Stowe Derby Race Report

The Stowe Derby is one of the stupidest ski races ever invented. It combines one ridiculously awesome element (descending the Mt Mansfield Toll Road on cross country skis at 40 mph) with a host of terrible ones -- incredibly narrow trails, mediocre snowmobile grooming, and the worst-shoveled road crossings I've ever seen.

But it doesn't matter. The race is legendary, it's huge, it's never going to change, and if you took the stupid parts of the course out the old-timers would riot. And the first 7 minutes are unparalleled. I might complain, but you can bet I'll be back next year.

Linnea and I made the questionable decision to camp out the night before the race. I haven't winter camped since I was a little kid and now that I don't sleep like a rock it turned out to be a less than restful evening. I compounded the error by hitting the first breakfast place we could find after getting out of the woods and eating what might be the largest prerace breakfast I've ever had.

This might be why I didn't really like the non-downhill portion of the race. Luckily, that came later -- first we got to ride the chairlift and hang out at the very intimidating and windy starting area.

The great thing about the start area was that there was a large (and growing) scraped off ice path directly above it. Skier after skier tried to get off the lift and ski down to the start, hit the patch with their useless nordic edges and went sliding down the mountain. The look on their faces as they realized how bad their skis were -- and that they were 3000 feet above the finish line -- was priceless.

I was starting #311, so we had a little time to kill. With 5 skiers starting every 30 seconds, there was a lot of action to watch and a lot of traffic to contemplate. With an average of 1 skier every 6 seconds on the trail, the late registrants like myself were forced to choose between scrubbing speed on the narrow hills that come later in the race or possibly sending someone to the hospital. I'm still not sure I chose correctly.

Finally the lineup happens. My first concern was getting some free trail to work with, so I went all out from the gun to at least get to pick my line into the first corner.

Twenty seconds in and the first hairpin comes up, scraped down to ice on the inside with piles of snow pushed off to the outside. I decided ahead of time to go outside but it still caught me by surprise how hard it was to control my skis through the slough, I skidded to a near-stop before jumping back into action. The trail drops so precipitously that I was quickly over 30 mph or so for the next hairpin only a hundred yards away. Another slide on the outside, WOW this is already making my legs burn and I'm through, and already into traffic from the wave ahead of me.

One more hairpin and we're 60 seconds in, and onto the first high-speed section. It's a straight green trail so it shouldn't be a big deal -- but tucking at 38 mph on cross coutry skis still makes you pucker a bit. The straight ends with a huge right turn and the first crowd of spectators -- alpine skiers who are here for the carnage.

I don't disappoint them. There's a guy on the outside so I try to pass him on the inside, then leap outside and bury my edges and make the turn -- which of course fails miserably. The crowd is pleased by my hubris and I go sliding to the edge of trail, nearly off it, before I manage to stop. As I jump back to my feet, I notice another guy climbing up the bank. No wonder the crowd is here.

The turns start to blur together after this. Linnea started 30 seconds ahead and I catch her, but my plans to say something interesting go to hell when two people in front of us start making parellel turns across the trail to slow down. It's a complete mess (the status quo, if you can't tell) and I think I mutter "hey" as we nearly hit each other.

Soon after I'm gaining on a line of people into a left bend, when the lead skier falls, and like dominoes four people hit the deck. The only survivors are myself and a guy on tele gear, avoiding the pile of bodies by a narrow margin.

From there the turns get easier, and the trail widens as it leaves the auto road onto some other green ski trails. There's a section under a lift that goes over a bit of a headwall, some slower-moving traffic is all over the trail and disappears over the lip on the right side. I decide to cross all the way left and hope they aren't in the way when they come back into view.

It works, kind of, as I avoid the traffic but have to make a screaming, sliding turn (on the high side of 30 mph again) to make the right turn after the lip. What would happen if I fell and slid into the woods here? I'm starting to think there's a massive coverup each year to keep the fatalities out of the press.

Near the bottom it opens up, wide open, onto a pitch that is almost steep enough to exceed the green rating. Tucking straight down it on cross country skis nets a 45.5 mph top speed, according to the my Garmin.

Near the bottom I stand up to scrub some speed, then a brief snowplow and skidding right turn onto the flat. The 7-minute rush is over; what remains is 42 minutes of craptastic skiing.

I'm not going to get much into detail on that. Running a 300-person wave start race on a trail that is one skier wide is stupid. The hills in this "downhill race" are non-trivial, and I spent most of them either blocked or painfully double poling past someone. But, at least I could keep skiing. The sketchiest descent I've ever witnessed came later on (see picture) -- straight down the fall line, just wide enough for one person to snowplow on. Scraped down to ice by the time I got there, it was ridiculously dangerous. A guy falls well ahead of me -- unfortunately there are two people between me and him, desperately trying to snowplow to a stop. It's not really possible to slow down quickly on this surface, they can't stop by the time they reach the crash so they have to fall, so now I can't stop by snowplowing -- I end up hockey stopping to avoid the carnage and then get skied over by the guy behind me.

That's neither fun nor extreme, it's just dangerous.

After that, the descending is finally done for good. We finish up on the Stowe Rec path, which is STILL narrow, badly groomed, and has bridges you have to double pole, and road crossings that appear to have been shoveled with sand.

My breakfast did not increase my happiness during this section, that's for sure.

Anyway, that stuff doesn't really matter. I ended up 43rd, which means I get the 43rd seeded start if I do it next year. The thought of how much more... race-able... the course would be starting 43rd instead of 311th has me salivating already.

If you're looking for a similar rush this year, Sugarloaf is doing the Inferno this year on March 9th.


Jess said…
You hit 40mph? Were you prepared for that/did you know there was a run out at the bottom? That's crazy!
Colin R said…
I remembered from doing the race 10 years ago that there are some sections that were dead straight and I was still afraid to tuck. So I knew it was fast.

If you look at the first image, the 45 mph section ended with a right turn. There definitely wasn't a runout, you had to scrub speed before that corner. But it's wide a downhill trail, there's plenty of room for that kind of thing.
Luke S said…
I never remember being scared when I did it a few years ago, and my start position was on the high side of 300 too...I missed my start by about a minute, so avoided that crowd...but I never remember being that scared on the downhills. The corners were ICY but the banks were eminently rideable, and the straightaways were in good shape.

But 40mph sounds INSANE!!! I'm doing this race next year, screw the Eastern Cups.
Anonymous said…
Oh my god. Never mind what I'd said about cool races out East. This sounds crazed. (But I liked the story.)
Brian said…
Given my legendary descending skills and after reading your report, it's probably a good thing I didn't follow through on my plan to race that...
Marina Knight said…
You are a wimp.
You are making my blood rush! I hear registration is open. The race is February 22nd this year. Count me in!
Anonymous said…
Try to step turn the corners instead of the slide... It'll save the snow for us classical racers!

Team Bump will be there especially for the downhill!
Anonymous said…
40 mph?!?!? That's nuthin' - I've thrown faster picking up a 7-10 split...

Bump yoself B-4 U wreck yoself...

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