City of skis

The City of Lakes Loppet returns Feb. 5–6

The snowiest December on record in the Twin Cities was bad news for city plow budgets and apartment dwellers with no off-street parking.

But for organizers of the ninth annual City of Lakes Loppet — and the thousands of cross-country skiers expected to participate this year — it was one heckuva way to start the ski season. And surely it lifted a weight of the mind of John Munger, executive director of the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation, who sounded pained when recalling the event’s earliest years.

A short history of the first three Loppets goes like this: in 2003 there was practically no snow; in 2004 it was bitterly cold; and, in 2005, spring arrived in February, with three days of temperatures above 50 degrees forcing cancellation of the main races.

“We kind of felt like we were in purgatory — at least I did, looking back now — because the first five years of the event, they were just crummy, crummy winters,” Munger grumbled.

Barring an act of God, it seemed there would be plenty of snow on the ground when the 9,000 people expected to participate in at least one Loppet event showed up Feb. 5–6, a weekend that is no longer just about cross-country ski racing.

Said Munger: “There’s now ice-bike racing and there’s snow sculptures and skijoring and just the whole variety (of events) that are really about: How do we celebrate living in Minneapolis?”

The answer to that question is certainly not hiding indoors until March 21, at least from the perspective of the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation. In addition to organizing the annual Loppet events and developing trails at Theodore Wirth Park, where skiers begin their race to The Mall in Uptown, the organization’s programs for youth aim to foster a lifetime love of outdoor activities.

An urban experience

With its expanding roster of events, the Loppet offers something for just about anyone willing to lace up a pair of boots. But for the cross-country skiers, in particular, the race is something special.

Katherine Himes of The Wedge, a ski racer since high school, said the Loppet was one of two or three races she signed up for every year, along with the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin and the Vasaloppet in Mora, near Mille Lacs Lake.

“It’s so fantastic to have a race in my hometown, and to go from Wirth, which is just a gem of a park, to Uptown,” said Himes, who also chairs her neighborhood board. “That’s so unique. We don’t have a lot of urban races in cross-country skiing.”

Himes was among the top-10 women skiers in last year’s Hoigaard’s Classic, a 25-kilometer race for skiers using the traditional cross-country style, keeping their skis parallel as they stride. Spectators who show up for the 33-kilometer City of Lakes Freestyle Loppet will see that most competitors in that race skate ski — a faster update of classic style that looks just like it sounds.

Both races are scheduled for Sunday, with the classic skiers crossing the finish line on The Mall first. The top Freestyle Loppet competitors, who leave Wirth Park 70 minutes later, will be right on their heels.

Johanna Winters of Lyndale took third place among women in that race last year. Winters, who participated in an Olympic development program after racing in college, said a racecourse that crosses a major highway — Interstate 394 — has few comparisons in the sport.

“I grew up in the Twin Cities so I have that sense of pride about city living, and how city skiers can be on par with people who grew up in the mountains,” she said.

A winter festival

If Munger’s projections hold, the 2011 City of Lakes Loppet will see event participation jump by nearly 30 percent over 2010, when about 7,000 people signed up for at least one event. And in a sign that the weekend has evolved from a ski race into a full-fledged winter festival, it’s no longer the ski races that are the biggest draw.

“The big driver is the Luminary Loppet,” Munger said, referring to the non-competitive nighttime ski, walk or snowshoe around a luminary-lit Lake of the Isles. “That, last year, had 3,700 people, and this year we’re expecting 5,000 people, and that’s our limit.”

He said the major attractions for spectators were now the Saturday Penn-Ice Cycle Loppet and the Saturday and Sunday skijoring races, featuring skiers pulled by either one or two dogs.

Skijor USA President Kevin Murphy said this year’s races represent the first-ever National Skijoring Championship — a suitable follow-up to last year, when the 123 teams competing made up what was reportedly the largest event of its kind in the world.

What makes skijoring so appealing? The combination of dogs and speed.

Murphy predicted teams would reach speeds close to 25 mph in Saturday’s 7-kilometer, two-dog race on the lakes in Uptown. Sunday, skijor racers with one dog each tackle steep hills and sharp turns on a grueling 14-kilometer course through Theodore Wirth Park.

Something to be proud of

Uptown Association Executive Director Maude Lovelle said the Loppet was now among the “top three or four” annual events drawing people to Uptown, a potential — if hard to measure — boon to area businesses.

In March, Minneapolis hosts the 2011 United States Ski and Snowboard Association Cross Country Junior Olympics. The arrival of 450 athletes — along with their coaches and parents — will bring an estimated $2–$3 million to Minneapolis, Munger said.

He said the Junior Olympics wouldn’t be coming if it weren’t for the snowmaking capabilities at Theodore Wirth Park, upgrades made with crucial financial support from the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation. It’s chance for the foundation — and this city’s strong ski culture — to shine.

“We feel like Wirth Park really represents something that we should all be proud of,” he said. “It’s just a really unique thing that other cities don’t have: a whole system of ski trails right in the middle of town.”