Race future unclear without lift and venue upgrade
After producing what is being called the most successful alpine skiing event in Aspen’s history, the town faces at least a near-term future of no FIS World Cup races, Sarah Lewis, the Secretary General of ski racing’s governing body, confirmed Sunday.
Both Lewis and the U.S. Ski Association said that FIS has been clear and unwavering about “technical requirements” that revolve around a new lift, to replace the 45-year-old Lift 1A double chair, and an improved base area venue.
The state of Ruthie’s restaurant, which has been shuttered for years but was reopened to provide racer support services for this event, was also noted by Lewis as a deficiency.
The confirmation that Aspen was indeed going to be left off the World Cup tour until the FIS requirements were met was deflating to host and organizer Aspen Skiing Co.
“I completely understand the desire to upgrade the west side of Aspen Mountain and South Aspen Street. It needs a facelift, and we’d like to see an upgrade, for sure,” said John Rigney, vice president, sales and events for Aspen Skiing Co.
“That said, the venue and the races were spectacular, and taking a world class racing site off the calendar, frankly, is ultimately a disservice to the racers, the fans and the sport of skiing.”
SkiCo has approval from the U.S. Forest Service for a new quad chairlift, but its installation is tied to the Gorsuch Haus hotel application which the Aspen City Council will review again next week. Elected officials, and the planning commission, have asked previously for a significant reduction of the hotel’s size and height.
Lewis, during a pre-race interview Sunday, agreed that the Finals well surpassed expectations, especially in terms of course preparation and grooming “for seven days in a row” against a backdrop of challenging, summer-like temperatures.
She also praised a renewed enthusiasm among the public, which turned out in what are certain to be record numbers for an Aspen alpine event.
“What I’m confident about is the way Aspen’s public has come to support the events, come to enjoy the events. They have really celebrated it. It’s really part of Aspen’s DNA,” Lewis said.
But for now, that’s probably not enough.
“The appetite is there to come to Aspen, no question,” she said. “The question is whether the appetite is there in Aspen for World Cup racing to come.”
FIS watched previous plans for neighborhood development fall apart and Lewis suggested it will take the community to step forward to advocate for a better base area solution before the elite races return to Aspen.
Big attendance, TV ratings
“Overall, this has been a great experience,” said Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the U.S. Ski Team, near the conclusion of the five days of Finals events.
“The atmosphere created in town, the development of a fan area in Wagner Park was extraordinary as were the concerts. They’ve stepped it up a notch here and produced a great World Cup Finals,” Kelly said.
Perhaps as impressive are the cumulative television ratings for this season’s U.S. events, including the Aspen, Killington, Vt. and Squaw Valley, Calif. alpine races as well as a smattering of other disciplines that could set viewship records, he said. And that’s without the December Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek, which were cancelled due to lack of early season snow.
“We are very likely this year to eclipse our biggest ratings for television,” Kelly said, adding the numbers look to surpass the season that included the 2015 World Championships which were hosted at Vail/Beaver Creek.
Being awarded the 2015 World Championships and the Finals by FIS was part of a “long term initiative to raise the profile of ski racing in America,” he said. For the past decade, Colorado has been the only state to host alpine World Cups.
That changed in November when Killington hosted the women’s opening races in America over Thanksgiving weekend. Then, just prior to the Aspen World Cup Finals, Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe hosted World Cup races for the first time in more than 40 years.
Those are both important additions to the calendar because of their proximity to major population centers, according to Lewis.
USST’s Kelly said an estimated 20,000 people attended the Squaw Valley giant slalom and slalom races that preceded the Aspen Finals and that in Killington, the November races attracted about 30,000 spectators.
But Aspen’s very strong crowds were also impressive, he said. The final figures have yet to be computed, but even the FIS was pleasantly surprised by the turnout for the opening downhills, which took place mid-week and likely accounted for more than 5,000 people.
“We want to leave here with a great feeling with what’s taken place,” said Kelly. “We want to come back and race here. I think the World Cup wants to come back and race here.”
More domestic competition
The emergence of other viable U.S. sites likely makes Aspen’s bid for another World Cup race even more of an uphill battle.
Lewis confirmed that for November 2017, Aspen isn’t on the calendar.
“I think as far as I’m aware, Killington is shaping up to be the destination,” Lewis said, pointing out the Vermont resort’s “terrific” series over Thanksgiving weekend.
Aspen has also received exemplary marks for its execution of the 2017 Finals.
“The local organizer, the USSA, the FIS team really pulled together and had a great conclusion to the season,” she emphasized.
But the physical condition of the race venue, and the old double lift, remain a sticking point, one that was identified by FIS more than three years ago.
“Hopefully the community realizes it’s about having facilities that really can accommodate a modern-day event, which means the bathrooms work at the athlete’s station at the top” in the Ruthie’s restaurant building, which Lewis suggested was “derelict.”
The FIS also desires “a lift that can securely and swiftly take everybody involved,” she said, adding that if there had been heavy snowfall during the Finals it could have negatively impacted the uphill transport.
Lewis went on to say that “a drop off area, where people can leave their things” near the Lift 1A portal was also on the FIS list.
She said these upgrades would augment not only the ski racing world but would be valuable “for recreational sport. It’s about having something that is serving the community.”
Rigney responded that, “The lift was never an issue with this event” and that the feedback he received all week, by teams from all over the globe, about the 2017 Finals merits consideration in any of the FIS future decisions.
“The racing world got to see the experience that Aspen offers, and I got the distinct feeling that athletes and their federations genuinely want to come back again and again. I am extremely proud of our team and this community. We rocked it,” Rigney added.
A source with knowledge of the race calendar discussions suggested that the issue isn’t insurmountable, but will take the community coming together and finding a compromise that would allow development of the Lift 1A venue.
The person noted that in the early 1990s, after “the AJ Kitt mess,” when the American was denied two downhill wins in two separate years due to what was seen as political decisions, that eventually Aspen and the FIS were able to strike a compromise that saw Aspen being awarded women’s races in November.
“Your community has to come together to get this taken care of,” said the source who added that both citizens and “people on city council” are included under this umbrella.
Race calendars are created 18 months in advance, with races awarded to countries and the specific sites confirmed during the FIS Congress meetings that take place annually in late spring.