Letting everyone get up to speed
Downhill rush to be found at Syrovatka race
JAY, Vt. -- Everyone who skis must have found themselves at some time poised at the start of a race course looking down at the gates, trying to size up a strategy, and finally settling for just getting it over with.
Despite the tension at the start, those are the easy races -- the NASTARs and charity runs through gates set roughly at GS intervals on a flattish hill without much crank in the turns. Top speed: 25. Maybe.
That's about where any similarity of family ski racing to the George Syrovatka downhill being run this weekend at Jay Peak comes to an abrupt -- some might say, crashing -- end. For the race named for its founder 27 years ago is still the bigfoot of all citizen ski races as competitors hit speeds of more than 80 miles per hour.
Not only is the Syrovatka downhill unique among amateur competitions, an insurance-defying spectacle in a most litigious age, it is also the most fun ski race to watch this side of a Hermann Meier romp in the sky.
"It's a beautiful thing," says Bob Broden of Nashua, who got involved with citizen downhill racing nearly 20 years ago with his business partner, Stefan Hausberger.
Broden and Hausberger own the Big Speed ski wax company, and spend much of their productive lives trying to figure out how to make skis go ever faster over snow.
They also have been instrumental in developing a series of downhill races -- five so far -- that encompasses areas such as Stratton, Sugarbush, Cannon, Crotched, and Ragged. The idea took shape when Highland Ski Area in Northfield, N.H., now defunct, held an annual downhill race on its 500-foot vertical drop.
Then Bretton Woods held an event called "Down the Mountain Race" in which the word "downhill" was avoided for the obvious reason that the reputation of such a race is barely controlled mayhem. Then Ragged held a downhill that many racers heading for Jay used as a tuneup, according to Broden, who decided that, regardless of the problems inherent in such races, a five-event downhill tour was a real possibility.
"When I was a little kid living in Woburn," said Broden, explaining his fascination for downhill skiing, "they didn't plow the streets too well. So we'd get on whatever skis there were then and ski down the hills."
The reason a downhill is so much faster than more technical races -- slalom and giant slalom -- is that there are fewer gates to control skiers, who try to find the best compromise between running a straight line downhill and setting up for turns. On the World Cup circuit, the downhill is considered the most appealing to spectators, and, by far, the most prestigious title in the sport is that of Olympic downhill gold medalist.
Syrovatka, who owned a ski shop in Montreal, relished the speed and wild abandon of downhill racing from his youth on the Czechoslovakian ski team. When he approached Jay Peak, which markets to a large Montreal contingent, the large resort in the Northeast Kingdom was ready to run with the idea. "They were pretty courageous to stage that race," said Syrovatka, now 57.
He remembers very few signs of danger in the first few races though "there were a couple of hairy finishes. The race was always fast but it is quite safe."
Still, he remembers the mishap that at least looked the worst.
"This guy got going down the steep part of the course, lost control and skied straight into the woods," Syrovatka said. "There were about 10 seconds of silence and we were very worried, but then this guy runs out of the woods with his skis in his hands. The thing is this race is open to everybody, and there's no race that gives skiers the opportunity to go that fast on a controlled run."
Broden and Syrovatka say that there's an element of self-regulation among the racer group that keeps unqualified skiers out of the race. "We watch each other," said Broden. "Everybody knows if someone shouldn't be there and we speak to him."
Syrovatka and his early girlfriend, Ivana, skied for Czechoslovakia before escaping Communist oppression in the 1970s, when they emigrated, lived together, and ran the ski shop in Montreal. Ivana, chosen as an Olympic alternate for the 1968 Czech team, broke into modeling at the time of the Montreal Olympics and met future husband Donald Trump in New York.
Syrovatka pursued his passion for skiing as a coach, which led to his namesake race. His dedication of the race to the cause of childhood leukemia led this year to a bitter irony when his 15-year-old daughter, Katia, a student at Vermont's Stratton Mountain Academy, was diagnosed with leukemia.
"She's undergoing treatment and is good spirits," says Syrovatka, adding that the form of the disease is one of the most treatable. "Still it's quite an irony. But leukemia happens in people's lives."
The 27th annual race, scheduled for Saturday, has the usual blend of skiers, from older cruisers to young serious racers who show up in their lycra speed suits. But this year, with the ever-growing number of veterans there's a new category: "over 60."
"We have six of them," said Broden, "and the number of skiers is getting older every year."
Rob Bennie, who remembers running the race as a teenager in the 1980s, calls the race a "lifetime memory." Now married with a family, Bennie does not race these days, but works at helping his 4-year old daughter Alice make her own first turns on skis.
"I can remember every minute of the buildup to it," said Bennie. "I remember worrying, not that I'd get hurt, but maybe do something that really looked stupid in front of all those people. The night before I slept about an hour, and my mother asked me in the morning if I really wanted to go through with it. And I remember afterward just feeling so good and relieved.
"What I don't have the least memory of is the race itself. It was just over in a blur."
Asked if he would ever let his own children ski in the Syrovatka downhill, Bennie's wife Anne, holding their 8-month-old in a papoose, beat him to an answer: "Never!"
The Syrovatka downhill, which George still foreruns, will be held on the Haynes trail Saturday. For information, visit jaypeakresort.com.
Tony Chamberlain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.