Stowe Ski Race Turns 70

The Stowe Derby began as a bet between two guys. Seventy years later, it’s one of Stowe’s signature winter events.
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Stowe's Running of the Derby tout

The Stowe Derby, in which competitors race from the heights of Mt. Mansfield to the charming village below, descending 2,600 vertical feet and covering some 12 miles of downhill and cross-crountry terrain, celebrates its 70th birthday this year.

The Derby, scheduled for this weekend (Feb. 22, 2015) may be one of the nation’s oldest and most historic Nordic events, but it keeps up with the times this year, welcoming fatbikes for what promises to be an interesting spectacle.

According to the Derby website: “The Mt. Mansfield Ski Club is proud to partner up with Mountain Bike Vermont to present the fatbike portion of the Stowe Derby. The race will include 100 fatbike riders competing in a parallel format to the traditional Derby race model. Once all ski competitors have completed the four-mile descent down the Toll Road, cycling participants will follow, leaving from a non-lift accessed start gate situated on the upper trails of the Stowe Mountain Resort Touring Center. Departing from the shoulder of Mount Mansfield, competitors descend 650 vertical feet over the 14 km of the remaining ski racecourse. Like the skiers before them, fatbike racers will navigate through Stowe’s hillside terrain followed by a sprint down the scenic rec path before crossing the finish in front of the cheering fans in the center of Stowe Village.”

Here’s how the Derby got started: “It started in 1945 as a personal challenge between two amazing skiers—Austrian, Sepp Ruschp who was hired to come to America and head the new ski school at Stowe, and Erling Strom, a world-famous mountaineer from Norway. The challenge was the same as it is today—to race from the top of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, to the historic village of Stowe—on one pair of skis—the ultimate test of a skier’s ability. Ruschp was the winner of the first Stowe Derby.”

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Since Ruschp’s first win, the Derby has grown to attract an expected 900 competitors per year, including some of North America’s most competitive nordic racers. But the event regularly draws a number of experienced alpiners eager to try their hands at nordic skiing for this special event—often with richly comedic results.

A few years back, we enlisted a staffer to give the Derby a go, and the result was predictable (and priceless). Read it here:

I didn’t know till now that there was such a thing as shin muscles, but mine are screaming in hysterical protest. It’s foggy and raining hard. I can barely see 20 yards through my sweat-streaked eyewear. There’s another sharp corner up ahead. And I want my mommy.

The Stowe Derby, in which I am “competing,” is a 10-mile race from the shoulder of Mt. Mansfield to the village of Stowe, Vt.  The first part would be easy, I reckoned: a leisurely tuck down Toll Road, Stowe’s easiest trail. Turns out, there’s nothing easy about the Derby—certainly not for an out-of-shape alpiner accustomed to silly crutches like, say, edges, sidecut, and a binding with a friggin heelpiece. Now it appears that the act of snowplowing down Stowe’s fluffiest bunny hill, using muscles I didn’t know existed, will be my undoing.

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The Stowe Derby began as a bet, so it’s fitting that my experience was similar. My boss, actually, wagered I wouldn’t make it halfway from the top of the Triple to the village, and assigned a first-person piece, clearly to take me down a peg. As a Nordic novice, I wasn’t entirely alone: Almost every Stowe veteran has at some point taken on the Derby, often on a bet. The spectacle is known for exquisite comedy. Local wags pack picnics, set up on corners known for maximum carnage, and just wait for lumbering jackasses like me to teeter into sight at the top of an icy Dead Man’s Curve.  They’re not there to offer support. They’re there to laugh.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

(Photos from top: Mike Hitelman Photography, Benjamin D. Bloom, Mike Hitelman Photography)

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