Christin Cooper never felt the thrill of victory on Aspen Mountain. The Olympic silver medalist, who won five World Cup races during her career, says she always struggled here.
Recalling the 1977 World Cup season—her first—Cooper recounts a particularly memorable crash in the Aspen downhill. “I ran dead last, and I just ran out of gas at the bottom, crashing into the hay bales while making the turn into the finish line. They already had the podium up and were giving awards while I was picking hay out of my helmet.”
When the Audi FIS Ski World Cup Finals take place March 15–19, the world’s best ski racers will converge on the same slopes that flummoxed Cooper. The former US Ski Teamer, and now part-time Aspen resident, notes that Aspen Mountain’s race courses were—and still are—known to be challenging and deserving of respect. With plenty of varied terrain at a fatiguing high altitude, racers must be calculating. “You’ve got to do everything right—the risk-to-reward ratio is higher here,” she emphasizes.
For the World Cup’s golden anniversary, the prestigious finals are landing in Aspen for the first time. The nine races over five days are the culmination of the World Cup’s season-long, 37-race schedule and will help determine the overall men’s and women’s champions as well as those in downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and the nations team event. The top 25 racers in each discipline, based on results to that point in the season, plus the current junior world champions, will compete.
It’s the “third-biggest event on the planet for skiing,” after the Olympics and the biennial World Championships, says John Rigney, vice president for sales and events for the Aspen Skiing Company. And there’s every reason to be excited that Aspen is hosting it.
“We set out to do something to stoke that nostalgia from years gone by of racing on Aspen Mountain,” says Rigney. “At the end of the day, this is a ski town, and the history of racing in Aspen runs deep; it’s part of our DNA. The idea of seeing a downhiller fly down the course, cresting over Aztec, is about as thrilling a scene as there is in sports.”
Memories of being part of the large, cheering crowds watching a section of course known as the “airplane turn” from the bottom of Aztec stand out in US Ski Team board member and part-time Aspenite John Bucksbaum’s mind.
“It’s easy to conjure up an image of something called the airplane turn—the g-forces involved in having to make that hard turn to hit the road,” he says. “You knew you were going to see some crashes—that’s why everybody was standing there.”
Beyond the thrills on the race hill, there’s the appeal of Aspen itself, “a town that lives and breathes ski racing,” says Cooper. A community-wide weeklong celebration, with its epicenter in Wagner Park, is planned during the finals.
“From a sporting perspective, you have the best in the world competing with each other at the highest elevation of the entire season for really high stakes, when everything’s on the line,” Cooper adds. “Add the history and character of the town, and you have a great recipe for a World Cup race.”
Read on for everything you’ll want to know before the finals begin, including a behind-the-scenes look at race course prep, which racers to keep a special eye on, the best places for spectating, parties and concerts to attend, and an interview with Bob Beattie, the well-known ski coach and sports broadcaster who co-founded the World Cup 50 years ago.