Our Early Season Advantage

Updated –Lake Louise and Killington confirmed” were welcome words from the International Ski Federation (FIS) for the ski racing community of North America. Finally, the weather cooperated and at least the ladies World Cup Tour of North America could proceed without disruption.

killington2The anxious days awaiting the final decision of “snow control” prompted a wide discussion about why the World Cup races are held in Canada and US in this specific time frame. All sorts of rumour and debate floated across mainstream and social media.

So a little Corporate Memory might be in order.

The first early season World Cup race in North America was held at Park City on November 29-30, 1986. “America’s Opening” became a fixture on the World Cup Tour from season 1991-92, initially alternating men and ladies. Other early season US races included stops at Breckenridge (1991), Steamboat and Vail (1992).

In an unusual move for the FIS, the entire ladies Tour in December 1992 took place in North America, as Lake Louise moved their speed events from the spring to December for the first Canadian early-season race. The following season continued this philosophy, with the men in North America at Park City and Stoneham.

But here is a fact the North American World Cup organizers can be very proud of. Every season since 1994, the ladies calendar has featured Canadian and US races to start the ‘core’ season. Even in this challenging year, the courageous efforts of the race organizers in Lake Louise and Killington met snow control with the build-out of their venues and competition slopes – and have kept this run intact.

So why do the North American organizers take on the risk every year to host World cup races? Because they can.

First, let’s look at Lake Louise. From 1992, (after a one-year hiatus in 1993) the volunteer race crew – known as the “Sled Dogs” – have organized ladies races continuously for 22 years. The men were included in the Lake Louise program from 1999.

But how about this fact: the Lake Louise World Cup halakelouise1s the best track record for staging of races on the entire World Cup circuit. The unfortunate cancellation of the men’s races due to lack of snow earlier this year is the first for Lake Louise since 1980. With a total of 112 competitions, 103 have been held in November and December. For accuracy, there were two races out of the 112 total that were cancelled – both for too much snow – a slalom in 1991 when a last minute deluge of snow made it impossible to make a firm surface and a downhill in 1995 which was controversially cancelled at racer #29 when a snow squall hit the track during the race.

Positioned at 51º North, with the sun low in the sky in the early season time frame, with the help of both Mother Nature and snowmaking, Lake Louise has delivered. Every year.

lakelouise2The men’s race is calendared as the first speed event of the winter. Lake Louise is given quite a bit of latitude in meeting “snow control” by the FIS Race Pros, as there is no other spot on the planet that can host a World Cup speed race in the final week of November – with any confidence or guarantee which is necessary for the staging of such events.

Even with the unusually dry and warm conditions that were impacting western North America the past few weeks, Lake Louise only missed maintaining their remarkable streak by a few days. Preparations continued for the ladies events with a green light to proceed coming this past Monday. Think of it this way: had colder temperatures come just a few days earlier, it would be race-on at “The Lake” this Saturday.

Turning to Beaver Creek, the US annual World Cup stop, hosting their events in the first week of December provides enough time to post a similar record of success. A total of 65 races held in the early season, including cancelled races from Val d’Isere in 2011. Altitude, and the same relentless commitment by a dedicated race crew at Beaver Creek is what makes Colorado work for World Cup. With the finish at 2,730 metres (and top at 3,480 or 11, 400 ft.), Beaver Creek towers over most venues.

The early-season training venues in both Colorado and the Canadian Rockies are another clear indicator of why early season World Cup races are possible. In the US there is Copper Mt., A-Basin, Loveland, Vail and Aspen, with more coming on-line. Canada offers early season at  Nakiska, Panorama, Norquay and Sun Peaks.

killingtonA special mention of Herwig Demschar and his amazing race crew and staff at Killington, who are organizing the first World Cup race to be held in the eastern US in 25 years (Waterville Valley in 1991). From all reports, the snowmaking crew are the heroes, using every second of proper temperatures to blow enough snow on “Superstar” to meet snow control last week. Running this race is an incredible plus for the World Cup Tour and the sport of ski racing, with a sold-out venue and enormous interest to watch local favourite Mikela Shiffrin.

In sum, the North American World Cup Tour – the sweat equity invested over more than two decades by an army of volunteers and ski resort staff – has a remarkable track record of delivery.

Being a reliable host is most important, but there are other reasons why the early-season World Cup Tour makes sense. The majority of national teams now do their final tune-up for the season in either Colorado or Alberta, where they find reliable snow conditions. From the ski resort perspective, there is significantly less competition for hotel space than later in the ski season making it a lot easier for the venues to work with the Race Committee to keep accommodation costs reasonable.

And then there are the economics of ski racing. Every race venue relies on revenues from three key sources: sponsorship, TV rights and timing. These are the drivers of money to run the events and provide prize money. The early season races drive higher TV audiences world-wide, with Beaver Creek and Lake Louise races usually rank in the top ten of all World Cup races throughout the season. The timing inserts (that quick hit of advertising that pops up after interval times and at the finish) are tracked by an independent 3rd party, with revenue split between all World Cup organizers based on TV audience. Guess which venues are near the top every year? Lake Louise and Beaver Creek. Early = high interest.

So armed with over two decades of experience running early season races, rest assured there is considerable thought and strategy behind the North American Tour. There are dedicated pros – volunteers, but they have become experts in pulling off these events and working closely with the FIS Race Directors to host great events to start each season. It makes economic sense, logistic sense and most important – the track record is reliable.

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Author’s note: if a reader comes across any errors with the statistics included in this piece, please advise and it will be corrected immediately.

About Ken Read

"You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!" - Oh, the Places You'll Go (1990) Dr. Seuss
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