Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!

belatedly, hochfilzen.

IMGP2912A long time ago, back in December, I visited Austria. I was so busy, drowning in my thesis and also working at World Cup biathlon races while I was there. Then I flitted over to Davos to keep working, more thesis, more World Cup. I never got to write about my time in Austria.

So here it is! My thesis is handed in, I have a bit of a cold so I can’t go skiing today, and so I will write a few words about Hochfilzen. First off, it was amazing how easy the trip was. I hopped on a train in Munich and was soon floating past the Austrian Alps. We went by Kitzbühel, one of those places you hear about over and over again if you pay any attention at all to the alpine ski racing scene. It’s among the most famous destinations in the Alps and the hardest downhill courses on the World Cup. I pretty much never thought I’d go there.

Hochfilzen, my destination, is just a few stops on the train past Kitzbühel. The total travel time was just over two hours. Munich folks, get to this part of the Alps. It’s an easy trip and it’s beautiful. And, unlike much of the Alps at that time, it was snowing, big, glorious dumps of snow! The mountains were actually covered in white, which was a very welcome sight given that most ski races were being held in the middle of brown.

I checked into my little hotel, which was conveniently located just across from a trailhead for the ski tracks. So I gobbled down a sandwich for lunch and immediately headed out. It was my first time on snow all season and it was a joy! There was not so so much snow but enough for a few kilometers of a loop. As always I felt that freedom and exhiliration that comes from having glide, no longer being weighed down by friction or the pause of your feet on the pavement. Snow! What a wonderful thing.

In the next days I went for a few more skis, and Hochfilzen is truly a great place to cross-country ski. The trails connected several little village centers, so it was possible to ski back and forth up the valleys that extend in several directions. Just look at all of this. I didn’t get to explore very much of the total extent of the network. (click to enlarge)

trailmap

Often I was the only one on these trails (okay, one day it was dumping buckets of snow and the trails hadn’t been groomed, that might be why). With the mountains rising up all around me, I just felt incredible. The Tyrolian Alps aren’t particularly tall – the mountain at Kitzbühel, called Hahnenkamm, is just under 6,000 feet – but they are rocky and craggy and look very epic. You forget that you’re not at a much, much higher elevation.

Another nice thing about Austria is that it’s sort of cheap, at least compared to Munich or Switzerland. I stayed in a quite nice hotel with a wonderful breakfast – I would say the best, except these breakfasts are standard in the alps. Bread, jam, cheese, hams, yogurt and muesli, fruit, you name it. All healthy things, but such a spread that it’s hard not to smile as you get out of bread.

The town of Hochfilzen is very very small (just over 1,000 people – about the size of my hometown of Lyme, and it’s crazy to think of such a place hosting a World Cup), so there wasn’t much to do. I did go out one night for a “business meeting” which devolved into a much less formal situation. The only place we could find to eat and grab a beer was a little smoke-filled bar/restaurant. The food was good, but I left smelling of cigarette smoke.

Another highlight was the fact that I got to spend really a lot of time with my friends on the biathlon team. Hannah, Susan, and Sara were all racing, as well as Annelies and Lanny, who unlike the first three were not my teammates at Dartmouth but whom I’ve gotten to know over the last few years. Twice I went over to their hotel in the evening and just hung out. It was so great to be able to have some unscheduled time with them and just let the conversation wander wherever we wanted it to. It’s very rare that I get to see my American friends when I’m over in Europe, and it’s the same for them. I owe a big thank you to the U.S. team staff who let me waltz in on the team and spend time with them.

Finally, I worked a lot a lot a lot. They were exciting races with beautiful scenery. The only pictures I took were on the race course, but I think that is a great way to show you what this part of Austria is actually like. So, without further ado, here they are! Click any photo to enlarge (better quality!) and start a slideshow you can tab through.

State of the Ski Union

Carl Swenson (red legs) skiing the Holmenkollen World Cup, 2006. Photo: Dennis Donahue.

Carl Swenson (red legs) skiing the Holmenkollen World Cup, 2006. Photo: Dennis Donahue.

Something happened this week in the Czech Republic.

World Championships for all the nordic disciplines – jumping, nordic combined, and straight-up cross-country – were held in Liberec over the last week. Why are these races more important than regular World Cup races? Added bragging rights, and because everyone shows up. When there’s a World Cup in North America, many Europeans skip it, and we can’t afford to field full teams for races across the pond.

On one of the first days of competition, Lindsey Van won the first ever women’s ski jumping world championship. Then in three nordic combined events, Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong combined for four medals including every available gold.

