The Roch Cup, part 2
December 7, 2007
Editors note: This is the second half of a two-part piece on the history of Aspens Roch Cup. The first half began with the establishment of Aspens long-running ski-racing trophy and took us through the 1950s. This picks up in the 60s.Aspen is groovyAspen was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a still-eclectic, still-affordable place devoted to skiing and the races were still fueled by its unique citizen-army of waiters, nurses, bartenders, cobblers, artists, auto mechanics and physicists who doubled as gatekeepers, sideslippers, snow shovelers, timekeepers and cheerleaders for a week every season. Restaurants treated racers like family, and families kicked their kids to the couches, handing over their bedrooms (and often the keys to their Willys Jeep, Aspens unofficial postwar vehicle) to create an event unlike any other in ski racing. The way Aspen supported and loved ski racing was amazing, says 1972 Olympian Terry Palmer, who spent a season living and training in Aspen. Everyone who ever raced the Roch Cup remembers that support. The town was so giving it was unbelievable. It had this tradition. It was built by people who loved the sport hardworking, regular folks who had skiing in their blood. Families put us up, restaurants would feed us, the town just opened up for us. It was like, this is what skiing should be and this is what a ski town should be. The golden years lasted a long time. The excitement, the prestige of it was huge, says Bill Harriman, an Aspen Ski Club and U. S. Ski Team coach in the 1970s and chief of course in the 1980s. When the Club ran it and it was a community event and this was a real ski town, everything in town stopped. It had a real meaning and there was a real passion for it. Everyone was really proud of this race, says Peter Greene, whose Golden Horn restaurant (purchased from 1947 Roch Champion Steve Knowlton) was an early Roch hangout. If it snowed, the whole town showed up. It was a super community effort. We didnt have grooming equipment or a paid race department [in the 1960s]. We just went and did it. Then we all gave $25 or $50 at the end of the week to send kids to Europe. Lots of spaghetti is how Martha Madsen, mother of future U.S. Olympic skier Beth, remembers it. That and her living room floor buried with visiting racers and their equipment. Aspenite Mark Tach, another future U.S. Ski Team racer (and this writers husband), grew up in a packed house of seven without even floor space to offer. He recalls, with obvious envy, the spoils that came to those who did. Can you imagine having all the Italians staying at your house? We were so jealous. Were talking Gustavo, Piero, Fausto, Stricker, all of them. Big Rudi [Brittvar, a ski club junior] walked away with a suit, poles, Thoenis Spaldings. Rudi got the booty, says Tach, who booty or no, would become one of only three Aspenites ever to win the Roch Cup downhill four years later.It was less the swag, though, than the unimaginable grace of sharing the table with your idols. I equate it to having Tiger Woods in your house, says Jack Brendlinger, a former Ski Club president and Aspen Ski Company public relations director, whose family hosted decades of Roch racers. Thats what skiing meant to us. These people were our heroes.
Home stays were indeed one of the Roch Cups most unique and endearing elements, but the heroes were expected to do their part. Slalom ruts were often hip-deep and downhill courses required manpower. Billy Kidd recalls course-prepping the Roch alongside his greatest rivals (whom he would dispatch one by one Werner in 1964, Heuga in 1965 and Killy in 1968) en route to his record three Roch victories. If a course had to be bootpacked, Buddy would be the first to grab a shovel and go, says Kidd, and wherever he went, we followed.Kidds victory over Werner in 1964, just a month before Werners tragic death in an avalanche in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was a milestone for Kidd. I was always slower than Buddy, no matter what wax wed use. But Id worked on it that year. Id run the four-mile Toll Road at Mt. Mansfield with screw-on edges, and every time I got on edge I slowed down so much I learned to ride a flat ski, Kidd recounts. Then I won the Roch over Buddy and went from being the worst to being the best. So great was Werners reputation that Kidds win was considered a fluke until he beat him again in the very next race. The next year, Kidd swept all three Roch races, defeating Heuga and hometown favorites Spider Sabich and Bill Marolt (1962 Roch Cup champion and today president of the U.S. Ski Association). Nancy Greene won both the downhill and slalom and took third in GS for the first of her two Roch Cups.Following the 1968 Winter Games, the Roch was chosen as the 19th of 21 stops in the World Cups second season. Eleven of Grenobles 18 medalists competed and legendary newscaster and ski enthusiast Lowell Thomas presented the trophies. Kidd won the slalom, was third in GS and fourth in DH (to Killys fourth, fourth, and third), but Killys results kept him leading the overall World Cup. Nancy Greene swept all three womens races for Roch Cup No. 2 and a commanding World Cup lead. She and Killy would be crowned overall World Cup champions two races later. A record number of spectators 3,000, according to The Aspen Times lined the courses that year.Moment of TruthThe 70s was the Rochs last decade as a noncommercial, community-driven event. By the 1980s the town fabric would be inexorably changed, and the financial and organizational burden of staging a modern ski race more than sobering to the Ski Club. But for a while longer the Roch remained a charmed affair, hosting Can-Ams, Nor-Ams, Nationals and World Cups with equal aplomb. There was a definite mystique about it. It was just an aura that Aspen had then, recalls 1972 Olympian Mike Lafferty. The people were characters, and theyd emerge from the woodwork for the race. Everyone whod preceded you had their stories to tell, and once they knew you were a racer, you were in.Good thing, because with skiings popularity booming, the Aspen Ski Co. was suffering the backlash of paying customers griping about fenced-off race trails. It countered by moving the races for a few years to Aspen Highlands. With a starting elevation of 11,650 and a vertical drop of 3,280 feet, the Highlands Grand Prix course may qualify as the most terrifying of the Roch Cup downhills. It resurrected Corkscrews ghost in a precipitous midrace plunge called the Moment of Truth. Lafferty recalls U.S. Team colleague Rogers Ramjet Little, misjudging the narrow entry, careening into the forest and smashing into a tree. The patrol was basically peeling him out of the woods, Lafferty recalls, when the next racer, Paul Crews, came barreling at them. Ramjet remembers the patrol just scattering! They left him there as a target and sure enough Crews hit him, and pretty good.When the Roch returned to Ruthies in 1973, its own Moment of Truth had been carved into the course. Aztec routed racers off the popular Snow Bowl, and added a classic dimension to the mens course with an entry so steep, it was like stepping off a skyscraper. Only the town below was visible between racers tips. It was this legendary course already! says Terry Palmer. Just so notorious. So yes, it was scary to switch to Aztec but being young and dumb, we just did it.
