Dave Shively: Skin it to win it

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My friend used to have a bumper sticker on his truck that read, "randonnee: French for can't tele."

I wondered where the tele superiority complex came from. It's not that the telemark turn isn't a challenging thing to master. It's just that the randonnee-haters out there have to come to grips with the fact that a free heel no longer grants its skiers free (and sole) reign over the backcountry.

"The market of Alpine touring (i.e. randonnee) is today almost twice the size of telemark and is expected to grow fast in the coming years," Rottefella President Ulf Bjerknes said of the telemark binding company's purchase of the majority share of Swiss Alpine touring binding maker Naxo.

Closer to home, Breckenridge's Pete Swenson was introduced to his first randonnee race at Crested Butte four years ago.

"It was the first time I'd seen how fast those guys can go," Swenson said. "It was like a new sport within a sport I already knew."

Swenson was hooked on the races and the lighter AT equipment. Now he's the national champion for the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association's race circuit.

Chris Davenport made an impressive claim for the AT mountaineering speed argument Jan. 19, when he skinned up and skied off the summit of Longs Peak, bagging his 54th Colorado fourteener in a single calendar year.

Swenson doesn't bother with the AT versus tele debate much. He's in it for the workout and the powder. Swenson understands the mutual interest the disciplines share and sees the growth in both as indicators of a logical niche Colorado has for a ski mountaineering race circuit.

"We have great mountains and good weather. They pull it off in Europe in ice and rain," Swenson said.

Swenson had nearly 60 racers show for the first two races of his five-stop 2007 Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup, and has almost double that signed up for the next, March 3 in Loveland (the series' closest stop to Steamboat).

The point-to-point, marked course will have a recreation division (two climbs of 2,000 vertical feet and challenging skiing) and race divisions (four climbs of 4,500) for both AT and tele skiers.

"We're backcountry skiers; the goal is in a couple years to have more European-style, technical, demanding skiing and ascents out-of-bounds, but a ski area's the logical place to start," Swenson said.

He's banking on his belief that interest in ski mountaineering is where mountain biking was in the early 90s. Rather than equating the sport with long hikes under heavy packs, the races are more akin to a 10K trail race. Swenson's not looking to convert us to a bunch of mayonnaise-dipping Euros, he just wants to turn people on to a competitive backcountry ski workout.

Who knows, if the circuit grows with the sport, maybe we'll see a race from Rabbit Ears to the ski area one day.

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