Europe 2001/2002

A Warped Perspective - By Andrew Mock

 Back to 2001/2002 Team Reports

[Editor: Please note that the views below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Cross Country Ski Team. Apologies to those who may be offended.]

Instalment Number 7 (World Junior Special - Part 2)

Sorry about the delay in the race reports folks, it’s been a busy week. I write this from Ithaca, New York State (a slight detour on the way home). And I thought German food was bad. At least you can buy bad food at more convenient times over here...

Back to the subject - the World Juniors and in particular, the 5km/10km skate race on Jan 24th.

5/10km Freestyle:

Any hope of an improvement in the weather had long ago been abandoned - indeed the prospect of fresh snow was about as remote as the chances of an academic bookshop opening in Mt. Beauty. It was not just the weather that was sketchy as I dragged my pitiful body from the bed on the morning of the 24th, however. I felt somewhat like I had just gone the full 15 rounds with George Foreman before being given a quick dose of smelling salts and then sent back into the ring with a over-sized Grizzly bear that had just had it’s dole payments cut off. The stairs to the breakfast room had never seemed like such an insurmountable obstacle before. Speaking to Darlo reassured me that I was not the only wretch feeling so destroyed from the 30km. After breakfast we again walked the 500m to the stadium where Finn and Circa were waiting with our impecably prepped skis. If we thought that we were weary, then the bags under Circa’s eyes suggested that he was most-likely feeling substantially more buggered than ourselves. Five layers of wax on seven pairs of skis equals a very late night. With the wind howling and trenches of water flowing freely over the 5km skate loop, warm-ups were concluded as quickly as possible. Skis were then marked, ankle transponders fitted and it was into the starting gate. Again, the girls were first off with Rhiannon departing slightly before Esther.

Thankfully for (an anxious) Rhiannon, her race went infinitely better than the classic race of two days prior - in fact she had a blinder. Kikkan Randall, an American junior soon to be competing in the upcoming olympics in Utah, started 30secs behind Rhiannon and although she passed Rhiannon early in the race, Rhi stormed back - passing Kikkan and narrowly missing out recording a faster time. According to Finn, this was the best Australian junior women’s result since god knows when[Note: Facts unsure here. Possibly since Jessica Hart in 1996]. Esther looked very in control for the whole race (coaches everywhere must drool over her skate technique...) but wasn’t quite feeling in the shape necessary to put her right into the thick of the action, results wise. The men (I refuse to use the term ‘boys’, no matter how appropriate it may be) started shortly after the women finished on what could only be described as a rapidly deterorating course. Ben Sim went off first and quite simply, cranked the first lap. Finn’s report has more details - but i think he was up around the mid 30’s at the 2.5km mark. He faded a little bit on the last lap but with 3 more WJ’s to go, Australia can look forward to some awesome results from one Ben Sim Esquire. I went out next and probably payed a bit for my limited warm-up in the first couple of km’s - thankfully things started to improve half-way around the first lap and I felt progressively stronger as the race went on. I swear i felt better 10secs after the finish than i did at breakfast that morning - i don’t understand racing. Darlo was last off and also felt the effects of the 30km. He skied well the first lap, scaring the crap out of some large soviet fellow by hanging on for most of the loop. Come the second lap however, and his legs just weren’t keen to chase Russians anymore - 48hrs is not quite sufficient to fully replenish glycogen stores (one of the main reasons Simbo avoided the 30km). All up though, some very pleasing results from the team - and all on the kind of course that would happily eat small children given half a chance (think the Main Range on a sunny October day, with gale force winds too...and mud). Oh - one point that needs mentioning; our skis - they were really fast. I’m not really sure what Finn and Circa put on them but they cranked. Not only did we not lose time on the bigger nations with our skis, but a lot of us actually gained ground on the downhills - a big help in the slow conditions.

The men’s race was narrowly taken out by a Norwegian, only 3 seconds ahead of a Swede (who went by me so quick on the first lap, I almost felt dizzy). The French took out the first two places in the women’s race.A short warm-down was attempted - unfortunately, skiing back around the race loop exposed us to a very real danger not usually associated with skiing; drowning. Some of the trenches cut perpendicularly into the track were so deep and wide that the Suez canal would look like a mere tributary in comparison. If you forgot to brace your legs before crossing, you could expect to become very familiar with the tips of your skis.