The modern World CupFranz Klammer would do it, too, when the World Cup returned to Aspen to find a truly modernized and World Cup-worthy course in 1976. The newly crowned Olympic champion, following his wild downhill ride in Innsbruck, was backed by a highly funded Austrian organization that approached the race with a new sensibility, indicating how the game was changing. An Austrian team helicopter ferried racers and their refrigerated race skis perfectly chilled to match the snow temperatures to the start house. Aspens Andy Mill had just taken sixth in the Innsbruck Games, among the best U.S. mens Olympic downhill finishes ever, but Americas premier downhiller was flummoxed on his home course. On solid ice, I was really good, says Mill, but 2 inches of fresh powder slowed the top flats and Mill entered Aztec a humiliating four seconds off the pace. The Austrians had helmets with farings, bent poles, rubberized suits. Theyd been using wind tunnels. Theyd test 10 pair of skis and pick the fastest ones. They had so much money, and we were so far behind them. Klammer clobbered Mill and the rest of the field, and at the awards, apparently assuming the great silver trophy with all the engraved names was his, he packed it in his luggage and took it home to Austria with him. It took a full year of pleading by Ski Club members, gently reminding Klammer that the Roch was a combined award, and that Franz had failed to even enter the slalom (won by Ingemar Stenmark). Finally it took a trip to Kitzbhel during the Hahnenkamm to pry the cup from Klammers hands.After 30 years of organizing the annual event, 1976 made it clear to everyone involved that no number of volunteers or spare living room floors were sufficient to handle a globally televised, corporate-sponsored mega-event like the modern World Cup. That year was the first indication that ski racing had become big business. This was no longer amateur, says Tom Anderson, Ski Club president that year and Aspens World Cup chief of race through the 1980s and 90s. Once the dollars got involved, ski racing became an industry. Sponsors started dictating the rules of the game, and it became about keeping sponsors happy. Thats the way sports are today and you arent going to change that. But Aspen could change the way it approached the annual races, and it did. A long, ongoing run of modern, corporate-sponsored, globally broadcast World Cup racing in Aspen for men and women began in 1981. The Roch was renamed the Subaru Aspen Winternational that year, the Ruthies course was renamed Americas Downhill, and more than $500,000 was spent staging the races. The story of World Cup racing in Aspen since then is another tale for another time, full of all the intrigue, scandal, infighting and brilliant ski racing youd expect. Aspen still ponies up for the big races that have lent the town prestige and its ski credentials since 1946 and stages a world-class event. It still presents the Roch or the Bingham every year.Ski racing is part of our roots, part of our history, says John Rigney, vice president of sales and events for the Aspen Ski Co. The fact that we can still pull hundreds of volunteers out of the woodwork, even today, tells you something about this towns commitment. Its just something we believe in. Maybe Andy Mill sums it up best: Growing up in the presence of that downhill, at the foot of that mountain, in the shadow of that course, it always spoke to you, always reminded you of who you were, and what you wanted to be. Admittedly biased, he says, Downhill is the crown jewel of the sport, and the Roch Cup downhill is the crown jewel of American racing. Or at least it was, for a very, very long time. And the course isnt going anywhere.The author the first American to win three medals at a World Championships (Schladming1982) is a six-time U.S. National Champion and 1984 Olympic silver medalist. Today a writer and former TV expert analyst (NBC, CBS), she is the co-founder of Spirit of Hope (Humanitarian Olympians for Peace) and a five-time participant in the Roch Cup. I rarely made it to the finish line, she admits. I think it was the damned significance of the thing. It worked me over worse than any Olympics or FIS.