.

“The plan was to have three official runs per day until the final on Saturday,” Hembel said. “The week was plagued by high winds, but despite this we only had to cancel one run on Thursday. Snow rolled in on Friday afternoon delaying the final run of the day and making the speeds slightly slower, but the race staff was able to prepare the track nicely for the final day of competition.

“And after a full week of training (26 runs) I was ready for it to be over. Saturday morning turned out to be the best weather of the week with beautiful blue skies, little to no wind and slightly colder temperatures, with the high being around 25 degrees. The forecast called for snow and wind to arrive at 2 p.m., so we moved the timetable up a bit to ensure completion of the race.”

In the second run of the final, Hembel posted the fastest speed and a new track record, 166.91 km/h.

“So with the field of competitors starting each run in reverse order, I was last to start for the final. The television coverage was phenomenal, and the reverse order made it very exciting for all of the spectators and racers alike. Jukka Viitasaari of Finland was fourth from the last to start, but had the fastest run of the day, setting another course record of 167.91 km/h.

“I waited at the top of the course for two other competitors to complete their runs, and heard that neither had beaten Jukka. I knew I had to have a flawless run to win the event, but as with the previous few days, I had to fight a bit of wind for a perfect run. I was able to improve my previous speed by .2 km/h but it wasn’t enough to better Viitasaari’s speed.

“Second place is not a bad place to finish, but knowing I could consistently finish at the top of a field of excellent racers made me feel as though I had walked away a winner.”

Wirkler, meanwhile, finished 24th with a top speed of 162.96 km/h. Great Britain’s Marc Poncin was third, at 166.86, and Finland’s Jaana Viitasaari won the women’s title with a speed of 164.6 km/h.