Peter Shelton

Keep the World Cup

Posted in Ski racing, Watch columns by pshelton on December 21, 2012

Telluride Ski Resort owner Chuck Horning has said that all aspects of the ski area operation should be up for review. Is hosting the FIS ski- and snowboardcross World Cup, for example, worth the expense? Especially in a low-water year when snowmaking resources might be better allocated to opening terrain for paying customers?

My answer is an unequivocal yes. Early-season weather will forever be fickle; there will be big years and lean ones. The World Cup is a marketing coup of immense and, unfortunately for some, intangible value.

Let me see if I can make it tangible.

I’m riding Lift 4 with a lovely, dark-haired snowboard competitor who doesn’t mind chatting. She’s still doing practice runs, hasn’t yet locked down her competitive focus. She’s from Austria and her English is impeccable. When I express my admiration, she just smiles and says she learned it at school “and from watching TV. And from the travel.” How worldly the world is. And the world has come here.

The start corral is off to the side, inside the orange fencing. It buzzes with the languages of the Alpine diaspora: the all-business declarative of German, the subtle variations of Swiss and Austrian German, the English, the Aussies, the Dutch, the Czechs, the Slovenes, the Russians, the Poles, the Japanese. The volatile exclamations of the Italians, the liquid consonants of the French, the incomprehensible French of the French Canadians.

My chair mate has told me she speaks French, too, but that the Quebecois are “impossible to understand. Except now, actually, after these three days, I’m beginning to understand them.”

Before the start, technicians bend like surgeons over their portable benches. Scrape, buff, draw a file down an edge as if tracing a Picasso. Sprinkle on $100/gram graphite powders – greased lightning that will last for one run, no more. There’s national pride at play here, too: Norwegian Swix, Swiss Toko, Austrian HWK. The World Cup is a showcase for the top glide scientists, as well as the elite athletes. No, more than a showcase, it is do-or-die backstage magic. Serious as stroke.

Racers wriggle into their bibs and dance the warm-up dance, kicking out one foot then the other, dropping suddenly into a crouch as if squeezing through a tight barrel at Pipeline. They’re in the zone now. Their hands weave tiny hulas as they run the course in real time behind closed eyelids. They don’t hear anything except the private music inside. That is, until their start numbers are called.

I’m standing with my ski tips under the fence watching the racers rocket out of a right-turn, 20-foot-tall white clamshell and onto a straightaway filled with tricky, syncopated bumps. The best make their passes here. They are superb in the air, perfectly balanced, boards tilted neither forward nor back. (They are wings, after all.) They set them down without a sound, in just the right spot, pressing into the hollows to gain speed on a rival who may have missed ever so slightly the exact takeoff or landing.

An old acquaintance from ski school days slides up in awe. He was here for the skicross the day before, and he can’t stop talking about “the angles, the body positions those guys got in.” There was one racer in particular, he said, who sliced the cleanest arcs across the faces of the banked parabolas, “and so light on his edges!”

Ski instructors bring their classes by to witness the nervous energy at the start. Telluride race team kids interrupt their own hyper skiing to soak in the rarefied athleticism, hoping perchance osmosis will do its thing. Real-life superheroes are flinging themselves down gravity’s pipe on the other side of this fence, just 30 feet away. You can’t quite touch them, but you can hear them exhale.

My own skiing is informed for the rest of the day by a new awareness of where my hip needs to be at the center of every carved radius.

At the base on Saturday for the finals of the team competition, the public address announcer goes wild. All four racers are in a bunch careening out of the last turn. On the final huge jump American Olympic gold medalist Seth Westcott passes his Austrian rival in the air to win by a boot length. My breath catches and a sudden hot tear escapes down my nose. It’s like watching thoroughbreds run, their hearts near to bursting.

Ski-crazed European audiences have watched it live, or very close to live. Americans will get an edited, network television version later this month. They will see Telluride’s name and distinctive course up there with the very few resorts in North America that regularly put on World Cup events: Aspen, Vail, Lake Placid, Deer Valley. It’s no coincidence that all of them have also hosted World Championships or Olympic competitions.

Telluride, if not in the stratosphere with and Kitzbühel and Val d’Isère, is at least in the same sky with them.

How do you put a price on them intangibles?

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