World Cup course in top form |

World Cup course in top form

Jon Maletz
A Canadian ski racer trains on the giant slalom course Friday on Aspen Mountain. (Nathan Bilow/AP)

Julia Mancuso echoed the sentiments of both her teammates and opponents following Friday’s freeskiing session on Ajax’s World Cup giant slalom course. “If it’s hard, it’s good,” the Olympic giant slalom gold medalist said, “and this course is perfect.”Jim Hancock, chief of race for this weekend’s Winternational, isn’t willing to exhale just yet, he said. Especially not after what he and his crew have endured in the days and weeks leading up to today’s giant slalom.Fluctuating temperatures exacerbated snowmaking efforts, Hancock said. A week with substantial natural snowfall was followed by unseasonably warm temperatures. As a result, prepping the course was a constant and painstaking ordeal.The struggle seems worthwhile. The initial returns were positive.”All the coaches and teams we talked to were very happy and a bit surprised we could pull this off,” Hancock said. “The snow surface is excellent, so we won’t touch it.”

It wasn’t easy. Crews contended with many variables, including mud adjacent to the course, while procuring the racing surface. “You look around when you’re up there, and you don’t see snow,” Mancuso said.The conditions pale in comparison to last season, when nearly 2 1/2 feet of snow fell the week before race day. Hancock and others watched as hours of work were buried. Literally. Workers scrambled to remove excess snow.”There are a different set of problems every year,” Hancock said. “It’s a complex event.”To maximize what little snow they did create these past few weeks, Hancock and his crew injected it with water. After blowing snow, the group pushed it into large piles then pumped in water to increase the moisture. Cold temperatures yielded a hard surface.Once the course was tilled, Hancock and others inspected the run for soft spots. They then injected water deep into the snow using a pipe with holes at its base. The process occurred in areas such as Summer Road and Strawpile.

Injection was halted Thursday, but the course remains firm, Hancock said. The competitors agreed. “They’ve done a great job. The course is hard and icy, and I love ice,” said Sweden’s Anja Paerson, who won the slalom and took second in giant slalom in Aspen last season. “Last year, there was a lot of snow and more rollers, especially in the middle. It’s now a little rounder, which gives us more freedom.”American Libby Ludlow said the hard course will put a premium on speed and give the entire field a fighting chance. There’s also an added benefit: Ludlow, who broke her right thumb last week in a training crash at Keystone, hopes a fast course will help her make up for time lost trying to push out of the starting gates.”My starts won’t be as strong, but I’ll make it up in the turns,” said Ludlow, sporting a cast that covered her injured finger and a portion of her wrist. “This course suits me. There are minimal flats. It’s technical and steep.”

Vail’s Lindsey Kildow also said she felt comfortable on the hard snow. The 22-year-old, a three-time winner on the World Cup circuit in 2005-2006, hopes to improve on last season’s disappointing trip to Aspen; she took 30th in the slalom and did not qualify for a second giant slalom run.”There’s a lot of water in the snow, which can be a good or bad thing,” Kildow said. “It’s a little soft at the top, but that’s no problem. They’ll slip that out and it’ll be fine. The bottom’s holding up really well.”Save for a few skiers carrying shovels that will clear loose debris, the surface would not be touched after the course was set early Friday afternoon, Hancock said. Work did continue, however, as extra padding was added to the spill zones. The course is primed for today’s big stage, Hancock said.”We’re ready for a great weekend of races,” he added. “But I still won’t exhale until Sunday afternoon.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.comThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.

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