The afternoon was spent lounging around and talking up the karaoke night that we were going to set alight that evening. The evening was spent justifying why we were about to go and collapse in bed instead of karaoke-ing. Except that is, for a small bunch of die-hards from the team who proved once and for all that Australia is 100% capable of producing singers who are decidedly worse than Olivia Newton-John. To protect their identity I will refrain from mentioning Circa, Sally, Rhiannon and Simbo’s names.

The intervening day between the 5/10km and the sprint was spent testing wax and previewing the sprint course which, up until then, had not been groomed or marked. Due to the atrocious snow conditions, the 1km sprint loop had to be modified slightly from the one on the official course map in order to avoid sending the racers through knee deep slush. They settled for ankle deep.

1km Freestyle sprint:

Raining slightly and windy. Just what we’d prepared for really. With 20sec intervals between the starters and no gap between the 80-odd men and 80-odd women who were contesting the sprint, things were non-stop action from the moment the first starter went off at 9:00am. The sprint course was a well-planned and wide course that not only gave the top sprinters a chance to shine, but also gave spectators (of which there were many) a near-unobstructed view of the course. Unfortunately, it didn’t offer much in the way of advantage to those completely bereft of sprinting ability. And so it was that Rhiannon, myself and Darlo did not feature particularly highly in the results tables - although we did have a damn good time out there. There is a rumour that Darlo even smiled at the crowd (or certain female members of it, anyway) on his way around.Esther has more sprinting ability alone than the aforementioned three of us could ever hope for, and as such, she had concentrated most of the trip on sprint preparation. Unfortunately for Esther, she accidentally did the old pole inside the ski trick on the finish straight and lost a lot of precious time. Although very disapoimted, I guess the positive to come out of it was that she was skiing really fast up until the mishap and still has next year to get the result she deserves. Simbo, bouncing back from his dissapointment in the 10km, went out of the start gate like a small child on a red-cordial high, and continued that way until he crossed the finish. He came 50th. Not only Australia’s best placing in a World Junior sprint, but nigh on the best placing by an Australian junior in any event.

With none of us required for quarter-final duty, we were free to assume positions in the finish straight and act like the louts we really are as the finals unfolded around us. The men’s race was eventually taken out by an invincible German who never looked like losing. An Austrian came second. Honorable mentions go to Andy Newell of the USA, 8th overall, 2nd in the time-trial and a Japanese skier who skied his heart out for a 7th place.The women’s race was won by Malvalehto of Finland, beating Fessel of Germany who placed second.

With the individual racing completed, and without any relay teams entered, the end of the sprints signalled the end of the Australian ‘assault’ (probably ‘loitering with intent’ would be a better term) on the 2002 World Juniors. Many positives were taken out of the champioships (and indeed, the whole trip) by all of the athletes present - a lot of whom will be back in Sweden next year for 2003 WJC’s where the experience gained during this campaign can be fully exploited. Australian x-c skiing is on the way up, Ladies and Gentlemen. Stay Tuned.

A tremendous thankyou to Finn Marsland; coach, massuer, manager, wax-tech and translator extroidinaire - I really hope Australian x-c realises what a tremendous asset we have in Finn. Also to Brian Keeble - any man willing to paying his own way to Europe to manage a rag-tag and at times, trying group of junior skiers must be a pretty incredible guy. Keebs proved that he is just that. Thankyou Keebs - we hope we can entice you back next year. Thanks also to Andrew Circosta for the mountain of work you put in during the week of the champioships - without your constant assistance I suspect that Finn may well have carked it before the championships were over. Thankyou also to the numerous other people that assisted us in all manner of ways throughout the trip - your help is very much appreciated. Finally, thankyou to our sponsors Yoko and Powerbar for your tremendous product support.

Instalment Number 6 (World Junior Special)

My profoundest apologies regarding the brevity of my last report - it seems that someone ( I will not stoop to naming names - such as Finn's, for example) posted my report long before it was finished. He will be dealt with.

We come finally to the World Junior Championships in Schonach, Germany. It has even been rumoured that this was the main objective of our trip as a whole - but this is yet to be confirmed.

