The secrets to ski racing in a blizzard
Special to the Vail Daily
BEAVER CREEK — Skiing in a blizzard is challenging.
You don’t have to be a professional racer to know this. However, while flying down a super-G course at top speed when the sky and the ground are the same color and huge flakes of snow are pelting one’s face, poor visibility can become a racer’s No. 1 obstacle.
The biggest challenge of a race-time blizzard is that conditions vary for every individual leaving the start house. Following the 2018 Xfinity Birds of Prey Audi FIS Ski World Cup on Saturday, racers had some pointers about how they contend with flat light and blowing snow.
“There are a lot of different levels of visibility. There are different levels today for everyone at 45-second intervals. For me, it honestly wasn’t that bad. It was actually fairly bright,” said Canadian Dustin Cook, who was the fourth starter and ended up 22nd. “The light was flatter yesterday (during the downhill race). In flat light, you can’t really tell what you’re going over. You’re going over stuff and you’re not expecting it. Everything is a surprise. You definitely get more tentative. You get used to it to a degree, but it’s always pretty tough to ski. For sure certain guys are better at it than others … at sacking up for it.”
Visibility deteriorated when France’s Alexis Pinturault left the start house wearing big No. 12, but he was happy with his performance (16th) during a snowfall that was momentarily blinding.
“Unfortunately, around bib No. 10, we started at the bad moments. It was snowing a lot and visibility was really bad. You see now it’s getting better … you can nearly see the start,” Pinturault said after his run, pointing up the course. “But it’s part of ski racing. You have to adapt.”
Racers use numerous strategies for adapting to poor visibility. Pinturault’s methods begin in the gym before the season begins.
“You have to do a lot with your feeling and sensation and how your body is reacting,” he said. “I think there are many different ways to improve. For example, there are some exercises in dry land training when you close your eyes so you don’t have the help of your vision anymore. You just have to focus on the feeling and the ear. Sometimes I’m closing my eyes and just feeling the reaction of my body.”
Cook trains in darker lenses because he believes it’s possible to adjust one’s eyes to function better in flat light.
“When we’re training on the glacier, I try to wear the darkest lens possible when the conditions aren’t that awesome, so when I get to something like this, it’s less of a surprise,” he said. “You’ll be slower in training, but then you’ll get to a race and you’re like, I’m glad I did that. You really can train (your eyes) to see better — and also your psyche to push it in tough light. For a recreational skier, it’s not a big deal, but for us, we always have to push it.”
Pick your color
Goggle lens selection is also of utmost importance in poor visibility, but varies from racer to racer.
“For me, I really, really like the orange Oakley lens, whereas some of the Austrian guys wear green, some guys wear pink all the time. From talking to the Oakley guys, I think it really depends on the retina in your eyes,” Cook says. “Orange just seems to work for me. It’s a lot brighter and it gives me the definition that I need.”
While Cook and other top racers believe that a yellow lens makes the light flatter, yellow is the constant color of choice for Pinturault.
“I see the contrast with yellow and it’s coming closer to the sunlight,” the Frenchman said. “It’s what I’m using mostly, so I’m used to it now.”
Aksel Lund Svindal went with a purple-colored lens on Saturday in his three-way tie for third place.
“Flat light doesn’t mean it’s not bright,” he said. “I never recommend a super bright lens just because it’s bright, but something with a lot of contrast.”
His Norwegian teammate Aleksander Aamodt Kilde who was also on the podium tied for third, prefers the orange Oakley Prism lens.
“The Prism is really good for this because you see all the small (contrasts) in the snow,” Kilde said, adding that the superbly prepared course mitigated the poor visibility on Saturday. “Visibility was really bad, but when the snow is fine, then it’s OK.”
Trusting not only the course, but every other component involved in racing is also key, according to the Norwegian.
“First of all, it’s about finding the balance,” Kilde said. “Everything is about trusting your equipment. For me it’s always important to trust what you have on your legs and trust your skills. If you don’t have this in bad visibility, you’re really going to be behind.”