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The perfect slope

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The perfect slope
On race day, the spotlight is on the course. Fenced off by kilometres of safety net and adorned by sponsor branding, the slope glows with the gates and blue dye charting the ideal line. Questions abound: How is the snow? Is it fast, slick, bumpy? How about the course set? Who will do well given the conditions? By definition, skiing is an outdoor sport and the race slope thus a variable that may be difficult to control.
The ideal race course
A textbook race course is one that allows all racers to deliver their top performances in safe and equal conditions. Nowadays that means a course with compact snow that maintains its density as all racers complete their runs. In reality, compact has become synonymous with icy and course preparation in all its facets has developed into a science of its own. A superior race course today depends both on the immense work of the competition management with the slope crew and a long-term commitment on behalf of the local stakeholders.
Before the sunrise
Early in the morning before a race, long before the day even dawns, the local organiser’s slope crew joins the FIS officials and national head coaches for an inspection to check conditions and confirm the programme of the day. Typically, a large number of slope workers stands ready to do whatever it takes to ensure that everything is perfect on the D-Day. Given that ski racing is a sport at the mercy of the weather, even the best plan can go awry in case of overnight snowfall, wind or fog. That’s when the local organisers and FIS professionals draw on their vast experience to find a solution to deliver the race as planned. “Fact is, skiing takes place in the mountains. Over the years, we have embraced this challenge and developed huge know-how in working with our environment. We are now able to deal with Mother Nature quite well,” says Jean-Philippe Vulliet, the FIS Race Director for the speed events in the ladies’ World Cup, who has decades of experience both as coach and as ski racing official. “In the end, if a race cannot happen that day, it means that even our last resort option has been exhausted and that’s seldom the case.”
From natural to artificial snow
German ski racing veteran Günter Hujara has spent his entire career in skiing, including 31 years as FIS Chief Race Director for the men’s World Cup. He has witnessed first-hand the different developmental stages in course preparation. “When I started in the early 1990s, the organisers worldwide were doing their best given their respective geographical circumstances but the slopes were often uneven and the lowest start numbers from 1-6 had a massive advantage over all others. Our work since then has concentrated on making them as consistent as possible so that all racers would have an even chance.” The introduction of snow-making has been a main dimension of this development. Man-made snow is the norm on 100 percent of the race courses today but it took years to gain universal acceptance in the ski world. Standardised snow-making simplifies slope preparation and production processes can even be tailored to prevailing weather conditions. Adding water into the snow either by spraying through the snow-making system or injecting it with the help of a special injection bar are common practices now used to optimise snow density and durability. Salting the course – earlier often with fertiliser, now only with natural salt – is yet another means used to harden the course in special weather circumstances.
Long-term effort
Few people realise, however, that much of the work for the perfect race slope is not done in the final days before the race but much earlier, in the months or years before. In Hujara’s experience, the key to success on race day is the host community’s commitment to ski racing. He outlines four factors that play a role in ensuring ideal racing conditions: slope maintenance, snow management infrastructure, the chief of course and local race organisation. “In the final analysis, it comes down to the level of effort that the local community is willing to invest over time. And that starts with the maintenance of the slope year-round, from mowing the grass to regularly removing rocks and roots to shaping the natural growth of trees and bushes along the sides. The state of snow management technology is another key component. Modern snow-making equipment is highly optimised and computer-controlled. Producing snow for racing purposes requires specialised expertise and differs from snow used for tourist pistes. The same goes for the skills and experience of snow-cat drivers, the gear they have at their disposal and their training; all have different demands for racing as opposed to recreational skiing.”
Local resources with deep know-how
Besides the infrastructure, human resources with local knowledge and long-term involvement are fundamental. Hujara résumés: “The local organiser’s chief of course is a key individual who draws on his years of experience with the slope and oversees the team working to maintain and prepare it for the race long before the white circus even arrives. Finally, the sport organisation within the organising committee led by the chief of competition relies on their knowledge of the weather and experience with local variables.” These variables can range from trends in precipitation to air humidity, wind direction and the course’s own peculiarities, other infrastructure, resort traditions, local stakeholders and more. In the end, the level of local commitment is determined by the importance attested to ski racing compared with ski tourism. In resorts with long lift lines it is difficult to argue for long slope closings to hold races. In other ski areas, enabling training and racing is an integral part of the destination’s strategy for winter sport. In the latter cases, there is often a visionary and highly committed individual driving the development of an entire community.
Everyone’s nalle
Nalle Hansson, 66, is well known in his hometown of Åre, Sweden. The village is Sweden's top resort, the largest north of the Alps, and Nalle was in charge of the racing arena and infrastructure there for 36 years. After a decade of coaching the Swedish teams, he returned to his home town and started a job as Chief of Lifts in 1980. Step-by-step, Nalle worked to improve the resort’s infrastructure and one of his biggest coups was the approval to develop a proper downhill course in Åre in 1983. Thanks to life-long relationships in the region and contacts with the Swedish Ski Association and FIS, Nalle was able to navigate between the emerging requirements of elite racing and local demands. Even the change of the lift company’s ownership from local hands to the Swedish ski resort operator SkiStar in 2000 did not stop him. Nalle was one of the masterminds behind Åre’s campaigning for the second FIS World Ski Championships in town. In 2002, Åre won the right to host the 2007 edition.
Not a regular resort
For Nalle Hansson, having events is critical for developing a resort and its offering. He is certain that the World Championships is the reason why Åre these days is not just a regular ski resort but a charming town with international appeal and outstanding skiing. “Åre would not be what it is without ski racing. We needed the FIS World Cup events here in town after the Stenmark years. Then winning the bid for the 2007 World Championships helped us take the next step. We worked day and night, and were able to upgrade much of the infrastructure, build new lifts, install snow-making and flood-lighting, and much more.” For ski racing, Åre would not be the jewel that it is without Nalle, who retired in 2016 after staging more than 100 World Cup races. The resort’s investment in training facilities has also been key to the development of new generations of world-class ski racers in Sweden. Some of them are well-known even to the casual ski fan; who would admit not knowing Pernilla Wiberg or Anja Pärson?
It takes a team
Even in a resort with leading-edge technology and infrastructure, the sport organisation remains the largest department in a local World Cup organising committee. At the St. Moritz 2017 World Championships, a third of the workforce worked with sport. Besides the course crew and slippers, their roles included being gate keepers, gate judges, start and finish area workers, anti-doping chaperones or timing assistants. The slippers, who clean the course of excess snow in between the racers, are an indispensable part of the team. Depending on the weather and snow conditions, some 100 are needed to help manage the course at a World Cup event. At a two-week World Championships with separate men’s and ladies’ courses, the total sport organisation will amount to approximately 400 people of which 100-120 highly able skiers will work as slippers. At a City Event where the course is around 180 metres long, only two or three dozen are needed. No matter what the length of the piste, however, it clearly takes a team to prepare the perfect race slope. A team in which each and everyone’s efforts are essential for success on race day.
Few people realise, however, that much of the work for the perfect race slope is not done in the final days before the race but much earlier, in the months or years before.