Team duel races rally World Cup fans

Mar 19, 2017

Racers compete side-by-side in a double-paneled slalom course for the Alpine Team Event at the World Cup Finals Friday in Aspen.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio

The 2017 World Cup Finals featured all the traditional races, and one that will make its Olympic debut next year. The Alpine Team Event is starting to carve out a niche in the elite ski racing world.

From the start, the team event is a little different than most ski races. For one, the athletes face off in the start gate side by side, separated from their competition by just a few meters. And the second that gate drops, the race is on.  

“It’s reaction,” said Patrick Riml, alpine director for the U.S. Ski Team. “And timing is very critical.”

Once the skiers are out of the gate, the race is short and fast, only about a third of the length of a typical slalom course. It’s an anomaly in ski racing in many ways: a mixed-gender, team event in what’s a typically individual sport. Ski racers are used to being alone on the snow, a solitary race against the clock.

The team’s race is a series of duels, with an opponent just meters away. The competition follows a bracket, knock-out format, and it’s a crowd pleaser.

Fans can see the entire team event course from the grandstands near the finish, a draw for many spectators.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio

Traditional ski racing is not particularly spectator-friendly. Fans can’t see the whole course or gauge which individual skier might be winning without the help of the timing clock and announcer. But in the team event, even a casual observer can feel involved and clearly see the action.

“In the duel event you see who goes fastest through the finish is the winner,” Riml said.  

It still can get a bit complicated if there’s a tie, but the head-to-head competition at this past Friday’s World Cup Finals had 11-year-old Chloe Hock riveted.  

“You can see them better, and how they’re closer together,” Hoke said, sitting in the front row of the grandstands. She’s waving a German flag — maybe because the U.S. did not field a team.

The U.S. didn’t have enough technical racers qualify for the finals, and other athletes were competing in the NorAm Finals in Quebec. Plus, the team event on Friday was before the slalom and GS races. So skiers like Mikaela Shiffrin, who were still trying to win an individual title, didn’t want to risk injury or tire out before those races. Riml said it’s a tough call for coaches and athletes to make.

“To jeopardize a high-quality training or a rest day for an event like this with that timing is very difficult,” he said.

At the Olympics, the team competition will be the last alpine event, which Riml said is a much better schedule. This will allow Team USA to focus on the team event specifically without compromising an individual race. Riml said the U.S. wants to be competitive in this event, putting the best possible team on the course.

“If we’re going to do it, we want to do it right,” he said.  

Duel events like this have long been a part of ski racing culture, but the International Ski Federation only debuted the parallel competition in 2011. With the addition to the racing program at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, elite teams are starting to take the sport more seriously.

Teams are starting to focus on some of the specific skills the duel race demands. Skiers must have strong technical skills, balance, quickness and focus.  

“What comes on top of it with the team event is you have somebody next to you,” Riml said. “So you have to try to keep the focus on yourself. You got this noise, you feel them right there. And you can’t get distracted by the guy you’re skiing against. You have to keep your focus on yourself.”

Fans of Team France, including Lionel Agoutin (far right) cheer in the grandstands.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio

Mental toughness aside, some lifelong ski racing fans are not impressed with the event. Lionel Agoutin is from Paris, rooting for the French team that finished third in Friday’s race. He said the race is too short, and frankly, a bit of a gimmick.

“It’s not slalom, it’s not GS, not downhill, not Super G,” Agoutin said. “It’s like a show. For me, it’s just a show.”

But still, he’s on his feet, waving a giant flag, rallying the crowd and cheering for his team.