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Zealots at the Freeheel Altar

Features
posted: 11/19/2003

Although the handful of competitors nervously ghosting in and out of fog at the World Telemark Champion-ships at Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana, include a diversity of underpaid ski talent, on this day, with the air as thick as pea soup and the snow as hard as the can it came in, they hold one thing in common: They all know Jesus. And everyone, from the woodsy Canucks to the compact and fanatical Japanese to the tiny Spanish woman with bleached dreadlocks and the Slovenian defense-strategy student with pink-flecked hair, knows that Jesus is watching them. There, on the racecourse, above the Sacred Skate, that's him, a rainbow of flowers at his feet, his open arms extending over the traverse in a forgiving embrace.

Okay, so maybe the flowers are plastic and maybe this particular Jesus is just a life-sized figure carved from rock and concrete, a weathered '50s-era relic from skiing's monotheistic past. Regardless, today all the racers know Jesus. And they damn well better, because Jesus stands just downstream from the GS gates and just upstream from a deceivingly benign little six-foot-tall launching pad capable of spitting racers 150 feet-twice the distance any of them are used to-straight out and over the Flathead Valley's patchwork of timber, clear cuts, and highway. If one were to, say, forsake Jesus, and hit the jump unprepared, one might find oneself inwardly debating whether the sensation of rotating backward over misty Whitefish was more akin to Limbo (what with the fog and all) than to Purgatory (what with how long you're up there). Either way, the impending landing would be certain Hell.

The field is typical of telemark racing's biggest event, a semi-annual gathering of ski instructors, night-shift groomers, fireworks dealers, and snowplow drivers brought together by a bad freeheel habit. At least that's who makes up the American squad.

Standing calmly by themselves in the fog are the Norwegians. A tall and lanky crew with hair dyed the color of Windex-a bit of Nordic pride inspired by rain-delay boredom at last week's race. If the Norwegians stand apart literally, they stand apart figuratively as well. The squad has won all 11 of this season's World Cup men's events and taken all but six podium places. In every way, they look the part of a professional ski racing team. And the Americans? Only longtime standout Reid Sabin routinely joins the Scandinavians at the medal ceremonies.

As the skiers drop off the summit and into deep knee-to-ski turns through the first set of GS gates, they're easier to hear than to see through the fog-a long shearing sound that is only interrupted by the course's defining moment.

All morning long during their practice runs, the racers had uneasily hit the jump, some letting their legs go slack at takeoff, their poles whipping circles through the air as if they were swimming for balance. But now, when the first of the Norwegians hits the lip, he uncoils like a spring and arcs downhill with his skis in a perfect flying V.

Here's how the race, known as The Classic, works: 75 telemarkers from 12 countries pitch themselves down a 1.5-mile, four-minute course that drops from Big Mountain's summit almost 2,000 feet through three sets of GS gates, the mid-course jump, and a 360-degree banked turn called a "reipelykkje" or simply "rap." After losing their speed in the banked turn, they then grind through a final 400-yard skate to the finish line with chin-high skating poles they carried through the gates. Although much of the course involves Nordic-style jumping and uphill skating sprints, the racers prefer heavy, stiff, modern race boots like Scarpa T-Races instead of low-cut leathers.

It's a brutal test of all-mountain skills, an event that alternates between screaming quads going down and searing lungs going up, a sort of condensed history of skiing replayed at speeds close to 50 miles per hour-a race so harsh it has a cough named after it,he Classic Hack, which leaves skiers barking like seals at the finish line.

And then there are the penalties: Fail to make a telemark turn around the gates or land the jump in anything but a Nordic lunge and you might as well call it a day, because you've lost precious seconds from your time. It's a race that offers little sponsorship, scant recognition, and even less money. It's an event on the fringe of an already fringe sport, where scrounging for travel money is as common as reconstructive knee surgery. After missing its best shot at mass exposure by getting passed over for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turino, the sport's popularity remains on par with ultramarathons-another semi-recognizable sport embraced by a similarly close-knit crew of masochists. All of which can make a non-tele racer wonder why they bother. "When I finish, if I finish, I throw up," says Per Lindstrom of Sweden. "I can't stand up on my legs. I don't know why I do it."