After our somewhat interesting trip from Davos (see part 5), we settled into two adjacent apartments in uptown Schonach (pop. approx. 1000) on the 15th of Jan. Our first impressions of the climatic conditions during the first few days were mixed, we were unsure whether it was revolting or crap. The mercury hovered permanently above zero while the lovely, dry snow that had covered the trails during our earlier visit could now be found pouring down drains all over town. Just like home, really. Under Finn's guidance we were now tapering our training in readiness for the first race on the 22nd (the 15/30km classic). This meant that for most of us, only one on snow training session was completed each day - often with an accompanying strength or recovery session (i.e. stretching/massage) being completed in the arvo. This decreased training load did however leave us with a complicating dilemna; boredom. I would very much like to reveal that during this free time Sally penned her first novel or that I taught myself ancient Hebrew. Unfortunately reality and fantasy are often separated by a yawning chasm (especially, it seems, when Australian ski teams are involved). We rediscovered television. You know all of those crappy foreign shows with subtitles that SBS screens at 11am when you've scammed the day off work/school? We watched all of them. They didn't even have subtitles. If it wasn't for the sanity preserving 'Eurosport' channel, I may not have been lucid enough to write this report (you may like to dispute this claim).

Not that this tapering wasn't much needed. Six weeks of intense racing and training is not generally condusive to a well rested body - consequently the majority of the team was feeling pretty run-down upon our arrival in Schonach, thankfully no-one was sick. It was fortunate that we did arrive with a week before the start of racing as the fatigue we were feeling turned out to be tougher than anticipated to shake - except for in Rhiannon's case, her body appears to be immune from fatigue…

Luckily, by the end our the taper week, things were starting to come good for most members of the team, still no one sick; a minor miracle. It was not all milk and honey however, two disastrous events occurred on the eve of the opening ceremony: Circa ran out of clean underpants and it started to rain. The first event was inevitable, and it must be said, expected, the second event however, well, it really ruined our day. Any dreams we may have had of lightning fast courses, good percentages and low FIS points were washed away (quite literally).

The Sunday before the start of racing heralded a temporary reprieve from boredom. We moved out of our adjoining apartments to a small hotel barely 500m from the stadium, Café Bergwaldhof. This was only a short-lived reprieve however. As the hotel provided us with all meals, we were now deprived of the job of cooking - one of only a precious few time-wasting activities available to us.

This brings us to the events:

Jan. 22 - 15km/30km classic:
Being such a long (and considering the conditions, tough) event, Ben Sim and Esther Bottomley decided not to compete in the classic in order to save themselves for their preferred (shorter) events. This left Chris Darlington, Rhiannon Palmer and myself as the Australian competitors in the 15/30km. Finn and Andrew Circosta had put in a mountain of work testing skis and waxes in the days leading up to the event, subsequently race morning was relatively straight-forward and stress free. We all opted for some horrible klister combination not far removed from treacle. The women's mass start was first and due to a spectacular lapse in common-sense by the course setters (they put a hair-pin corner no less than 80m from the start line), carnage ensued. 80 odd women through a 3m wide hairpin do not go, hence many replacement poles were required before the first 30secs of the race had elapsed. Rhiannon got through the start unscathed but things started to rapidly go pear-shaped from there. She had trouble relaxing and breathing from the start of the first climb, her troubles were further compacted by a heavy fall near the end of the first lap. She pulled out after 1 lap in a distressed state.

The men's race started an hour after the women's. If the course was sloppy during the women's race, it resembled mashed potato by the time the men were let loose. Again, carnage at the start, thankfully Darlo and myself stayed out of trouble at the expense of a conservative start. The mess cleared up within half a lap (the race was six laps of 5km), unfortunately by this stage the lead pack was long gone and Darlo and myself were left stranded off the back of all the sizeable packs. Thankfully we were not alone off the back, the slow conditions resulted in a steady stream of skiers falling of the back of the bunches. Maybe it was the sports-drink kicking in, or maybe the nerves settling, but I felt really strong on the middle two laps and managed to swallow up a number of skiers who were straggled out in front of me. Darlo was a minute or two back at this stage skiing very even lap splits. I had suspected that the last two laps were going to hurt, but I'm not sure that I was really fully prepared for the eventuality. The fifth lap was highly unpleasant, the sixth would have been equivalent with the pain of child-birth (I'm pretty sure, anyway…). I'm not particularly clear about what went on in the final lap - all I know is that I lost a bit of hard-earned time and things went pretty blurry. Bloody good to finish though. Darlo came in three minutes behind and made up ground on the last lap. He looked way too cheerful when he finished - I have a very disturbing feeling he may have even had some fun out there.

