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Basic definitions.

    Ski races are like most races: people trying to travel a specific distance faster than other people do. Professional athletes, World Cup racers are superbly fit, talented, and often perform at supra-human levels. And no surprise, WC racing is deluged with rules, specifications, etc.

    Politics also play a big role. FIS, Stifel US Ski Team, PZN, etc. have personal and procedural traits widely considered, I imagine, tense and confusing. They’re beyond this site’s scope, definitely for a while. As far as bureaucracy affects the athletes, that’s for a knowledgeable reader to share/begin the argu…discussion.

    From what I’ve heard, racers usually refer to a race “track” rather than to a “course.” Shop terms such as apex, scrub off speed, ski cleanly, correct, recover, and of course fastest/best racing line are used to describe the racers’ tactics and performance. “Piste” is used in Europe and North America to refer to the track.

    FIS, international ski racing's primary governing body, runs a website containing everything relevant to World Cup rules: course setting, competitors' equipment specifications, race meet organization, etc, etc. The site's well-organized. Dive in at fis-ski.com

SKI TRACK nuts-and-bolts:

Starting hut

A large square tent open on uphill side, with a downhill side opening for athlete to hit the track. Starting racer lunges through a shin-high thin fiberglass rod/wand hinged gate, which activates the track’s timing system. Electric eyes at the finish line stop the clock. These times rank the racers by hundredths of seconds. Hut accommodates a couple of race officials, the starting racer’s coach, and people yelling encouragement; second and occasionally third next competitor.

Gates

Gates define the track. They’re composed of 2 x pairs of approx. 1-inch poles about 6 feet tall, 18 inches or so apart, spanned at the top by a cloth/vinyl panel displaying the race’s location or primary sponsor. (Slalom gate poles are single poles of two alternating colors, usually blue and red.) Although a turning racer brushing a pole is “close to the gate,” the gate is technically the entire distance between the pairs of poles. About 20ft/6m in DH/SG; Giant Slalom perhaps a bit narrower. Two single poles define Slalom gates, which are much closer together.

Course setters

Team coaches take turns siting the poles/gates on the piste to guide the skiers on an interesting, fast run down and across the hill’s natural features, which snow levels affect. (I say “hill” here in the way Americans usually refer to a “trail.”) Tracks have personalities and reputations, suiting some racers and frustrating others.

 

Finish Line

Timing stops; competitor is stoked, pleased/content, bummed, or angry/disgusted. Almost all WC racers acknowledge the audience, sometimes with flamboyant displays after a triumph. Otherwise, they at least wave then skate or shuffle off to a big cloth/plastic panel gate and that’s it for the audience unless a skier appears for the podium ceremony—1st , 2nd , 3d—or is interviewed.

 

Races – Four Disciplines

 

Downhill (DH)

Races with longest linear distances and greatest vertical drops. Average 1.7miles/2750meters linear; 2300ft/700m vertical). Average of 20 gates define tracks. Average race speed 55-60mph/88-96km. Steepest pitches/sections always exceed 70mph; 80mph/129km hit during most races, I’d venture. The fastest competitors will reach mid-80s on some tracks. I’d say average competitive time for long DH is around 1 minute, 45 seconds. (1:45) One run for each competitor. Two practice days are scheduled before a WC meet’s first DH, so folks can learn the track’s characteristics—tricky terrain, especially strenuous sections; experiment with tactics and line. I believe if the entire field cannot complete at least one training run (usually due to weather), the DH is postponed until later in the season at a different venue. Downhill is too serious to run on-sight.

Super G  (SG)

Theoretically an expanded Giant Slalom track set on a DH piste, with a lowered start hut. Vertical 1800ft/550m. 30 gates. Speeds similar to DH, though 80mph is fairly rare in SG, I think. Average race time 1:20. Combines DH speed with GS technical ability as more numerous, shorter-radius turns must still be skied very fast and cleanly—“railed” or “piped.” Before an SG, the competitors inspect the track: descending via side-slipping and slow stem turns, evaluating the run, usually with a coach or ski tech. They can’t build any speed on the track, practice turning through gates, etc. The race—a single run—is the only time they rip it. Super G is my favorite event to watch.

 

Giant Slalom (GS)

Sometimes run on same piste as Slalom (perhaps usually with steeper average pitch) with higher start. Vertical 1000ft/302m, with 45-50 gates. Top speeds 45-50mph/72-80km. Race results determined from two runs’ combined times—1:00+ average run. Fastest 30 racers make the cut for second, decisive/points-awarding run. Gates are re-set for 2nd run; inspections made for both. GS is the event I suspect most recreational skiers figure they’d best contest. I do, in my rip and roll fantasy. The discipline requires the purest combination of speed and technique, IMO. The gates come fast, and the edge angles (degrees--often 45--off level racers lean their skis while turning) demand extreme balanced strength to attain and to hold without skidding as the track drops at 40 degrees and swings across the hill to the next gate.

