Snowmakers come up big in 24 Hours |

Snowmakers come up big in 24 Hours

Apart from the sheer effort that round-the-clock downhill racing demands, the hallmark of the 24 Hours of Aspen has always been the gnarly terrain features that define the course.

The high-speed rollers at the base of Pumphouse Hill and Chairs 3 and 6, the NASTAR-style, make-or-break Kleenex Corner and the often underestimated compressions on Little Nell have all contributed to the undoing (read: spectacular crashes) of racers in the 14-year history of the event.

And while this year’s racers won’t have the benefit of a teammate as the race shifts from a two-person to an individual format for the first time, the 12 men and five women may already have all the teammates they need in Aspen Mountain’s grooming and snowmaking crews.

According to Scott Nichols, who has served as the 24 Hours chief of race in all but three races (when he himself was racing), the course has never been in better shape.

“It’s the best the course has ever, ever looked,” he said Tuesday. “It’s baby-butt smooth, as we like to say, which lends itself to less attrition.

“There’s going to be fewer compressions, and I would definitely have to say there will be less air, so it should take less of a toll on racers’ bodies.”

All 17 racers were due in town last night for the first of several fund-raising events. The first training run is scheduled for Thursday at 7 a.m. That night, the racers will make their only nighttime training run under the lights.

Two more training runs are slated for Friday and Saturday mornings, with the finale a timed run that will establish who goes first at noon Sunday.

Once under way, racers will start in 45-second intervals. Should a racer catch up with another, the two will ride the gondola together and the “caught” racer will be delayed 10 seconds at the top. “Historically, racing has always been man versus the mountain against the clock,” Nichols said. “This year’s event is going to epitomize that.”

As usual, the racer with the lowest cumulative on-snow time wins, assuming they’ve maintained the lap pace. Judging from past events, racers will be approaching 80 laps when noon Monday rolls around.

The course, which stretches 2.4 miles down 3,200 vertical feet from the Sundeck to the base of the gondola, is already close to resembling a speed-skiing track, with a few turns, of course. And it promises to be nearly as fast.

“It’s excellent racing snow. Once the glaze on the track is established, you’re going to be anywhere from 80 miles an hour to low 90s,” Nichols said. “And I’d have to say with the hardness of the snow, we won’t see the deterioration, the holes, that you might have seen in years past.”

Nichols credits Steve Fischer, head of the grooming department, and Frank White, head of the snowmaking department, who have led a crew of about 45 workers in preparing for the race.

“It’s amazing how they can go from one side of the mountain and nail it for the World Cup, and then come over here and prepare it for a great 24 Hours race,” Nichols said. “Hats off to these guys.”

Grooming specialist Joe Giampaolo (who fans may remember for forerunning the course last year on a mountain bike) has been hard at work the last few nights smoothing out a few historic danger zones, like the Pumphouse rollers and the dips in Little Nell.

“Joe knows exactly the line and what needs to be done,” Nichols said. “Joe and the guys are putting their hearts into this course to ensure a great race for all the competitors.”

At the infamous Kleenex Corner, where Team Canada (which included Roman Torn, who returns this year) crashed in 2000, enabling the Swiss to overtake them and eventually win, race crews have worked to widen the path.

“If there’s a technical aspect to this race, it’s right there,” said Nichols. “Instead of a banked turn, we’re going for the width, which will allow the racers to set up for the fastest line. There’s more room there than any race before.”

The men’s field includes two locals in Casey Puckett, a 13-year U.S. Ski Team veteran and four-time Olympian, and Fletcher Yaw, who finished third last year with teammate Matt Ross of Aspen.

Four-time World Cup downhill winner William Besse of Switzerland highlights the international field, along with the defending champion German team of Christian Deissenboeck and Michael Brunner, both of whom raced with the German National Team for 10 years.

World Cup speed-skiing champion Philippe May of Switzerland, 10-year Slovenian National Team racer Ales Brzavscek, 12-year Polish National Team racer and two-time Olympian Marcin Szafranski and accomplished freeskier Geoff Small of New Zealand are among the standout rookies in the field.

On the women’s side, Aspen’s Asia Jenkins returns after a second-place finish in 2000, along with Aspen native Lindsay Yaw, who along with brother Fletcher make up the first sister-brother duo in the field. And the women’s champs from last year, Canadians Aleisha Cline and Anik Demers, will be back, like the German men, dueling against one another this year.

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is]

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