Instalment Number 5

Although we were well prepared for the event, we were still somewhat upset to be evicted from Solaria apartments in Davos on the morning of Jan 15. Considering our offer of leaving Sally behind to wash dishes for the following two weeks - we feel that our eviction was nothing short of scrooge-like. So yet again, we packed up the van and departed for Germany. Only this time we had Finn's Renault as well - so Esther went ahead with Finn while the rest of us followed (some distance behind) in the bus. A fool-proof plan, no? Finn and Esther sailed through Austria and into Germany without a hassle. After a short detour past Lichtenstein, courtesy of my navigating, we pulled into the Austrian Border control. "Passports out everyone" urged a relaxed Keebs. A relaxed Mocky recalled that he had stowed his passport in the top pocket of his pack. An abjectly terrified Mocky then recalled that his pack was located in the boot of Finn's Renault. "It's ok" Rhiannon reassured me, "they didn't even ask for our passports when we came in". "Passports please" demanded the Border control officer. Finn has requested me to leave out the next hour's dialogue as he doesn't feel that language of that nature has any place on the XC homepage. Bottom line: Finn and Esther waited patiently (at first) in some drab Bavarian town while we unsuccessfully pleaded our case to the dour Austrian officials before back-tracking into Switzerland where I produced all of the feeble identification papers in my possession (how does a hand-written passport number sound for feeble…) and eventually paid what could only be described as a 20 Franc bribe, whereupon I finally received a magical stamp that enabled me to proceed into Austria - much delayed. The patience of the other team members was, frankly, amazing. If anyone I was travelling with attempted a stunt like mine, they would have very promptly found themselves lying in a ditch at the border crossing with 2 Francs, a muesli bar and a scrawled contact phone number thrown their way.

Instalment Number 4

The more musically astute readers of my column (column…how very pretentious, I like it) may be familiar with a Whitlam's song featuring the line; "in love with this girl, and with her town as well". Well, you will/may be pleased to know that I have found that aforementioned town, it is called Davos. As for that aforementioned girl - surely, surely just a matter of time.

Davos, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, is much like most Swiss towns, hemmed in on all sides by what the locals probably call hills and we refer to as monstrous peaks. What was that? When did we get to Davos? Oh yes - my humblest apologies I seem to have been somewhat lax in my commentary of late. Allow me to digress - Davos will have to wait.

I will temporarily refrain from the use of sarcasm and frankly state that no-one in the junior team was sad to see (or more correctly, smell) the last of our dubious 'hotel' in Ramsau when we departed on the 2nd of Jan. Not that we weren't sad to say goodbye to Ramsau's magnificent skiing - in terms of grooming, snow quality and expanse of trails we could not have asked for anything more. But, just like flower power, Sony's beta system and the relentless (well, almost) march of communism, all good things must come to an end. So back we headed to Germany and more particularly, a small Bavarian town by the name of Furtwangan. [Bavaria?]

What does the word 'autobahn' conjure up in your mind? If you said 'some big shed full of cows where machines do all the milking' you probably live in or around Mt. Beauty and thus, deserve understanding, not ridicule. If you said 'a big freeway where cars travel really fast' you have exponentially greater cognitive ability, but unfortunately, you are still mistaken. The trip from Ramsau to Furtwangen can be made predominantly on Middle Europe's much revered 'autobahns'. I have travelled faster (and had considerably more fun) behind the wheel of a ride-on lawn mower. For the majority of the 11hr crawl to Furtwangen, the traffic was so banked up that the only thing stopping us from strolling along side the van were the child locks that Keebs had ensured were fitted to the vehicle.

Upon our belated arrival we were at least greeted with a clean, odourless hotel. It was not until the next morning however, that we realised we were staying in some kind of local wildlife refuge. All sorts of animals great and small - birds, deer, squirrels, pigs - were housed in our accommodation in what appeared to be blissful harmony. I think it was Sally that was the first to notice. It was something about the way that they lounged around all day, or maybe it was the glazed look in their eyes - this wasn't a hostel at all, it was a giant mausoleum of human savagery. Our breakfast room alone contained no less than 34 deceased deer, including one that looked suspiciously like Bambi. For the next few nights I kept having a wicked (yet decidedly humorous) recurring dream in which the local tourist bureau inadvertently booked all of the delegates from an International Animal Liberation conference into our very hotel. Does that make me a sick person?