Two days before the races, a group of freeheelers assembles at the Dire Wolf, a sprawling, rough-hewn bar on the outskirts of town; it's full of regulars with season-pass tans and sunglasses on their visors who are filling out five-dollar March Madness brackets. For most of the season, the U.S. team's training on gates was limited to a Thursday-night race league. In lieu of a team clubhouse, they gather here and talk technique over beers.

For now, the mountain town equation of work, family, and skiing has been tweaked just long enough for the U.S. team to take in two rare training days on gates. Training is a luxury-it's an investment in futility just getting to races. Most team members have resigned themselves to thousands of dollars in race debt with the hope of paying it off over the next summer while installing sprinkler systems, hanging scaffolding in Salt Lake City, or maybe catching an early fire on a U.S. Forest Service road crew.

It is the first time Big Mountain has hosted the World Championship and the first time the event has ever been held in the U.S.-this despite the fact that telemark racing, and the telemark turn for that matter, was resurrected worldwide in the 1970s by a pinhead scene in Crested Butte much like this one. When locals there began recasting traditional Norwegian races-long overland steeplechases that ran 15 minutes-the modern Classic was born.

Today, Whitefish is the epicenter of American tele racing. Eight members of the team live and train here-a critical mass of freeheel racers like some convergence of world-class surfers at a remote break. Among them is Sabin, a 31-year-old Gig Harbor, Washington, transplant, who after moving to town went on an impressive run-winning the last World Championship in the Classic along with the 2000 and 2001 overall FIS World Cup titles. He is the only American to step on the podium this year. But superstar Sabin aside, since the first nationals in Aspen in 1990, when a few American racers found themselves sidestepping up the traverses, the race series has been little more than a blip on the radar of ski culture.

At least that's the case in this country. although Americans created the modern sport, the Scandinavians have dominated it from the beginning. More important, their governments now provide cash for their pro athletes. Norway's Kjetil Sà¸vik, the men's 2003 overall World Cup champion, for example, trained for 100 days on glaciers in Norway and Austria before the first of the year. And while Sà¸vik and his teammate Eirik Rykhus may pick up occasional day work for extra pocket money, they and their teammates are-along with big mountain film stars Ben Dolenc and Frode Gronvold-the planet's only full-time paid telemarkers.

Compared with the Norwegians, the American team performs enough manual labor to start a union. At the moment, however, they seem content to sip a few beers and reconnect with the Swiss team members that housed them for part of the World Cup's European series. Sitting at the next table, the Swiss have gone full Montana. Decked out in new Carhartt utility pants, they're christening pitchers of Kokanee and Liberty Ale with a rambling toast and a group hit of McCrystal's snuff, which leaves them all blinking through the menthol burn.

And Sabin? He is moving through the bar evoking his usual response, a mix of hometown support and bewildered awe. It's the only place where he's recognized as a champion skier, but his laid-back amateur success is well matched to Whitefish's logging-resort vibe.

But there is something else about Sabin, a nagging question about how a guy who spends the off-season moving dirt with a Bobcat can find a way to beat the pro Euros. The race's most marketable American once sold a battered Subaru to buy a new pair of Scarpas. No one has a good answer, including Sabin. Ask him about the skating intervals he used to run on Big Mountain's bunny slopes and you'll get a shrug for an answer. "He's really strong, big lung," offers Norway's Sà¸vik, who visited Sabin the previous summer to ride singletrack around Whitefish. "He's the lung."

By the time sabin and the rest of the skiers hit the bottom of the mountain, the course is living up to its reputation as one of the longest Classics anyone can remember. Bodies pile up at the finish line.

