The Loppet braces for a big year

With international races on the horizon, there’s a lot in store for the winter sports festival.

The Columbia Sportswear Skate Marathon has cross-country skiers of all ages racing between Theodore Wirth Park and Uptown’s Loppet Village. Photo by Steve Kotvis
The Columbia Sportswear Skate Marathon has cross-country skiers of all ages racing between Theodore Wirth Park and Uptown’s Loppet Village. Photo by Steve Kotvis

While it may not be the snowy season Loppet organizers dream of, it’s still a pivotal time for the cross-country ski festival as it hosts high-profile competitions over the next two years.

The City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival will have thousands of cross-country skiers, mountain bikers, snow sculptors, skaters and snowshoers taking to the frozen lakes and winter trails across Minneapolis Feb. 3–5. This year, the Loppet Foundation is hosting the American Cross Country Skiers 2017 National Masters Championships and joining The Great Northern winter festival, both steps toward next year, when the Loppet will have international attention as it hosts the 2018 Masters World Cup.

John Munger, executive director of the Loppet Foundation, said despite the forecast the Loppet has plans in place to make it a successful festival.

“Every year we’re like a snowflake, and every snowflake is a little bit different. This year it’s clear we don’t know what the snowflake is going to look like, but we know it’s going to be beautiful in the end,” Munger said.

To account for a lack of snowflakes, the Loppet has bolstered its snowmaking efforts this year by adding a cooling tower, which will create more usable cold water to create snow. The foundation and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board recently got a grant to add a pond for cold water, which will also expand its snowmaking capacity. Thanks to its plans to add a new recreation center to Theodore Wirth Regional Park, the nonprofit also has more control over park trails than ever before.

The extra efforts follow more than five years of planning to bring the National Masters Championships and Masters World Cup to the Twin Cities.

It’s been 12 years since Minnesota last hosted the AXCS National Championships, thought this will be the foundation’s first time hosting. This year, 18 skiers ages 30 and up will race in conjunction with the Loppet to earn the title of national champions.

AXCS National Director and World Masters Association President J.D. Downing said the Twin Cities have been successful hosts for the masters competitions, which have been held here twice in the past two decades.

“It’s also a logical fit to have a kind of preview for the 2018 Masters World Cup to get skiers both in the upper Midwest and nationwide excited about what’s coming up in just over a year’s time,” he said in a statement.

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The Masters World Cup is the unofficial world championships for skiers over 30 and is expected to bring in more than 1,000 skiers from nearly two-dozen countries to the Twin Cities next year for eight days of events. The last time a U.S. city hosted the international ski festival and championship was when McCall, Idaho hosted in 2008. Organizers anticipate the country won’t see another cup before 2022.

“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for skiers from around the world to experience our sport in a true big-city setting,” Downing said.

Munger said Minneapolis and the foundation attracted the festival through increased snowmaking efforts and the city’s proximity to an international airport, something that other host cities in the country — Telemark, Wis., for example — lack.

Given the Twin Cities’ recent history of lacking a bountiful snowfall, the championship next year will be the first to have back-up plans in place in case there’s little or no snow on the ground.

“The fantastic natural snow courses at Theodore Wirth Park are obviously our preference, but everything will be in place for a great [2018 Masters World Cup] regardless of what Mother Nature provides us,” Downing said.

Registration for the Masters World Cup will open this fall. There is no qualification process for racers.

Children take to Lake Calhoun each year to ski the festival's Minne-Loppet. Photo by Steve Kotvis
Children take to Lake Calhoun each year to ski the festival’s Minne-Loppet. Photo by Steve Kotvis

Branding the North

This year the Great Northern festival will join the Loppet with the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and the St. Paul Winter Carnival, a strategy that organizers say will make the winter events stronger than the sum of their parts.

Eric Dayton spearheaded the effort in order to take a slow time for local businesses and tourism and make it into a defining asset for the Twin Cities instead.

“There’s the temptation to go into a funk or a slump and wait for spring to come. It looked like a time of year that could be an important time of year for us,” Dayton said. “Traditionally, it was probably the last time that anyone would come to Minnesota. Now it’s, no, it’s exactly when you should come here.”

While Loppet veterans won’t likely notice much change related to the Great Northern this year — save for a small food truck rally — Munger said it will bring more spectators to Loppet events.

“We really see it as a bigger trend of getting more attention and getting more people involved and participating more and spectating more because of The Great Northern brand,” he said.

The Great Northern will also take place during the Super Bowl when football’s biggest event comes to U.S. Bank Stadium next February, which will likely grow the regular 350,000 combined attendance of the three foundational events.

“The Super Bowl is an opportunity to shine a light on everything else that’s happening in Minnesota,” Munger said.

he Fat Tire Loppet gives fat bikers an annual opportunity to ride over groomed Loppet trails, something that’s not allowed the rest of the year. Photo by Steve Kotvis
he Fat Tire Loppet gives fat bikers an annual opportunity to ride over groomed Loppet trails, something that’s not allowed the rest of the year. Photo by Steve Kotvis

A new home for the Loppet

The Loppet will also have another thing to show off to both locals and travellers during next year’s festival. This November the Loppet Foundation expects to open The Trailhead, a 14,000-square-foot winter sports and outdoor recreation center at Theodore Wirth that will host skiers, bikers, snowboarders and par 3 golfers year-round.

So far the Loppet has raised $8.5 million with $1.6 million left to go to finance the long-awaited center, new parking lots and other improvements to the park’s trails. The Trailhead will host a new café, event space, a bike and ski shop, restrooms and space for the foundation’s offices.

The organization will be showing off planned improvements and concepts of the center this year. It’s the foundation’s plan that the Trailhead boosts winter sports, whether it’s Minneapolis residents or international athletes.

“The new infrastructure is going to be great for World Masters, but also for everyday skiing,” said Isaac Kasper, the foundation’s trails superintendent.

Skijor races pair skiers and their dogs for competitions between Lake Calhoun and the Loppet Village in Uptown. Photo by Steve Kotvis
Skijor races pair skiers and their dogs for competitions between Lake Calhoun and the Loppet Village in Uptown. Photo by Steve Kotvis

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