Two Continental Cup races had brought us to Furtwangen - a 1km freestyle sprint on Jan. 4 and a 5/10km classic on Jan. 5. We skied the rather unimaginative sprint course on the 3rd; the snow was fairly windblown but none-the-less, cold and dry. With Finn and the seniors off in Val di Fiemme for a world-cup, we spent the rest of the day trying to hazard a guess at the correct wax (pooling all of our collective waxing knowledge was of little use, 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 = 0). Amazingly, we came pretty close to the correct wax for the sprint and everyone came away from the race with many positives. Although sick, Esther still managed to finish within 9% of the winner - not a bad effort. FIS points were ok for Esther and myself (around 155), although the penalties were pretty large due to an absence of top skiers. The race itself was amazingly hectic, 250 skiers having to start within an hour. With only 15sec between each starter, the fear of getting passed (in a sprint race…) was all the motivation we needed to punish ourselves as hard as we could. I was convinced that Esther might require hospitalisation at the finish of her time-trial - she disappeared for a short while but fortunately returned looking considerably more human the when she had finished.

After a short lunch break we gingerly manoeuvred the van up one of the nastiest pieces of road I have ever been unfortunate enough to encounter, before we finally emerged at the venue for the following day's classic race. That old favourite, Rode Multigrade, was sloppily applied, whereupon we all set off for a slow ski of the 5km race loop. We emerged back at the car-park a while later with a feeling that could, at best, be described as apprehension and at worst, dread (except for Esther and Sal, who appeared to have no intention whatsoever of racing). There appears to be a disturbing, even morbid, fascination among race course designers at the moment with up-hills. Furtwangen's posse of especially sick and twisted designers had even managed to circumvent the universe's physical laws by including considerably more ascending than descending in their horrible little creation.

The next day was sunny but cold (as always) and we arrived at the race with plenty of time to wax. This was just as well, as we again had to do all of our own waxing. We eventually opted for the, you guessed it, Rode Multigrade, at I must confess, my recommendation (I have this fatal attraction to simple, allegedly versatile waxes). To say that it stank would be a lie. To say that it worked well would be an indictable offence. Thankfully, the two nastiest hills in the course were so chopped up by the time of the men's race that no one seemed to possess bomb-proof grip. Rhiannon and myself had respectable races without setting the Continental Cup series alight while Circa struggled with a groin injury and poor wax and pulled out after 1 lap. Rhiannon and I both clocked similar FIS points to the day before (approx. 155). The women's race was won by Andrea Huber and the men's by Axel Teichmann. We all marvelled at the nerve of previously top 5 world-cup skier Teichmann, who turned up to our race knowing full well that his FIS points would be eliminated in the penalty, and then proceeded to thrash the pants off us. We sent Keebs to have stern words with the German team - but he failed to even elicit an apology. There seems to be little sportsmanship left in the top echelons of skiing these days.

With races finished for the week we were faced with an appetising prospect; time to kill. Circa's motion of a relentless two day bender taking in every Beer-hall between Furtwangen and Stuttgart was narrowly defeated in a secret ballot held at the hotel. Keeb's motion that we make the 40min trip to Schonach (site of the 2002 world juniors) in order to preview the trails, was eventually upheld. Schonach is nearly indistinguishable from a hundred other small German towns: picturesque, quaint bordering on archaic and totally devoid of open shops. From what we can determine, shops in middle Europe operate between 9:23am -10:42am on Tuesdays and 3:32pm - 5:06pm on Fridays. The ski stadium is located above the town and at the time of our arrival was just cleaning up following a Nordic Combined World Cup held over the previous weekend. Like a lot of middle Europe this season, the snow was limited but of good quality. We spent a relaxed two days skiing the race loops and marvelling at the truly malevolent hills that would be waiting to torture us in under three weeks. We ate a lot of kebabs too. But that has little to do with the ski trip. Did I mention that we managed to lose a 1km2 stadium while out skiing. We don't know who moved it while we were out skiing the outer trails - all we know is that it took us a good 45min to relocate it.

After the two days of training in Schonach we packed up the Giant Love Bus (wait…Finn told me not to call it that) and headed for Switzerland - and that dear readers, is where Davos comes in.