This was an incredibly impressive performance by the Americans. At one point we were leading the overall medal count, which was unprecedented.

But Demong and Lodwick each have multiple World Cup victories under their belts. What about the last of the nordic disciplines competing in the Czech Republic, my own sport, plain nordic?

Since the last Olympics, sprinters Kikkan Randall, Torin Koos, and Andy Newell have exactly a handful of World Cup podiums between them, including one win. There were no comparable results for distance skiers, and this was an improvement over the preceding Olympic cycle.

American skiing hasn’t been much competition for the Scandinavians, the Russians, the Italians, the French, or, well, the Europeans in general over the last years. Even Canada had Becky Scott, who narrowly missed bagging the season-long World Cup overall title a few years ago, and Chandra Crawford, who won gold in the last Olympic sprint.

It’s not that our skiers aren’t fast. As an athlete at my level, it feels a little bit like blasphemy to say that they are less than the best. They have shown flashes of brilliance, teasing the community with hints of what they could do on a regular basis. But they have often left us asking, why can’t they take that next step?

In Liberec’s opening race, Randall posted her best-ever distance result, 26th. The next day Kris Freeman finished 4th in a 15k race, less than two seconds out of a medal. In the pursuit, Liz Stephen finished 15th.

Then came the sprint. Randall won a silver medal. Newell was 12th – good, but after Randall’s performance, overshadowed.

The long-distance races are always saved for last at events like this. In the 30k, Stephen finished 17th, followed by Morgan Arritola in 22nd.

These results are a leap forward; for the last decade, our culture has been steeped in inferiority and cautious optimism. It’s a culture of “maybe they’ll finally do it this time.” To a skier like me, it’s a culture of “if I’m this weak against an American field, I would be terrible compared to the Euros.”

So, while my coach Cami Thompson has been quoted as saying “I don’t think it’s unbelievable at all, they’ve been moving toward this for years,” the fact that they finally got there is extremely exciting.

Indeed, to some these results might feel like a proclamation: we have arrived. Maybe we can’t fund a full team for the World Cup circuit, but when Americans show up, they mean business.

As lower-level skiers, maybe we’re not the small fish in the smallest pond. Maybe we’re small fish in a normal pond where the big fish might just be the best of all of them.

To make sure that I wasn’t completely misinterpreting the situation, I turned to my Dartmouth teammate Rosie Brennan, who is a member of the U.S. Ski Team.

Rosie competes for Dartmouth, but she spends some of her time training with Stephen and Arritola and their coaches. Do their results give her more confidence in her own skiing?

“Watching the results come in day after day from Worlds has without a doubt given me inspiration and some level of confidence that what we are doing is working,” said Brennan. “Sooner or later I can be there too.”

But, she continued, “It brings mixed feelings. Sometimes I tell myself, they are over there killing it, I can totally be in there too. Other times I think, well I’m not over there and they clearly just made a huge step up in their level of skiing while I’m still here.”

Brennan won Friday’s Eastern college championship 5k by over a minute, so she’s obviously not slowing down even though she’s stuck in the United States. But her comments serve as a reminder of the recent development strategy for outstanding young athletes.

Stephen is my age and started racing exactly the same year I did, when we were both sophomores in high school. I remember meeting her at my very first Eastern Cup race that year. She finished second; I finished second to last.

Stephen and Arritola – one year her senior – have had very disciplined developments as racers. Despite being two of the best skiers in the country, they were not pushed into World Cup competition. Instead, the U.S. Ski Team focused on teaching them to race in Europe before teaching them to race the World Cup in Europe. It obviously worked.

So it makes sense that Brennan has some regret that she wasn’t joining them in Europe, and was instead stuck decimating the college field. But some day, she’ll be there too. Brennan is aiming for the Olympics, and if she makes it, these results will give her more confidence to go for it instead of just feeling lucky to be there. Now she’s even more sure that she and her teammates would have “a good chance of getting some good results.”

In the end, does anything change for the small fish like me? Probably not. But it gives us something to get excited about.

Big Green vs. the World

Cheering for our teammate Ali Crocker at the Silver Star World Cup, 2005.

Cheering for our teammate Ali Crocker at the Silver Star World Cup, 2005.

With Dartmouth Winter Carnival fast approaching, students are hurrying to finish their work so that they can drink and dance at the fraternities.

But many Dartmouth students forget that Winter Carnival was initially founded as a weekend to celebrate outdoor activites, particularly that fledgling college sport: skiing. The first carnival ski races were swept by A.T. Cobb, class of 1912. Since then, Dartmouth skiing has never looked back.

