Stowe Derby: Skinny Skis and Knocking Knees

The Stowe Derby—the Northeast’s oldest and perhaps craziest downhill cross-country ski race—turns 65. The race is taking place Sunday, February 28. Here's why you should sign up, from someone who's competed in it.
Stowe Derby

The Stowe Derby started in 1945 as a bet. Sepp Ruschp, an Austrian-born ski racer who turned Stowe into a world-class resort, wagered that he could make it from the top of the Mount Mansfield Toll Road down to the Village of Stowe faster than his friend Erling Strom, a famous ski-mountaineer. Strom, talented at skiing uphill and down—he was the first to ascend Mt. McKinley on skis, and is credited with the first descent of Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot summits—was up for the challenge, but Ruschp won the day.

Sixty five years later, the Stowe Derby is still going strong. In fact, Pascale Savard, who organizes the race for the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, expects 1,000 participants on race day, which is scheduled for Sunday, February 28.

The course covers 16 kilometers and drops over 3,000 vertical feet from the top of the Lookout lift to the white-steeple church in Stowe. The most important rule is that racers must complete the route using only one pair of skis. Why? Because the trail descends steadily from the top and then undulates before turning pancake-flat for the final six kilometers.
Which makes picking your equipment a little tricky. You’re free to use a pair of alpine skis, but you’ll never make up enough time on the downhill to hold off the packs of Lycra-clad Nordic skiers double-poling and V2-ing their way to the finish line. The best tactic, according to Cap Chenoweth, a Stowe resident who’s completed 30 Derbys, is to use cross-country skis, play it safe and steady on the first part of the course and then ski hard to the end.

But the throngs of spectators don’t come to see skiers be conservative. Like NASCAR fans, they’re hoping for carnage. And if history is any guide, they’ll get it this year. “Basically, it’s a crash-fest,” Chenoweth, 66, says. “There’s less than a 50-percent chance you’ll make it to the bottom without falling.” Makes sense, since racers will be hitting speeds of 35 miles per hour on flimsy skis with no edges. The sharp switchbacks on the Toll Road become littered with bodies and broken poles, and people are routinely pulled out of the bushes and sent on their way with a cheer.
When asked what brings Chenoweth back every year despite the risks, he illustrates just how important the race has become to Stowe: “It’s the Derby,” he says. “It’s got to be done.”
If you decide to go, you’ve got three course options. The short course, at six kilometers, is easy and flat, perfect for newbies or kids. The long course, at 16 kilometers, draws the most participants, and is separated into two main groups: skate and classic. Fancy yourself a tough Yankee? Go for the Derby-Meister, where you do the course twice: once on skate skis and the other on classic gear. Either way, that home stretch into town—if you make it — is going to feel good.