As I stated earlier - a beautiful, beautiful town (please feel free to drop into Porepunkah and check out the photos). We did however, realise very early on that we did not belong in Davos. I'm not sure if it was the two Rolex boutiques or the $11 McDonald's meal that gave it away... We were not in Davos just to starve however, we were there to train and race. Our budget allowed for a week in Davos (and I suspect, not a minute more) of which the first 4 days were spent skiing up and down the stunning valleys along which all of the ski trails run. Paul departed after 2 days for Sweden in order to catch up with friends. He narrowly (3.5 seconds…) missed Olympic selection for Salt Lake, but is incredibly motivated for the next few years leading up to Turin. His improvement this last season was stunning.

On Jan 13. the junior team competed in a Swiss Cup (FIS) 5/10km skate race at Davos. The course was very undulating with some truly interesting hair-pin turns. The course was fast and a very strong field was present (the best we had raced against to date) - the perfect ingredients for good FIS points. With the exception of Esther (who was still feeling less than 100% fit), everyone was happy with their races. This was probably due to the fact that no one except myself fell on their face while racing the only section of course video-taped by Finn (no - you can not come to Porepunkah to look at the footage). Thankfully, I skied the rest of the course significantly better and managed 111 FIS points - a big improvement on previous outings. Circa, Rhiannon and Sally also recorded their best FIS points ever. It seems that Australians often have luck with FIS points in Switzerland - this being no exception. With everyone in high spirits we decided to go out for a celebratory drink - we were forced to abandon the idea however, when the bank refused to approve the loan.

Instalment Number 3

This is starting to resemble some kind of hideous V.C. Andrews series, without the romance and debauchery, though. Never fear, I have been judiciously working on those last two items, but more on that later.

Boxing day came and went - just not the same without everybody's favourite nicotine fiend gracing (or disgracing…) our television screens - I miss you Warnie.

On the morning of the 27th, with the dust still settling from Christmas day's orgy of over-consumption, the junior team loaded up the Peugot and headed for St. Jakobs (near the Austria/Slovenia border) for an Austrian team selection race. For some unknown, and I'm sure - vindictive, reason I seem to have been appointed team navigator for the duration of our jaunt around middle Europe. Unfortunately, as the team promptly discovered, I interpret maps with all the skill and efficiency of a fur-seal amputee folding an origami crane. The fact that we got lost on the way to St. Jacobs should, in lieu of this admission, surprise few readers. The fact that we got lost 3 times, may. Thankfully we were blessed with a delayed start, giving us plenty of time to test our plethora of different racing skis (please note the sarcasm). Due to varying states of health only three junior team members raced (as well as Camille), these athletes being Circa, Esther and Rhiannon. Unfortunately, Rhiannon did not finish due to a sore knee but the other two, and Camille, had good races - I'll refrain from reliving Circa's two magnificent (if a little over-dramatic) wipe-outs. The course, in terms of technicality, would have no peers in Australia.

Back to Ramsau for a day and the stench in our accommodation was reaching ridiculous proportions - I am unsure what the proprietors of our hotel do to complement their incomes, but I suspect it has something to do with sewage retailing.

The 29th heralded the day of the Salzburg World-cup sprint race. Ben, Finn and Paul had headed to Salzburg a couple of days previously to prepare, the juniors however (with our regular side-kicks; Camille and Alison), drove down on the morning of the race. We got lost. Finally arriving in the centre of Salzburg, Keebs went off to find Finn and the two racers (Ben and Paul) while the rest of us headed for Salzburg Castle set high up on a cliff over-looking the magnificent old city. A tour of the huge castle building was under-taken (it is one of the largest maintained Castles in Europe) and we all heartily impressed. The torture room was particularly interesting. Alison was apprehended attempting to un-bolt 'The Rack' from the wall - kept muttering something about 'showing that old lady a thing or two' as she was being dragged away. A mad dash was made from the Castle back down to the old section of Saltzburg (the city is divided in two by a river into the 'old' and 'new' sections) to see Paul and Ben race at 3:00pm. The 750m race loop was a testament to the enormous size of the race's budget (rumoured to be half a million $). The course ran through the city streets entirely hemmed in by magnificent stone buildings. All of the snow was trucked in from out of town or made on site - a very impressive logistical effort. As could be expected with a setting and budget as it was, the atmosphere at the race was amazing - unique even. Hundreds of cheering fans greeted the competitors at every corner and straight on the course, consequently, we made a concerted attempt to differentiate ourselves from the masses through the zealous and even demented nature of our cheering for Paul and Ben (Finn too, if we caught a glimpse of him). In the end, I'm not sure if Paul and Ben were glad that an Aussie cheer squad had turned up, or just plain embarrassed. Regardless - they both raced well in very tough conditions (it had been raining steadily for the 24hrs leading up to the start) with Paul attaining a very acceptable 61 FIS points. Thoroughly drenched we stuck around to watch the finals, a decision well made as we were treated to heat after heat of tense, exciting racing. Neumannova (CZE) and Bjerkeli (NOR) came up with the goods to take out the women's and men's races respectively.

