BEAVER CREEK - As local skiers and snowboarders lament poor early-season conditions, the best skiers in the world are calling the conditions at Birds of Prey in Beaver Creek this week some of the best conditions they've ever seen on the course.
"The track is awesome," said Norwegian racer and two-time overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal. "It's in perfect condition, as almost every year in Beaver Creek."
Comments like Svindal's are heard every year at the Beaver Creek World Cup races. The ski racers love it here - and it's a testament to the organizing committee at the Vail Valley Foundation and the staff and volunteers who put the course together.
"I would definitely say, as far as preparation, it is year in, year out, the standard for snow and just overall course preparation," said U.S. Ski Team member Andrew Weibrecht, who finished 20th Wednesday on Day 2 of downhill training. "It really doesn't get any better and I've got a lot of respect for the volunteers and the staff that do the work to make this happen because it is far above and beyond any other venue that we ski on."
And in an early season like this one that hasn't seen much in the way of natural snow, the Beaver Creek Talon Crew - the race course volunteers - has been especially hard at work. John Dakin, the vice president of communications for the Vail Valley Foundation, feels grateful when he hears the best skiers in the world talk about how much they love Birds of Prey.
"I think that it's an honor to be considered among the top downhills in the world," Dakin said Wednesday. "It's very gratifying. There's a lot of people who work very hard, whether paid staff or volunteers, and they have a lot of pride in this course. ... The Talon Crew is right there at the top of the list with the best course crews in the world."
U.S. Ski Team racer Marco Sullivan called Birds of Prey "unmatched" on the World Cup calendar Wednesday. A reporter told him "that's a pretty big statement" to make, and Sullivan agreed.
"I just heard a story that at the coach's meeting (Tuesday) night, (Chief World Cup Race Director for the men) Gunter Hujara got up and said this is how every first training run should look like on the World Cup, and a couple other Italian and European coaches got up and said that's absolutely true," Sullivan said. "And I think, yeah - I stand by that statement."
Sullivan pointed out that it's not just the American guys who are giving Beaver Creek a lot of credit.
"Everyone has a lot of respect for this course and this course crew," Sullivan said. "The way they prepare the hill - it's unmatched in the World Cup."
When asked how he responds to such praise, Dakin said "thank you."
"That was obviously the goal when we set out to identify a new men's downhill for the 1999 World Championships. I think that we were very fortunate that God put this hill here and we were able to tweak it a bit," Dakin said. "(The crew) determines what's in between the fences, and we're very fortunate to have a downhill of this caliber in our backyard."
The brand new women's downhill course, named Kestrel after a bird of prey, is right next to the Birds of Prey course and is mostly complete after work began last spring. Dakin thinks the similarities to the men's course are so great that he expects the ladies to have "their own counterpart to Birds of Prey."
He said the women's course, just like the men's, has a little bit of everything, from gliding sections to steeps to turny sections to jumps.
"There's some really technical, really challenging sections of it, I think," Dakin said. "It's very similar to Birds of Prey."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.