After hitting the 360-degree "rap" turn, the racers burn uphill with legs deadened by lactic acid that's pooled in their muscles. As they stride uphill to the finish, they begin to fall apart as coaches and racers and a few fans cheer them on. Norway's Rykhus crumples into a heap and needs a Swiss skier to help him out of his bindings. A few feet away, Sweden's Per Lindstrom is out of his skis and trying to get on his feet, pushing himself up and forward with his poles as if he's climbing out of a broken chair. Following them is Ludvoic Calamard, of France, who actually falls on the finish line, requiring another Swiss skier and a spectator to hook him under the armpits and drag him out of the orange funnel of safety fencing just as Sabin poles into the race's final uphill section.

Moments later Sabin, too, is on his hands and knees next to the announcer's tent, grimacing in pain after compressing his spine and slipping a disc on the race's final, banked turn. He posts the fastest time of the day but jump and gate penalties drop him to third place behind Rykhus and Toni Burn of Switzerland. In the overall men's standings, Norway takes six of the top nine places. Cody McCarthy, a Whitefish resident and women's world skijoring champion, is the top U.S. woman at seventh place; four U.S. men finish in the top 20.

But those are just the official results. Unlike the medal count, the suffering is evenly spread among the racers who, despite muscle pain and oxygen deprivation, congratulate each other giddily. It's all enough to make lay spectators wonder again why in the hell someone would participate.A moment later, a fan in a stars-and-stripes beanie pushes Calamard upright and screams, "Hey man, now you can drink!" And everything is made clear.e next table, the Swiss have gone full Montana. Decked out in new Carhartt utility pants, they're christening pitchers of Kokanee and Liberty Ale with a rambling toast and a group hit of McCrystal's snuff, which leaves them all blinking through the menthol burn.

And Sabin? He is moving through the bar evoking his usual response, a mix of hometown support and bewildered awe. It's the only place where he's recognized as a champion skier, but his laid-back amateur success is well matched to Whitefish's logging-resort vibe.

But there is something else about Sabin, a nagging question about how a guy who spends the off-season moving dirt with a Bobcat can find a way to beat the pro Euros. The race's most marketable American once sold a battered Subaru to buy a new pair of Scarpas. No one has a good answer, including Sabin. Ask him about the skating intervals he used to run on Big Mountain's bunny slopes and you'll get a shrug for an answer. "He's really strong, big lung," offers Norway's Sà¸vik, who visited Sabin the previous summer to ride singletrack around Whitefish. "He's the lung."

By the time sabin and the rest of the skiers hit the bottom of the mountain, the course is living up to its reputation as one of the longest Classics anyone can remember. Bodies pile up at the finish line.

After hitting the 360-degree "rap" turn, the racers burn uphill with legs deadened by lactic acid that's pooled in their muscles. As they stride uphill to the finish, they begin to fall apart as coaches and racers and a few fans cheer them on. Norway's Rykhus crumples into a heap and needs a Swiss skier to help him out of his bindings. A few feet away, Sweden's Per Lindstrom is out of his skis and trying to get on his feet, pushing himself up and forward with his poles as if he's climbing out of a broken chair. Following them is Ludvoic Calamard, of France, who actually falls on the finish line, requiring another Swiss skier and a spectator to hook him under the armpits and drag him out of the orange funnel of safety fencing just as Sabin poles into the race's final uphill section.

Moments later Sabin, too, is on his hands and knees next to the announcer's tent, grimacing in pain after compressing his spine and slipping a disc on the race's final, banked turn. He posts the fastest time of the day but jump and gate penalties drop him to third place behind Rykhus and Toni Burn of Switzerland. In the overall men's standings, Norway takes six of the top nine places. Cody McCarthy, a Whitefish resident and women's world skijoring champion, is the top U.S. woman at seventh place; four U.S. men finish in the top 20.

But those are just the official results. Unlike the medal count, the suffering is evenly spread among the racers who, despite muscle pain and oxygen deprivation, congratulate each other giddily. It's all enough to make lay spectators wonder again why in the hell someone would participate.A moment later, a fan in a stars-and-stripes beanie pushes Calamard upright and screams, "Hey man, now you can drink!" And everything is made clear.

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