2020 Birkebeiner Preview
Deep snow, moderate temps to greet American Birkebeiner skiers
By Mike Ivey
Keep the fingers crossed but it’s looking like near perfect conditions for the American Birkebeiner.
With plenty of snow base on the trail and moderate temperatures in the forecast, the stars are aligning for the 46th running of North America’s most prestigious cross country ski race Saturday.
This marks three straight years where organizers haven’t had to worry about conditions following the disheartening 2017 cancellation. That was only the second time in history the race was completely called off, although the course has been shortened several times due to poor conditions.
Some 11,200 skiers ranging in age from 13 to 87 are registered for this weekend’s events which culminate in the 50-kilometer skate technique and 55-kilometer classic style races on Saturday between Cable and Hayward in northwest Wisconsin.
It’s a beer-filled Wisconsin Northwoods spectacle that attracts participants from around the globe, with 25 different countries and 47 states represented along with an estimated 40,000 spectators.
Still, the bulk of the racers come from these parts — with Minnesota accounting for 4,447 registrants and Wisconsin 3,945, according to the latest registration numbers. To date, more than a quarter-million people have finished some sort of a Birkebeiner ski event since it was launched in 1973 by the late Tony Wise as a way to attract tourists to his Telemark resort.
And while some participants might grumble about traffic snarls or post-race changing facilities, the customers keep returning. Consider that nearly 1,000 registrants in the field have completed at least 20 Birkies with 354 counting at least 30 finishes.
“It’s the challenge of that trail and the quality of the event that keeps bringing people back,” says Charlie Dee, 72, a retired professor from Milwaukee and member of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation Board who will be looking to finish his 20th Birkie Saturday.
Speaking of returnees, Ernie St. Germaine, 72, the lone remaining “Birkie Founder” to have skied all 45 previous races is entered once again. Look for him in his red bib in the 55-kilometer classic race.
Organizers are certainly happy to count so many familiar faces but race director Ben Popp is most encouraged by the growth in the two shorter events: the 29-kilometer Korteloppet and 15-kilometer Prince Haakon held on Friday before the full length races. Giving those events their own separate starts along with a finish on a snow-covered Main Street in downtown Hayward has helped raise their popularity.
In fact, the Korteloppet is seeing a record number of entrants this year with over 3,300 while the Prince Haakon has over 800 signups. Women now comprise 45 percent of the Korteloppet field and 62 percent of the Prince Haakon race.
“Those are all good signs for the long-term health of the event,” says Popp who took over as race director in 2013 and has overseen some $3 million in improvements to the trail system including bridges over roadways, heated warming facilities and a snowmaking system to ensure the race never again needs to be cancelled.
Ensuring an event is crucial given the more than $4 million in economic impact for northwest Wisconsin on one weekend in late February where hotel rooms and restaurants might otherwise sit vacant.
Popp says the goal is to continue expanding snowmaking from the current 3 kilometers near the start area in Cable to a full 15-kilometers, along with another 8 kilometers of golf course-like turf where manmade snow could be easily spread if needed.
Considering the Mora Vasaloppet in central Minnesota can cover 18 kilometers of trail with manmade snow — using a manure-spreader no less — anything is possible.
But Popp says it’s not enough to just guarantee snow for the big race events. He says giving people a reliable place to train during low snow years is crucial for attracting younger skiers into the sport.
“You can’t teach kids to play basketball if the court is closed,” he says.
To that end, the Twin Cities area now features a half-dozen venues that provide manmade snow for XC skiing, including Wirth Park which will host an FIS World Cup event next month.
In Wisconsin, Standing Rocks County Park near Amherst, Lapham Peak near Milwaukee and Elver Park in Madison are providing manmade trail loops in part through volunteer efforts. The American Birkebeiner Foundation recently helped the Friends of Lapham Peak raise money for a new grooming machine and hopes to continue assisting.
Popp says getting longer stretches of manmade snow in southern Wisconsin will spark more interest in large population areas, much in the way snowmaking has in the Twin Cities.
“The die-hards are happy to ski around on 500 meters but you really need to get two or three kilometers if you want to appeal to a larger group of people,” he says. “I’m talking about the young gal who maybe is thinking about signing up for the Prince Haakon and will come out a couple times a week and ski for an hour.”
WAXWISE, ANYTHING GOES AT THE BIRKIE
While discussions over fluorinated ski wax are hot and heavy among Nordic enthusiasts worldwide, the American Birkebeiner isn’t taking any official position.
In fact, with thousands of skiers entered in the various events, Popp says there is no way to enforce any kind of waxing rules even if they did exist.
“To be honest, this is something the wax companies are going to have to figure out,” says Popp.
Whether fluorinated ski wax is anything more than a drop in the ocean of toxins finding their way into environment remains a controversial topic. But Fast Wax, the only U.S.-based manufacturer, came out with this statement, which does a good job assessing the current situation.
WORLD CLASS ELITE FIELD
Look for some fast times Saturday in the men’s 50-kilometer skate race which has attracted some World Cup level talent from France and Norway.
Defending champion American Akeo Maifield-Carucci is back to defend his 2019 title along with the second and third place finishers Brian Gregg and Matt Liebsch, a pair of Minnesota skiers.
They will get plenty of competition from the likes of Norwegian Anders Gløersen, a 2014 Olympian with 5 World Cup victories and 2 World Championship podiums to his credit. Fellow Norwegian entrant and 2018 Olympian Niklas Dyrhaug counts 3 World Cup podiums among his 112 World Cup Starts.
Frenchman Benoit Chauvet, third in the 2015 and 2016 Birkebeiner, knows the course and could be in the mix. Fellow countryman Robin Duvillard, an Olympic bronze medalist in the 4×10 relay who finished sixth in the 50K freestyle at 2014 Sochi Olympics, comes with an impressive resume.
On the women’s side, 5-time Birkie champion Caitlin Gregg is back after taking a year off to have a baby while Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall of Alaska returns for her second trip down Hayward’s Main Street. Another Olympic gold medalist, Riitta-Liisa Roponen of Finland, is also entered.
Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison who hopes to finish his 31st American Birkebeiner on Saturday.