The Italian athletes bomb down the Copper Mountain race course in a blur, their skis slicing barely perceptible arcs in the firm snow.
“Look at that. Can you believe we’ve had 400 guys on that in the last two days? It’s perfect,” says Patrick Riml, the alpine director of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, pointing at a glassy pitch between the gates.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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For the past several weeks, Copper Mountain has been the world’s best ski racing training venue. For more than a decade, hundreds of ski racers of all ages have flocked to Copper’s north-facing slopes in October and November to jump start their race season.
The heavyweights arrive in November, with Olympians racing down Copper’s 2-mile speed course, which drops 2,300 vertical feet, allowing speeds up to 80 mph. Shorter slopes offer technical training for slalom and giant slalom. When the U.S. athletes arrive, Copper’s venues become the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center and Alpine Technical Center.
With its race venues, superpipe and Woodward training center — with indoor trampolines, foam pits and ramps at the Action Sports Barn — Copper Mountain has supported just dozens of the world’s top alpine and freestyle skiers and snowboarders. It’s all part of the mountain’s mission to be “the athlete’s mountain,” said Dustin Lyman, the president and general manager of Copper Mountain.
“We would do better financially to open, but this is our commitment to the sport of ski racing,” said Lyman, a former tight end for the NFL’s Chicago Bears who grew up skiing in Colorado.
Lyman’s snowmaking crews get busy in early October, laying out several slopes as soon as evening temperatures drop below freezing. While nearby Arapahoe Basin and Keystone race each other to open ribbons of machine-made snow for recreational skiers, Copper’s team works to build slopes for the pickiest skiers in the world.
Since 2011, national teams, college skiers and clubs with knee-high rippers have gathered at Copper every November for pre-season training. When the snow isn’t good in Europe, the athletes from afar load lifts at Copper Mountain before any other resort in the country has opened.
“We’ve got pretty much the entire Beijing alpine podium skiing here today,” Lyman said a few days ago as he side-slipped the race course between speeding, famous European athletes.
The top skiers get out early, loading chairs as early as 5:30 a.m. so they can make the first runs on the firmest snow. This season, the snowmaking along with very cold nighttime temperatures and just enough precipitation has made the venue “absolutely incredible,” said Riml, who took the reins of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard this spring after serving as the alpine director for the Austrian Ski Federation.
In two weeks the world’s top male skiers will gather to the west at Beaver Creek for the World Cup Birds of Prey downhill and Super G contests. The Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek courses are different, but they are north-facing at similar altitudes in a shared climate.
“It’s always great to train on home soil and for some of the athletes they are close to home as well which is great,” said Sierra Ryder with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team. “It’s also nice to have the athletes in Copper so close to the Birds of Prey World Cup. While it is not the same venue, being in the same climate never hurts.”