Instalment Number 2

Now, where were we? Ah yes, that's right - Maria Theurl and the Austrians.

Head coach Finn, being a friend of local Austrian coach (and minor skiing deity) Maria Theurl, promised to organise us some joint training sessions with the Austrian juniors trained by Maria. Our first joint session could not be classed as a routine training experience. Over the day leading up to the first session, our designated training session managed to metamorphose from on snow speed to a gym session and finally, 30min before the start of the session, to sledding. We arrived at the nominated sledding venue after a lengthy and winding journey through the hills around Schladming (in the valley below Ramsau) - possibly intended to disorientate us. Upon pulling into the downhill resort's car park next to the Austrian team's sinister white van, Rhiannon remarked loudly: "Hey look! They're all girls…there must be ten of them!". From memory, my somewhat unimpressed response to this lame tomfoolery resembled: "Yeah - that's funny Rhiannon…. Ha Ha….". Upon extricating ourselves from our transport, we quickly discovered however, that Rhiannon was speaking nothing but the truth. Andrew Circosta and myself, after lengthy consultation, agreed to put this horrible development behind us and for the good of the team, we bravely agreed to participate in the session. Issued a sled between two, we commenced the trek up the hill. Did I say hill? I lie - technically I don't feel that it can be referred to as a 'hill' if bottled oxygen is required for a successful ascent. I'm not exactly sure how long we climbed for, but Finn alone lost 8kg during the journey. The subtle urging of mother-nature finally convinced Maria Theurl to halt the climb and commence the descent. In other words, it was pitch black when, in pairs, we started the cavalcade of destruction that was to eventually lead us to the bottom of the mountain and into the waiting arms of disreputable pet-food manufacturers. I know that you are probably all thinking that this is a hell of a lot of hyperbole for an activity that parents actually encourage their 6yr olds to engage in, but try and believe me when I say that this was not so much sledding, but survival. Many high speed altercations (most involving complete lack of vision and immovable snow-banks) later we all made it back, complete with mandatory blood-shot eyes and ice covered faces, to a confused and somewhat concerned Keebs. All except Sally and Circa that is….Sally apparently got lodged in a snow-bank for some time - finally upon extrication, they took a wrong turn. With a hefty libel case almost underway the errant crew eventually stumbled through the door, much to the Austrian team lawyer's relief.

Anyone still reading? If you successfully get to the bottom of this report Finn promises to give you a mars bar.

After meeting up with the Austrians the following day for an on-snow power session, the rest of the week was spent with our heads down and tails up on the training track attempting to take advantage of the excellent training conditions and lack of imminent races. Saturday 22nd signalled the end of normality - the World-Cup circus had come to town. It is impossible to get any idea of how big X-C is internationally without visiting Europe/Scandinavia. In other words - it actually seems to attract genuine spectator interest over here! Turn on Eurosport (pay TV sports channel) any time of the day and odds on, a biathlon or X-C race will be the first thing to grace the screen. If we can convince the Australian Federal Government to increase European immigration ten-fold, I swear that the AFL's days in prime-time are numbered.

In less than two days, the sleepy village of Ramsau became host to more television cameras and large inflatable yoghurt bottles than Falls Creek would ever be likely to attract in a decade. The event was a 30km/15km freestyle and the course was a winding 5km made-for-TV loop that enabled most of the race to be viewed from one or two positions. We arrived in time for the made-for-TV start at 8:30am and did our best to get Benny Derrick over the line in front of the usual battalion of Middle and Eastern-European genetic freaks. Unfortunately, Benny hadn't been able to rack up enough good training time since his hefty chicken-pox enforced lay-off and he found the going pretty tough. The men's race was won by Per Elofsson in a sprint finish from Biathlon wonder-child Ole-Einar Bjorndahlen. Smigun from Estonia won the women's race from the usual gaggle of Russians and the seemingly ageless Stefania Belmondo.

