A racer takes off from the starting gate on Howelsen Hill and others wait their turn during the final Town Challenge skiing race of the season. The event drew nearly 40 skiers, up from 2012 but down from the kind of crowds the series drew when it was new, in the 1980s.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

A racer takes off from the starting gate on Howelsen Hill and others wait their turn during the final Town Challenge skiing race of the season. The event drew nearly 40 skiers, up from 2012 but down from the kind of crowds the series drew when it was new, in the 1980s.

Spirit of Ski Town USA exemplified by Town Challenge competitors

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Slalom in the soul

Even though turnout isn't what it once was, the Town Challenge ski racing series still is a vital part of what makes Steamboat Springs a special place. Ask any of the series regulars and they'll tell you, the annual races are about a lot more than competition.

Ski Town USA glowed, shining into a starless night through the windows of Howelsen Hill Lodge and onto the cold, groomed slopes of the iconic downtown Steamboat Springs ski hill.

An anticipated winter storm began to sprinkle our Rocky Mountain town with another layer of snow, but inside the lodge, the last of the evening’s participants didn’t notice, practically a sin in a ski town where every storm is meticulously tracked and each day’s snowfall totals carefully logged.

It was a party in honor of the final Town Challenge ski race of the season, and the racers celebrated the way they always do: with red cheeks and wide smiles, old stories and new laughs, their boisterous cheer leaking out into the frozen world along with the light.

There was more than a last-day-of-school vibe in the Howelsen lodge that Friday night. It wasn’t just a year; it was a good year. Participation had increased in the 3-decade-old amateur race series. It wasn’t anywhere near what it had been in the glory days, but there was life in the series that some feared would fade away.

There was life in Alpine racing in Ski Town USA, and the racers celebrated, calling out into the room, “Racer up!”

A bit of silliness

The Town Challenge race series isn’t an event that lends itself to concise summary.

It’s an Alpine ski racing series, but Telemark skiers often take part, and there once was a strong snowboarding contingent. One longtime racer, Kris Hagenbuch, used to speed from the bottom of the course back to the top during races so he could compete in the slalom, giant slalom and super giant slalom disciplines.

Those who race say the event isn’t about winning or losing, and there’s plenty to back that claim. The final race of the season, a two-part event March 7 and 8 that was capped by the party, brought out the whimsical side of some of the racers.

Series veteran Pat Arnone wore a Hawaiian shirt over his speed suit both nights. Tim Magill, the crusty Steamboat native who seems to find his way into every potentially dangerous ski event, took a break from buckling his ski boots and held a dress out in front of himself.

“Huh,” he grumbled with a hint of a smile as he looked over the black, white and red ensemble. “This is the same one as last year, right?”

Still, the case that it’s all fun and games goes only so far.

The series is designed similar to World Cup and FIS races, and the seasonlong points system severely punishes those who miss even one event.

Some train long hours throughout the winter, refining their technique to shave off extra seconds.

Several of the events have traveling trophies, and the Carl’s Cup, with engraved names of previous winners, is awarded to men’s and women’s seasonlong champions. There’s no outright bragging, but the pride emanating from those who have had their names engraved seems to take decades to decay.

A natural adjustment

The Town Challenge began in 1982, the brainchild of Tom Degroff, among others.

The series grew out of the Merchant Cup, a raucous series of races that pitted teams of employees from various Steamboat businesses against one another.

Mention it today, and participants — now often graying men and women — reply with knowing laughs, even inquiring about the statute of limitations.

“I’ll call it ‘back in the day’ at this point,” said Rick DeVos, letting loose with one of those laughs. DeVos won the Town Challenge series in 1988, and he’s now the executive director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

Merchant Cup teams were composed of five skiers, including at least one woman. Some took it more seriously, loading their squads with a ringer or two. Business in the town’s bars and ski shops could grind to a halt when employees flocked to Bashor Bowl for races that never were short on beer.

“Some teams just wanted to party, but there were some pretty good racers, too,” Magill said. “You were always looking for a fast woman. If you were fast and a woman, you were always getting calls from everyone.”

The Merchant Cup later was phased out.

