The annual City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival is never quite the same thing twice.
That isn’t just because of the weather, the ultimate X factor for an event that depends on snow and freezing temperatures in early February, both of which have proven remarkably inconsistent over the past 11 years. Credit also the ambitions of the organizers, who year after year build on what, back in 2003, was just a Nordic skiing race around the Chain of Lakes.
“There’s a little bit of a ‘Why not?’ mentality,” explained John Munger, executive director of the Loppet Foundation.
Once you’ve gone through the trouble of designing a 33-kilometer cross-country ski course that winds its way through the city from Theodore Wirth Park to Uptown, why not tack on a few extra kilometers? Why not invite bicyclists, runners and mushers to join in the fun?
A partial tally of what’s new this year includes: the first-ever snowshoe and dogsled races on the Wirth-to-Uptown course; classic and freestyle cross-country ski races extended to 42 kilometers (26.2 miles, the same distance as a marathon); and a ski course that now includes a challenging Minikahda Club spur just before the finish line.
Also making its debut in 2014 is a fat tire bicycle race on the Loppet trail. Fat tires first joined the Loppet last year, but last-minute concerns raised by the Park Board kept the bicycles on the lakes and off the trail.
“We just want to provide as many avenues for people to enjoy winter as possible,” Munger said. “… There’s just a million ways of enjoying winter and we feel like we’re the conduit of that.”
For some, that may mean just bundling-up to take in the spectacle (and maybe a Surly or two in the beer tent) at the Loppet Village, shifted this year to the Lake Calhoun Center on the lake’s north shore. That’s where snow sculptors and aficionados of the Swedish lawn game Kubb hold their contests, where bicycles with studded tires will tear around the twisty Penn Ice-Cycle Loppet course and also the site of the finish line for all of the weekend’s races.
And it could get crowded. With just two weeks to go before the Jan. 31 kick off, 6,000 people had signed up to participate in one event or another, putting the Loppet on a record pace for registrations.
Ever since it was added to the lineup a few years ago, skijoring has been a Loppet crowd favorite. The event features skiers tethered to one or two dogs, and the Loppet races, part of the National Skijoring Championships, are billed as the biggest skijoring event in the world.
Maybe it was only a matter of time, then, before Loppet organizers invited mushers like Don Deckert to Minneapolis. Deckert, a dogsled pilot from Albertville, was one of several mushers who showed up at Theodore Wirth Lake on Jan. 18 to take a test run on a portion of the course.
Deckert’s team of six Siberian Huskies trains every other day throughout the winter and competes five or six times a year, usually on courses in northern Wisconsin or Michigan. Mushing through the heart of a major city will be a first for them, and the 20-kilometer course promises to be a challenge, he said, especially the narrow, winding sections in Theodore Wirth Park.
Deckert uses voice commands — “gee” for left and “haw” for right — but ultimately “they’re the steering wheel,” he said, nodding at his team as they howled and tugged, eager to run.
“This will be a little different because of the looping back and forth,” he said. “… It could be interesting at the start.”
A triple challenge
For a small group of elite skiers, one Loppet event isn’t enough.
Two dozen or more skiers are expected to attempt the now marathon-length Hoigaard’s Classic cross-country ski race Saturday morning, then the Finn Sisu Sprints event Saturday night before completing their trifecta of athletic endurance by skiing a second marathon on Sunday with the Loppet Freestyle race. The top finishers will split $6,000 in prizes.
Chris Harvey plans to be among them. A former college skier for Michigan Tech, Harvey goes to part-time at his engineering job in the winter so he can coach the Burnsville High School Nordic ski team.
“It will be more fun for me to see where I stack up,” he said. “I know there will be quite a few other coaches racing.”
Munger said the decision to make the weekend’s two big races marathon-length was in part to make them more enticing to athletes like Harvey. While the super-elite are probably off racing in Europe or training for the Olympics, many skiers just below that level are looking for challenging races closer to home.
The new course means the Loppet’s top skiers will have to adjust their strategies this year. While the final third of the old Loppet trail was a nearly flat, skiers this year will have to save some energy for the hills of the Minikahda Club.
They can expect a warm welcome at the finish line after that second marathon.
“We’ll be treating them well,” Munger said. “They’ll all be getting a beer stein at the end filled with Surly beer once they get to the finish line on Sunday.”
IF YOU GO:
City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival
WHERE: The Loppet Village is now located on the north side of Lake Calhoun, near the Lake Calhoun Center, 3033 Excelsior Boulevard.
TRANSPORTATION: Free shuttle buses will run between the Loppet Village and Walker Library, 2880 Hennepin Ave. S., and the Optum Health parking lot, 6300 Highway 55 in Golden Valley.
WHEN: Jan. 31–Feb. 2
INFO: Go to www.loppet.org for course maps, schedules and spectator information.