For the first time in more than 20 years, the fastest cross-country skiers in the world are coming to the U.S. to race in a World Cup event.
After years of planning, advocacy, fundraising and trail construction — not to mention a race cancellation four years ago because of the COVID pandemic — the organizers of the Loppet Cup on Feb. 16-17 in Minneapolis weren’t going to let a historically warm and practically snowless winter stop them.
“We’re going to have a really a busy week in front of us to get the venue in shape. It's not the park at its prettiest right now. But we're going to get it there,” promised Claire Wilson, executive director of the Loppet Foundation, which is putting on the race at Theodore Wirth Park.
Thirty-thousand spectators are expected both Saturday and Sunday at the World Cup race. It comes at a time when the U.S. men’s and women’s teams are enjoying unprecedented success on the World Cup tour, including hometown hero Jessie Diggins, who is leading the standings.
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“We set alarms on our phones to snap up free tickets, because they sold out so fast,” said Lisa Garretson of Minneapolis, who competed at the City of Lakes Loppet at Theodore Wirth last weekend.
“There's going to be so many people here just like losing their minds, to watch cross-country ski racing."
The sport is surging in popularity in Minnesota. Thousands of youth skiers participate in clubs and on high school teams; thousands of adults compete in citizen races around the region, including the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin later this month. There are now four parks in the Twin Cities with ski trail systems that make artificial snow.
There was a time this winter when Wilson doubted whether the Loppet Foundation could pull off the race, in the face of record-warm temperatures, rain, and lack of snow — the metro area has only measured about 2 inches of snowfall since the New Year.
"We have been on the edge of our seats the entire winter," Wilson said, adding that she and other race organizers thought they were playing it safe by scheduling the event in February.
"We did not think this was a possibility. It was not on the table that it would be difficult to put off this race in February in Minnesota,” Wilson said.
Organizers were prepared for a low snow year. They weren’t prepared for a winter where for long stretches it would be much too warm to make artificial snow.
Over the past 20 years, the Loppet Foundation has raised millions of dollars to build an elaborate snowmaking system at Theodore Wirth. Water is piped along the trails to different locations, where giant snow guns plug in to make artificial snow.
In fact, Wilson said it’s not even possible anymore to win a bid to host a World cup ski race without snowmaking capabilities — natural snow is too unpredictable now because of climate change, she said.
The park got off to an OK start with snowmaking early this winter, said Loppet Foundation trails manager Robert Ibler. But that changed around Christmas.
“We got about three days of rain and 50 degree temperatures where we lost a lot of the snow that we made,” Ibler said.
They basically had to start over from scratch.
“It was a real heartbreak of a moment,” recalled Wilson. “I mean, we were really seriously concerned that we would not be able to put together a course.”
What saved this year’s race was the 10-day cold snap that descended on the region in mid-January. During that stretch Loppet crews made snow around the clock, working 24 hours a day in three shifts. They even borrowed snow guns from Ramsey County and the Three Rivers Park District.
While it’s possible to make snow around 28 degrees Fahrenheit, Ibler estimates the equipment can make 30 times as much snow in the same amount of time when temperatures drop into the single digits, like they did in January.
“We had probably made about half of the snow on the course that we needed at that point. And in those 10 days, we were able to make probably the other half of the snow that we needed for the event,” Ibler said.
Now, there’s a ribbon of densely packed snow from 1 to 3 feet thick winding through the trees, surrounded by mud and grass. That equates to about 6 feet of natural compacted snow.
Matt Laue, assistant chief of competition for the race, inspected the course last weekend for FIS, the international governing body for cross-country skiing.
“In all honesty, I’d say they probably made 75 percent of the snow cover that you know we were hoping for,” Laue said. “Maybe not quite as thick as we wanted in a few spots,” he said, but enough to hold a safe event.
When the Loppet Foundation got the news that the race was on, Wilson said her staff was in tears.
“Because it just felt like, we can’t lose this in a winter that has felt a little devoid of hope, honestly. So the fact that we can put this race on in a winter where we are all missing winter, I think has made it even more profound and special.”
Trail crews are taking additional steps to rebuild the course following this week’s rain and warm temperatures. They put blankets on vulnerable sections of trail to protect it from the rain. They hauled in snow from the Bush Lake ski jumps in Bloomington. And they plan to make more snow when temperatures drop over the coming week.
An overdue homecoming
The star attraction of the race is Diggins, the former Stillwater High School star and Olympic gold medalist who at age 32 is leading the World Cup standings in a sport long dominated by Scandinavian countries.
Diggins has advocated for the World Cup to return to the United States for years. The last time a World Cup ski race was held on U.S. soil took place in Utah in 2001. A race was scheduled for Minneapolis in March, 2020. But it was canceled because of the COVID pandemic.
“It’s taken 300 races in every country but my own to finally get to do this in my own country, which is kind of crazy. But that makes it even more special,” Diggins said in a press conference earlier this week.
Diggins recalled how in high school her only exposure to World Cup racing was by watching old VHS tapes.
“And now, all these little kids, and all these families, and all the people from the community that taught me how to love skiing, who supported me, and raised me, they’re all going to be there. It's going to be so amazing to be able to share this with them, and finally give all these kids access to seeing the best skiers in the world.”
Five additional skiers from Minnesota, including four other women, are competing. Several were state high school champions or runners up.
“Imagine you’re a Vikings player and you've never played in Minnesota. I mean, these are professional athletes who never get to ski in front of hometown crowds. So their excitement is palpable,” said Wilson.
Other stars of the sport are also excited to come to Minneapolis, said Wilson, including Norwegian 5-time gold medalist Johannes Klaebo.
“I think the whole world has been rooting for us to pull this off as they have watched the forecast,” said Wilson. “All eyes are on Wirth.”