 

Slalom (SL)

Demanding very quick consecutive turns through gates sometimes just a few feet apart, Slalom is considered the most "technical" event. Averaging 50 gates on 600ft/182m, SL follows the "fall-line" (the path a lacrosse ball would take rolling down the piste) very closely. Some course sets are "swingy" across the pitch, but still follow a rigorous line. SL gate poles are hinged at snow level--racers basically punch the upper poles aside as they enter the gates. This allows a very direct line, since only their boots and lower shins clear a pole's static vertical position. SL is two runs; fastest 30 qualify for 2nd run. Gates are re-set for the 2nd run, and both are inspected. Average run similar to GS: 1 minute +/- 5 seconds or so.  Top speed 35-40mph/56-64km.

WC tracks are injected with water, top-to-bottom, two days before the event. Moveable sets of pipes fitted with thin 8-inch-long metal tubes/syringes driven into the track surface are connected to snow-making or other slope-side piped water source. Water's forced through the thin tubes until the surface brims. The goal is ice, especially along the racing line. That’s right. These people want to ski on solid water ice.

Note: Venues rotate/alternate each season for all disciplines--though a few appear every year, per tradition and outstanding track quality. These variations affect track length and race times, so seasonal averages are fluid. In addition to heavy snow/wind/low visibility causing Speed races to be cancelled or postponed (I reckon 2-3 per season) or the starts lowered, Tech races also suffer from weather. Often held at lower-altitude venues, poor natural snowfall coupled with temperature insufficient for artificial snow-making can doom a race. Rain is also a drag.

 

The WC season runs from last weekend in October to mid-March. For the 2024 season (seasons are called by their ending year) I count a total of 41 races --10 SL, SG, DH; 11 GS -- at 21 venues. Speed (DH/SG) and Technical (called Tech; SL/GS) events are held at different areas, since Speed requires at least three times the vertical drop of an average Tech track. Modest ski areas can host Tech events; big-mountain resorts get Speed. Events are held each weekend, with no real breaks. (Fis-ski.com has calendars for all winter sports it controls.) An athlete could participate in every meet. Several do, but it's grueling. Generally, folks concentrate on either Speed or on Tech, often exclusively. Large national teams are usually arranged in 3 or 4 echelons, with say 4/5 athletes each for Speed and Tech. Ideally, these 10 are consistently strong, experienced runners. Racers assigned to the second/B level occasionally make WC starts, but compete mostly in the Europa Cup and/or Nor-Am Cup circuits, which run concurrently with WC, at different venues. C and D levels do this also. Europa Cup and Nor-Am Cup (North America) are ski racing's "AAA-level minor league," to use baseball analogy. As season progresses, successful B level racers may travel with A team to see how they fare.

Race organization

    WC races are defined, sanctioned, scheduled, etc. by the International Ski and Snowboard Federation, always referred to as FIS. (Pronounced “fiss” by WC people. HQ Oberhofen, Switzerland. Originally abbreviated Federation Internationale de Ski, founded in 1924.) A bureaucracy par excellence, FIS’s machinations are beyond WAWC’s scope, though I’ll occasionally try to explicate issues relevant to the actual racing. If you want to get into the weeds, check out www.fis-ski.com.

 

Race order

About fifty competitors contest each WC race. Starting order is determined by their current rankings in the discipline, with the top-10, -20, and -30 skiers choosing from within those start positions, the rest being up for grabs. Start numbers are on “bibs” which the racers wear. Start position selection is a bit obscure to me, but seems to work well.

 

Results/scoring

In all disciplines, points are awarded to the top 30 finishers, dwindling within a ratio/progression. 

1st is 100, 2-80, 3-60, 4-50, 5-45, 6-40, 7-36, 8-32, 9-29, 10-26, 11-24, 12-22, 13-20, 14-18; 15th through 30th awarded 16 points down to 1. In Tech races, the first run’s top 30 finishers compete in the second, scoring run, so those who make the cut are assured of at least one point, so long as they complete the second run. The top three finishers comprise the “podium.” There are two reasonably brief ceremonies honoring them.

 

Prize money

Two venues present the winner a beast: cow calf for the Val d’Isere DH; reindeer calf at Levi SL. Winners always get money too: CHF (Swiss francs) 50’000 for 1st ; 2nd 22’000; ...15th 5’500; ...30th 550. Per the FIS tables I’ve studied, prize money is standardized across disciplines and venues. Officially, women and men receive identical FIS-stipulated prize money for each WC race. At least one event, however, makes significantly larger FIS-determined payments to winners/top finishers: the men’s 2 x DH and SL meet at Kitzbuehl, usually held late January. Each race carries a CHF 98’000 1st prize; 49’000 2nd …1’078 for 30th . DHs run The Streif, Kitzbuehl’s big piste, whose ferocious reputation is well-deserved. This event’s tradition prompts the payday, though I don’t get why SL awards the same. Probably because sponsors’ money inflates the entire spectacle, which attracts Europe’s largest WC season crowd. The women have no equivalent jackpot weekend.

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