Focus // Snow or no snow, here comes the Loppet

The City of Lakes Loppet marks 10 years

What does it take to make John Munger nervous?

On the record, at least, the executive director of the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation seemed to take the wimpy winter of 2012 in stride — even as the clock ticked down to the City of Lakes Loppet’s 10th anniversary, even as the mercury crept ever upward in the first 10 days of January.

Was Munger worried?

“My worry will start in two weeks,” he replied, coolly. “At that point, if the forecast is no snow and warm weather, then we would start making different plans.

“These things happen,” he continued. “It’s the way winters work.”

That was Munger’s position with one month to go before thousands of cross-country skiers, ice-bikers, skijorers and spectators swarmed Theodore Wirth Park, Uptown and points in between for the Feb. 4–5 festival. Then, just days later, an unseasonable blast of springtime weather sent high-temperature records tumbling across the state.

Andrea Breen, a Kingfield resident preparing for her third 33-kilometer City of Lakes Freestyle Loppet race, could hardly listen to her radio, what with all the giddy chatter about warm weather.

“It’s a bummer,” Breen grumbled. “I think one of the things for skiers that’s the most infuriating is people cheering on the warm weather.”

“We live in Minnesota,” she added. “It’s not supposed to be warm in winter.”

The wisdom in Munger’s wait-and-see attitude was revealed when, on Jan. 11, a brief snow flurry and a scouring winter wind announced a sudden return to normal. The ski races could be run on as little as 3 inches of snow, Munger said, and there was no telling what the next few weeks would bring.

Assuming the snow comes eventually, Loppet organizers are planning an exciting Uptown finish for the cross-country ski races down a snow-covered Hennepin Avenue — a shift from The Mall, several blocks over — plus at least one new event and the return of some spectator favorites. It is, after all, much more than a ski race.

A lawn game on ice

You may not know it, but you live in kubb territory. The U.S. national tournament for players of the Swedish lawn game — a kind of Nordic bocce played by two teams hurling wooden pins — is held every year in Eau Claire, Wis., and the game enjoys some of its greatest popularity along the I­–94 corridor between Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, according to Eric Goplin, executive director of Minnesota Kubb.

“This is the heart of kubb territory, right here in the Midwest,” Goplin said.

Minnesota Kubb held its first-ever winter tournament last year, and this year is bringing the competition to the Loppet. Several out-of-state teams are expected to compete for the tournament’s $250 top prize, but players of all ability levels, even newbies, are encouraged to give the game a try, Goplin said.

“Anybody can play against anybody,” he insisted.

Thirty-two teams of two to six players will battle it out on Lake Calhoun just a few hundred feet from the Loppet finish line. Teams are guaranteed at least three matches in the round-robin tournament, to be followed by finals in both a championship and consolation bracket.

“[Kubb] is rumored to be a thousand years old and was played by the Vikings,” Goplin said. “I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s pretty fun to think.”

Mush!

This will be the second year dog-mushers compete during the Loppet for the National Skijoring Championship, an event Skijor USA President Kevin Murphy said has become “far and away the largest skijoring event in the world.”

“No one else comes close,” Murphy added.

The 7-kilometer one-dog national championship — that’s one ski-mounted musher pulled by one dog — takes place Saturday on Lake of the Isles, followed Sunday with the 14-kilometer two-dog championship in Theodore Wirth Park. The event is expected to draw some of the top skijorers on the continent for a shot at the North American title, an assortment of amateurs and, as usual, one of the Loppet’s biggest crowds.

The mass Saturday start on Lake of the Isles, when dozens of dogs bolt off the line at once, is one of the most thrilling moments of the weekend.

“I think it’s the most spectator-friendly event at the Loppet,” Murphy said.

Waiting for snow

Murphy might claim the most-spectator-friendly title but, then again, the skijor races don’t have a “circle of death.” That whirlpool-like section of the Penn Ice-Cycle Loppet is a signature feature race organizer in Pat Dowling’s track design.

“I came up with that idea myself to make the course longer and just to make it more fun,” said Dowling, a rider on Penn Cycle’s mountain bike race team.

Last year, Dowling had to shovel and re-shovel his course four times when snow covered his track. In January, he was hoping there would be enough snow by Feb. 4 to at least mark the course boundaries.

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Dowling said. “All I really need to make it easy for me is maybe a couple of inches of snow, just to map out where the bikers go.”

In its first decade, the Loppet has seen years of drought (2003) and bitter cold (2004), disastrous warm spells (2005) and years when snow was abundant (2011). This season, nearly everyone involved in planning for the Loppet was like Dowling, hoping for “just a couple of inches.”

Munger acknowledged in January that he and his team might have to develop a contingency plan if the snow drought continued. But there was no reason to worry about that too soon, he added.

“Essentially, the Loppet in a great year is exactly as we plan it, but otherwise it’s a fluid event,” he said. “We take what Mother Nature gives us.”

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If you go
The 2012 City of Lakes Loppet is Feb. 4–5. For more information, or to register to participate in events, go to cityoflakesloppet.com.