By John Estle
If you were on the Jim Whisenhant Ski Trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area this summer, you no doubt noticed that work was being done on the trails, specifically:
• Creation of a short segment of new trail in the White Bear Access area between the bottom of Sidewinder and the White Bear entrance sign
• Creation of a short segment of new trail at the north end of the first outbound leg of the North 40
• Widening and smoothing on the final 500 meters of the North 40
• Widening and smoothing on the first 100 meters of the Tommyknocker and the full length of the Tommyknocker Extension
• Widening, smoothing and straightening the final climb on the Competition Loop
• Creation of a short segment of trail toward the north end of the Warmup Loop
Why the work? There are two reasons. The first is that we needed to prepare courses for the 2017 US Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) Distance National Championships and SuperTour Finals, scheduled for March 27-April 2, 2017. The second, but equally important reason, is to improve the “groomability” of those trails.
Did the Birch Hill competition courses really need more work? In a word, yes. It is true that we did a lot of work during 2011 and 2012 to get ready for the 2013 USSA Junior National Championships. The Distance National Championships and SuperTour Finals are races for seniors, not juniors. That means we need courses that are longer than junior courses to accommodate the National Championship Men’s 50 km (kilometer) and Women’s 30 km events. Also, we need courses (especially a sprint course) that are harder than junior courses. Those were goals of the design and construction work on the trails.
Regarding groomability – Head Groomer Tom Helmers now has four years of experience with the PistenBully 200 and has a very good handle on what trails groom well, and what trails are difficult to groom. All of the construction work has been done by Tom (using an excavator, a bulldozer, and the NSCF’s skidsteer) in a manner that will make grooming more efficient, and that will improve the end product.
The best part about all the work is that it improves the safety and enjoyability of skiing for all who ski at Birch Hill. A trail that grooms well is a trail that skis well. While the new trail segments will make it possible to create competition courses that are more difficult than our existing courses, the new segments are not, in and of themselves, difficult to ski. No uphills have been made steeper, longer or harder, and no new difficult uphills have been created.
(Photo by Eric Troyer: New trail section that links two parts of the White Bear.)
The new segments allow us to connect existing trail segments in new ways that create challenging courses – but only the racers have to ski those segments in that order. Also, the widening of the existing sections to International Ski Federation (FIS) width standards enables us to include those segments in our new racecourses. So, we are able to create many new courses while building less than 100 meters of new trails.
In order for the NSCF and Birch Hill to host these races, the courses that we plan to use must be certified (“homologated” in FIS-speak) as suitable according to the FIS course standards. These standards include minimum and maximum requirements for total climb (TC), maximum single climb (MC) and the number of “big” climbs, as well as minimum width requirements. We have no problem meeting the climbing requirements, but our big challenge is to meet the minimum width requirements, which are 9 to 10 meters on uphills for mass start and sprint events. Three of the Distance National Championships and SuperTour Finals events are mass starts (skiathlon, relay, and 30/50), and the fourth is a sprint.
The major additions to our array of competition courses are 7.5-km and 8.3-km courses to be used in the mass start 50-km and 30-km races, respectively, and a new sprint course suitable for seniors. The 50-km and 30-km races will be the final two races of the series – and the final races of the season for most of the skiers. The men will use our standard South Tower 5 km for the first lap, then will make six laps of the 7.5 km to get in 50 km. The women will start on the South Tower, then cover the 8.3 km three times to make a total of 30 km.
In addition to the 7.5 km and 8.3 km courses, we will be “homologating” two different 3.75 km courses for the skiathlon (one for the classic leg, one for the skate leg), two 2.5 km courses for the relay (one classic and one skate) and a new sprint course. These courses will be very challenging and will be on a par with the international courses that US Ski Team skiers compete on throughout the winter.
Any of you who have been paying attention to World Cup and World Loppet races over the past few years are aware of the trend that has seen male skiers double-pole entire courses in classic technique events – from sprints to the 90 km Vasaloppet.
Double-poling has been especially prevalent in classic sprints, so it was important to create a sprint course that would cause skiers to think twice before choosing to double-pole. ANY course can be double-poled. So, it would be pretty dumb to repeat the stupidity exhibited by FIS 30 years ago as skating was starting when the powers that be tried (unsuccessfully) to build courses that were “impossible to skate.” Not to mention putting up fences alongside the tracks, putting ridges between tracks, etc. So we didn’t try to create a course that was IMPOSSIBLE to double-pole – only a course that would make the choice difficult.
In order to make sure we were on the right track with our sprint course, we brought up Kikkan Randall last January to assist us in laying out our sprint course. Kikkan has probably skied in more World Cup sprints than any other American, and there are probably only a handful of skiers in the world who have skied in as many sprints as she. Kikkan spent a few hours with us skiing around the course and giving us feedback and recommendations on route choices and length.
Kikkan is very excited about the new sprint course, as are we. It is highly likely that Kikkan will be in Fairbanks in March to race on the new course along with all the top US Ski Team World Cup skiers. It will be a good test. If people want to double-pole our new sprint course, more power to them. But I think that it will be hard to win if you choose double-poling.
If you want to see what the “big boys and girls” ski, you might want to take a spin around the racecourses occasionally during the coming winter. Not only will you gain a little respect for their work capacity, but you’ll get a better idea of where you might want to stand when you are spectating. Watching World Cup skiers on World Cup-level courses is amazing. We hope you come out and enjoy the new courses, both skiing and spectating.