It is no secret that Dartmouth has been very successful in NCAA competition. But what about after these skiers graduate? It turns out that they keep racing. Many of my former teammates are now competing internationally.

This includes Mikey Sinnott and Kristina Trygstad-Saari, both class of 2007, chosen to represent the U.S. in World Cup competition this January; Sam Naney, class of 2006, and older graduates Brayton Osgood and Kate Arduser, who have raced all over the world; 2007 and 2008 captains Sara Studebaker and Susan Dunklee, who just returned from biathlon competition in Europe; and Carolyn Bramante, class of 2006, has already represented the U.S. in one Olympics and is aiming for a second.

There are more Dartmouth grads on the international circuit than alumni from almost any other school. Why? I asked some of these athletes for their opinions.

First there are the details. Day to day life on the Dartmouth Ski Team forces athletes to take responsibility for their own training. While there is a weekly plan, we have to adjust each workout based on what our bodies are telling us. Dunklee said, “I came out of Dartmouth with a firm grasp of the theory behind the training plan and a good feeling for when and when not to push myself hard.”

This doesn’t change on race day. We test our own skis and wax, and contribute to selecting the team’s race wax. We are responsible for finding our own best warm-up routines, making intelligent breakfast choices, and nearly everything else that goes into race preparation.

Junior Katie Bono believes that these small things are what will help her most in her post-collegiate career. “The way the team is set up gives athletes skills to keep skiing after college. The coaches don’t coddle you. You have to be on top of your stuff and strong in your sense of self.”

While Sinnott agrees that the team has always had a culture of “never giving in, and being tougher than the rest,” it’s not all stoicism and responsibility.

Dartmouth also emphasizes love of the sport and even has an annual award for the skier who most embodies “skiing as a way of life.” Dunklee says, “The team has the right attitude: training hard balanced with playing hard.  It keeps people enjoying the sport, and as a result they don’t burn out as easily.”

We are encouraged to run longer than we’ve ever run, to start a race and without being afraid of failure, to experiment. We go ski just for the pure joy of it. Racing is important, but if you don’t love the skiing in its own right, you can’t excel at it. We make sure we have fun.

Says Bramante, “This fosters a love for the sport and others in the sport, which is absolutely important!”

Cami Thompson, the women’s coach, agrees. The focus is never on just a single race result, or just the six-week college season, or even just a collegiate career. “Our mission to develop skiers; we want them to get better while they’re here. It’s just a step along the way in the process. Ruff (Patterson) and I feel strongly that it’s a process. We want people to look at the bigger picture.”

And so, while the program may force athletes to take responsibility for their own training and racing, and it may promote grueling but fun adventures we would never have had the guts to try before we got here, it is perhaps a philosophical difference that separates us from the rest.

Sinnott says, “The most interesting comparison is to the western schools, who have recruiting resources, scholarships, less demanding academic standards, and consistent snow.  Yet they rarely produce an American skier who continues their career.”

Thompson points out that these Western state schools are more interested in recruiting athletes – often from Europe – who are already going fast. They are most concerned with how their program will fare that year, or how that athlete will fare as a college skier. That’s how they spend their money.

Dartmouth is different. Cami and Ruff are willing to work with skiers like me, who didn’t come in with a lot of credentials. They take these skiers and develop them alongside their recruited talent, to the benefit of everyone.

The team focuses not only on NCAA’s, but also races at SuperTours, U.S. Nationals, Spring Series, and, occasionally, Canadian Nationals. Brayton Osgood, class of 2003, says that “Ruff always made sure we were aware of skiing beyond the EISA circuit. College racing was important, but so were US Nationals and international competition.”

One of the first times I was really aware of international racing was in high school. At the 2003 Cross Country World Championships, Dartmouth graduate Carl Swenson, in a 50 kilometer skate race, was skiing well with a shot at the podium when he broke a pole. He skied with a broken pole for a while, got a new one, and eventually ended up 5th.

Swenson is finishing law school now, but, Sinnott points out, “There has always been a Dartmouth skier at the Winter Olympic Games. ” Osgood, Sinnott, Bramante, Studebaker, and Dunklee all state that they hope and plan to ski in Vancouver in 2010, and even beyond.

Thompson says, “After years at Dartmouth, that’s the thing we’re the most proud of, is the number of people who are still involved in skiing.”

The rest of us may be stuck in school, but knowing that our teammates are out there, going for it, gives us the confidence to think that maybe, once we’re done with school, we might be able to do the same thing. In the meantime, we’ll sport the green as part of a team with a proud tradition.