24 Hours ski race turns to solo format | AspenTimes.com

24 Hours ski race turns to solo format

No teams, no drafting and certainly no excuses.

In the single greatest shakeup in the history of the 24 Hours of Aspen endurance ski race, officials are eliminating the two-person team format. Instead of the usual slate of about 10 teams when the 14th annual charity event returns to Aspen Mountain Dec. 15-16, racers will be going it alone ? all 12 men and six women, all 24 hours.

“The world’s toughest endurance ski race just got tougher,” said 24 Hours event director Nancy Scheinkman.

The switch, an effort to put a competitive charge into an increasingly stale event from a pure racing perspective, has already produced the desired results.

Seventeen of the 18 slots are filled with the likes of 1994 Olympic downhill champion and super G silver medalist Tommy Moe of Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Switzerland’s William Besse, a four-time World Cup winner and 14-time podium finisher; and Casey Puckett of Old Snowmass, one of just two American male alpine racers to appear in four Olympics.

“This is the strongest lineup that we’ve ever had by far,” Scheinkman said.

The format shift may have the greatest impact on the women’s side. Instead of two women’s teams dueling for the crown, as has been the case in recent years, six women will be in the hunt.

“When a team had been ahead at midnight, you pretty much knew who was going to win it,” Scheinkman said. “We threw all kinds of ideas around about how to shake it up a bit ? a multidiscipline event, a relay thing, and then this solo race came up.”

“We were looking for a more competitive women’s race, more strategy and possibly more lead changes late in the race,” added Jeff Hanle, communications manager at the Aspen Skiing Co. “And, of course, the field that we’ve got is a field that we hadn’t been able to get for previous races.”

In the past, both racers on a team had to complete each lap down the gut of Ajax together ? a tally that typically reaches the mid-70s for the winners. The advantage, however, was the ability to draft behind one another, making the grueling enterprise slightly more tolerable. This year, not only will racers be on their own, drafting another racer is against the rules. As usual, winners will be determined by the lowest cumulative on-snow time, provided they’ve maintained the lap pace.

“It should be interesting,” said Asia Jenkins of Aspen.

Jenkins, the 2000 women’s runner-up with partner Heather Paul of Crested Butte (when admittedly it was a just a two-team race for women), is returning after a hiatus from the slopes last year.

“I would’ve done it last year but I couldn’t find a partner,” the 1994 Aspen High graduate said, echoing an oft-heard sentiment that helped prompt the switch. “But the year I did it with Heather, I ended up leading all the time anyway, so I figured out I’d be able to finish the race alone. If anything, it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Last year’s women’s champs, Team Canada’s Anik Demers and Aleisha Cline (also the 2001 X Games skiercross champ), are among four Canadian women in the field this year, along with rookies Wendy Lumby and Edith Rozsa.

Aspen native Lindsay Yaw will be making her 24 Hours debut, while older brother Fletcher, a manager at Surefoot in Aspen, is returning after a third-place finish with Matt Ross last year.

Last year’s men’s winners, Christian Deisenboeck and Michael Brunner, are both slated to race, along with Canadian veteran Roman Torn and Robert Moze, one half of the lovable Team Switzerland, the champions in 2000 and runners-up last year. (Arno Hoenicke, Moze’s partner the last two years, was injured while racing the Compac 50K in Queenstown, New Zealand, in July and cannot compete.)

The men’s newcomers include New Zealand’s Geoff Small, Poland’s Marcin Szafranski, Swiss speed-skier Philippe May, along with Moe, Besse and Puckett, the most decorated athletes ever to compete in the 24 Hours.

“We’ve always considered the team aspect an important and valuable part of the race,” Scheinkman said, “but we’ve gotten positive feedback on the change because some of the top racers, like Tommy Moe, have had trouble finding partners in the past that they’re comfortable tailing at 100 mph.

“In general, I’d say there are some racers who are disappointed, but I’ve received overwhelming support for the format change.”

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com]

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