Wednesday, December 29, 2010

U.S. Nationals coming to Sun Valley

Is this Nordic Town USA? Sure seems like it in 2011

Express Staff Writer

Skiers race in the 2010 Boulder Mountain Tour north of Ketchum. Photo by Mountain Express

Starting last January with the advent of the Sun Valley Nordic Festival, the Wood River Valley began calling itself "Nordic Town USA."

It's only when you take a gander at the sequence of ambitious events scheduled for the winter of 2011 that you get the idea that Sun Valley and Ketchum—indeed, the entire valley—are really earning the designation.

Here (drum roll) is evidence:

First of all, the second annual Sun Valley Nordic Festival returns Jan. 29 to Feb. 6 capped by the 36th running of the SWIX Boulder Mountain Ski Tour/Half Boulder on Saturday, Feb. 5, north of Ketchum.

That's just for starters.

For the first time, Ketchum's Lake Creek trail system is hosting the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships (long course) on Saturday and Sunday, March 26-27. Courses are 50 kilometers for the men and 30k for the women.

If the imposing distances of 31 miles for men and nearly 19 miles for the women don't take your breath away, toss in that fact that it's a classic skiing event for added difficulty.

"The Lake Creek trails are hard, but we will also have climbs equal to the standard for World Cup races," said Rick Kapala, Nordic program director for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. "As part of the 50k, the racers will have go up our south-bench, 50-meter hill seven times, for about a total climb of 3,500 feet."

Only since 2007 has the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association separated its U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships into two events—the first in early January as a short-course challenge, the second in late March for its ski marathons.

"Most national ski teams have moved their long distance national races to the end of the season," Kapala said, "because running the 50k and 30k events in January can be debilitating for top racers who will be soon returning to the World Cup.

"And, to sweeten the pot for resorts hosting the long-course championships, you also have the option of staging the USSA Super Tour Finals as the last FIS (International Ski Federation) races of the season."

Nordic Town USA, better known as Ketchum and Sun Valley, exercised its option to host the Super Tour (formerly Spring Series) for the first time in 10 years. The last time the Spring Series came to Galena Lodge was way back in 2001.

The 2011 U.S. Nationals will fold right into the March 29 to April 2 USSA Super Tour finals, making it a huge week here.

"We hope to have 200 to 300 competitors here for the Super Tour finals," Kapala said. "Our goal is to stage the Super Tour finals for two straight years, starting this winter."

The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation is the host organization for the week of six high-level Nordic races capped by the Super Tour Pursuit Start Finals on Saturday, April 2, on Dollar Mountain. Partnering with the ski foundation are Sun Valley Resort and the Blaine County Recreation District (trail grooming).

Kapala expects competitors from Norway and the Canadian national team in addition to those from powerhouse Eastern ski academies and formidable Western NCAA ski programs like Denver University, New Mexico, University of Colorado and the University of Utah.

"I'm thinking the field will be really, really good," Kapala said. "These Super Tour races should be better FIS races for points than the U.S. Nationals. One Canadian recently told me he's never been so excited to come to ski and race at a Spring Series competition as he is to come to Sun Valley.

"We have the whole package—a great community, amazing ski trails and a fun town. My ulterior motive, ultimate dream, would be to host a World Cup finals—the three or four races that the World Cup runs at the end of its season."

So, why now, except for the fact that the Wood River Valley has been strutting the Nordic Town USA label?

"We felt it was time to put the sport back out in front," Kapala said. "First of all, it's part of the overall marketing effort the community has undertaken the last couple of years.

"Second, it's the right time for us as the SVSEF. One of our athletes, Morgan Arritola, is reaching the zenith of her racing career in the next four to six years. Also, we're continually developing our Olympic Development Team program and we're consistently having athletes from college stepping back into our ODT team."

Another factor in hosting national events is the mile-high elevation of the Wood River Valley—with the 2014 Winter Olympics 1,135 days away and the Caucasus Mountains outside Sochi, Russia, the ultimate destination for Nordic skiers.

Since the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics were conducted at lower-elevation sites Torino, Italy, (2006) and Vancouver, B.C., Canada, (2010), the USSA had been moving its higher-level competitions to lower-level locations, Kapala said.

The Krasnaya Polyana mountain cluster 30 miles from Sochi is more of a "higher-elevation site," he added, meaning U.S. national competitions in 2013 and 2014 should gravitate to higher-elevation locations.

"We need to have those athletes prepared for high-altitude Olympics," Kapala said.

The USSA Super Tour races at Lake Creek will be held in a Mini-Tour format. The series of four races will build to a grand finale atop Dollar Mountain, complete with annoying World Cup soccer vuvuzela noisemakers given out free to spectators who climb to the top of the course, Kapala said.

Prologue races (4.5k men, 3.5k women) on Tuesday, March 29, at Lake Creek are designed "to set the field," Kapala said. The mass start classic 15k (men) and 10k (women) races on Wednesday, March 30, will be at Lake Creek or Sun Valley Nordic. Thursday is an off day.

Individual sprint races are Friday, April 1, at either Lake Creek or Sun Valley Nordic.

Based on their sprint finishes, racers will have bonus time subtracted to determine their starts for the Pursuit Start finale on Saturday, April 2. It should be quite a challenging course on Dollar Mountain, with the first person to cross the finish atop the hill's summit earning the overall title.

"We'll start near Quarter Dollar and go up and over towards Elkhorn, then back towards Dollar summit," Kapala said. "The elevation gain should be 650 to 700 feet."

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