“They were a lot of fun, but like anything, it ran its course,” said Roger Perricone, now the director of competitive services at Steamboat Ski Area.

That left the door open for a new adult recreational ski racing circuit. Degroff had been putting on a Casino Night fundraiser for the Winter Sports Club, and he seized the opportunity to have a race series serve that same function.

No hurdle high enough

The 2013 finale weekend consisted of two races. There was a pair of Thursday night slalom runs and a pair of Friday night GS runs. Racers were scored with their best time from each night.

The racers vary a great deal in skill and expectations. The first racers from the women’s side were careful, catching every gate but without the aggressiveness of those who’d hoist the trophy.

“It’s fun going fast, even if you’re not really going very fast,” Julie Hagenbuch said.

Like so many of the racers, ski racing in general and the Town Challenge series in particular has secured a place in her heart. She started decades ago with no racing experience but found partners in her husband, Kris Hagenbuch, and dozens of friends while she strived for improvement each week.

She doesn’t participate in every race, but she races every season no matter the obstacle.

“I’ve had knee surgeries and breast cancer. I kept coming back to it after those,” she said. “I even did some races when I was starting chemo.”

She wasn’t fast on this particular Thursday or Friday night. She finished last Thursday, a second behind her nearest competitor. On Friday, in a larger field, she was second to last, but her attitude wasn’t dampened.

Her victory had nothing to do with a time in any race.

Other racers laid down jaw-dropping times, like Natalie Pearl, a 2012 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School and one of the top women’s Alpine skiers in the Winter Sports Club.

She had the fourth-fastest time of the day, winning the slalom in 43.23 seconds. She was just as good a day later, winning the giant slalom portion of the event in 28.48 seconds, the third-fastest overall time.

Flittering away

The Town Challenge of 1982 filled a need, and the stories from those first seasons were as epic as ever. Racers sometimes would bury a keg in the snow, ready for skiers as they finished their runs.

“There were so many people, I was always afraid it’d be gone by the time I went,” Andy Hogrefe said about the beer.

Attendance frequently topped 100, and DeVos remembers one GS that drew more than 130.

All things considered, 2012-13 was a good season for the Town Challenge race series. Numbers trended up. The Thursday race featured 31 skiers and the Friday finale had 38. The numbers are on par with 2011 but up substantially from the 15 and 29, respectively, who participated the final weekend of the snow-deprived 2012 season.

The series clearly is not what it was in its heyday, and participants have a range of theories as to why.

Some blame the economy. Perricone pointed out that the FIS-style format simply isn’t built for the skiing Everyman.

Others point to shifts in skiing technology.

“All there was 20 years ago was GS and slalom skis,” said Kevin Hendrickson, a seven-time champion. “Now racing skis are specialty equipment.”

The most obvious reason, though, is the rise of other snow sport options. Snowboards still were five years away from being allowed up the chairlifts at Steamboat Ski Area when the Town Challenge was born. Freestyle and Nordic skiing existed, but Alpine was king.

DeVos said the Winter Sports Club had 450 athletes when he stepped into his current role in 1999. There are nearly 1,000 now. Alpine skiing still makes up more than half of that thousand, but there are many other options for athletes, few of which existed 31 years ago.

Meanwhile, the core group behind the Town Challenge continues to age.

Five of this year’s eight events were memorial races named after members who have died, including Dave DeHaven, Dick Haller, Jim Kehoe, Peter Brewster and Ashley Stamp.

About two-thirds of Friday’s racers were older than 40. The generations that grew up and migrated to Steamboat in the years since simply haven’t filled the ranks in the same way.

“We keep trying to do whatever we can, looking for little changes to keep numbers up,” Hendrickson said. “We pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.”

Ideas include trying to adapt a more regular schedule. The series once had 18 dates at Howelsen Hill, virtually every Thursday throughout winter. This year’s schedule included three stops at the downtown landmark.

“If we went more consistently with Thursday night, people might understand when it is,” Hendrickson said. “It should be like the mountain bike series, every two weeks.”

Once more down the course

Each Town Challenge racer serves as an ambassador for the sport. Show up at a race with boots and skis and you’re almost assured to get the hard sell on signing up.

New racers are welcomed warmly, even when they win.

That’s what happened at the March finale.

Erik Gilbert — one of those new, young skiers — dominated the men’s side of the finale twofer.

Hendrickson long has been the ruler of the roost. He grew up in New Hampshire skiing every chance he got. Like a stunningly high number of his competitors, however, he didn’t get into ski racing until later life. He now teaches the Masters Program for the Winter Sports Club and won the Carl’s Cup most recently in 2012.

Hendrickson laid down the fastest first-run time Thursday, but Gilbert, only three years retired from an All-American NCAA career at University of Vermont, got him on the second run, winning the night with a time of 38.76 seconds, ahead of Hendrickson’s 39.53.

It was much the same story a night later. Gilbert won on the GS course in 27.42, and Hendrickson was second in 28.43.

Even as the last racers finished, a barbecue dinner was hot and waiting in the Howelsen lodge.

It was time to celebrate.

Grass-roots support

It wasn’t one of the parties from the ’80s, but there was plenty of cheer to go around that Friday night in early March.

The revelers saluted their champions: Trevyn Newpher for the men and Kara Norby for the women. They thanked their volunteers, who kept times and announced, and Steve Hoots, who organized the series this season.

It wasn’t obvious that night, but they worry about the future of their hobby, their love. Still, most are confident that ski racing will carry on in Steamboat.

“As long as we can keep moving, we’ll keep doing it,” Degroff said. “I’m going to be 64 in less than a month, and it keeps me young.”

Racers like Jim Kohler, 43, aren’t going anywhere, either.

He plunged headlong into the sport in 1993 when he moved to Denver with his wife, Laurie. They grew tired of the commute to Copper Mountain for training and moved to Steamboat in 2006.

He estimated he’s been through 20 pairs of race skis in that time.

He relishes in the minutiae of racing and can expand on the delicate shifts of weight that make a turn more efficient and a run down the course faster. He’s always trying to apply it on the snow.

“It only takes one run to change my mood,” he said. “If I’m skiing good, fast, competitive, it makes me feel a little better all of the time.”

He was competitive in the series’s final races, finishing fifth in the slalom and fourth in the GS, ahead of talented racers like Newpher, who works on the race crew at the NASTAR course at Steamboat Ski Area.

“I probably try a lot harder to beat them than they do to beat me,” Kohler said.

Simply put, Kohler’s an addict, completely wrapped up in Steamboat’s world of ski racing.

“It’s become most of my social life,” he said. “All the buddies I hang out with, those are the guys I ski race with.

“A lot of people think if you’re not going to make it to the Olympics, why are you ski racing? Those are people who don’t ski race themselves. They are people who don’t know how fun it is.”

Some see the series’s advantages as stretching beyond the group, too.

Gilbert coaches for the Winter Sports Club and said he’s aware of the importance of the Town Challenge.

“We’ll be out there wrapping up our training on Howelsen and the kids see all these old farts putting on their skis,” Gilbert said. “They watch the kids and talk to them about what they’re working on. It’s great to have that crossover. That helps fuel the kids, and they get super stoked about it.”

Racers in that younger wave, like Gilbert, 26, and Newpher, 30, are well aware of the role they shoulder.

“We may not have as strong of a group as they had in the ’70s and ’80s, but we still have a lot of ski racers here in Steamboat,” Newpher said. “I’ve really found a home in Steamboat. Town Challenge is one of the aspects that really completes the picture for me.”

Steamboat’s soul

From the hometown Olympians who have made Steamboat famous to those who hike the ski mountain on moonlit nights to the children who swarm Howelsen Hill after school, Steamboat’s moniker of Ski Town USA can be seen across town.

It’s there in the Town Challenge ski race series, too. Most racers are not native to Steamboat. Most didn’t grow up racing, and some didn’t even grow up skiing. But their passion stands out, and that’s what shone through a Howelsen Hill Lodge window on a snowy night in early March.

It was a group of close friends celebrating their uniting love of going fast, a group living and breathing Ski Town USA.

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