Little did we know, but Cameron Morton and Mark Raymond (who are following the Biathlon World-Cups around Europe) had driven through the night to watch Benny race, but having been given some dubious directions to Ramsau arrived only in time for the presentations. As we were moving (with the senior team) to new accommodation that afternoon they came and spent the night with us, sharing some of their amusing, amazing and down-right bizarre stories with us over their first meal in a day and a half. Cam had competed in 5 races in the previous 8 days but still managed to drag us out for a training session.

Our new accommodation...where do I start? It is an old hotel of which we are the only guests. It is run by an old man and his substantially older mother whose knowledge of English is roughly equivalent to that of the smallish pony located in the field up the road. The Hotel is apparently 700 years old which, Benny subsequently claims, means that the old lady must have only been a small girl when the place was originally constructed. To liken her to an old prune would be unfair. I can easily relax when I am sharing the same room as a prune. The accommodation was advertised as 'pension' which apparently means that you effectively share a large residence with the owners. The lady at our hotel clearly interprets 'pension' as meaning: "relentlessly follow your guests through every room in the building, constantly mutter incomprehensible German phrases while inspecting any food being prepared by guests and when not following guests around, sit on the same chair in the dining room while alternating between peering into the wall and peering at any guests in the kitchen through a strategically placed window in the separating door." Of late, it is not uncommon for team members chopping vegetables to openly discuss other viable uses for the large knives they are brandishing.

Christmas day is always a slightly sad day when away from family, so we attempted to make it as much like home as possible. Keebs told the really lame 'dad jokes', The old lady played the relative that everyone can't stand and Alison and Benny bought excess amounts of sweet and fatty food so people could eat until thoroughly ill. The only thing we couldn't muster was a game of cricket. Jokes aside, it was a really pleasant Christmas day with everyone in high spirits. Don't think for a second that Finn gave us the day off from training, though.

Instalment Number 1

[Editor: Please note that the views below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Cross Country Ski Team. Apologies to those who may be offended.]

It amazes me that some people still can't come to terms with Australia's relative economic under-achievement in the Australasian region. It is clearly a service issue. After a series of flights on Asian air-carriers in the past few years, myself and the other members of the Australian Junior Ski Team had the dubious pleasure of travelling with that great Aussie icon; Qantas, on the way to Munich in mid December. I'm universally renowned as a tolerant guy, but as with most people, I have my limits. I was willing to over-look the over-abundance of surly male air stewards, the stale dinner rolls/projectiles and abattoir cattle truck ambience of the economy class cabin. The complete lack of scented refresher face towels was, however, entirely inexcusable. In a stark demonstration of the decline of not just Australia, but the British Empire as a whole, the only thing that the British Airways staff managed to do satisfactorily (on our connector flight from Heathrow) was to completely invert the loaded drinks trolley along the length of the aisle. Very, very funny stuff - even after 40hrs of bum-cramps and near complete sleep deprivation. That said, we did all arrive safely in Munich on a clear (although not exactly sunny) Friday morning. Our bags, very thankfully, decided to join us. With the idiosyncratic nature of commercial air-travel conspiring to have the body of the team arriving in Munich 3 days before our manager, Brian Keeble, time had to be killed. With hundreds of kilograms of luggage checked into the baggage counter, our newly unburdened group set out for our pre-booked youth hostel. It is a sad indictment on Melbourne's public transport system that German ticket machines, labelled entirely in German, were easier to comprehend than our beloved Metcard machines. Once booked in to the hostel, the desire to sleep was unsuccessfully fended off. With our Arcadian rhythms well and truly disorientated - the majority of the team had explored a fair sized chunk of the city by approximately 5am the next day. Sally Cunningham however, defied jetlag and accepted medical theory and clocked up a casual 14hrs in the sack. This overabundance of sleep did catch up with her the following two nights when she was forced to function on a grossly inadequate 12hrs sleep.

Munich is a city of contrast. Namely - the city is lovely and the people are not. I'm quite certain that is a gross generalisation - never the less, I maintain that German is the angriest language currently in use and that good humour is a valuable and hence, rare, commodity in Deutschland. The attractions graced by the presence of our group during our 3-day sojourn included Marienplatz (the central plaza), The '72 Olympic venue, the BMW museum and the largest Beer-Hall in the world (featuring the largest beer steins in the known world; one drink = one litre). The highlights? Marienplatz with its magnificent Gothic architecture and extensive Christmas market of which Rhiannon (group in tow) explored every inch of. The Olympic stadium was also very impressive - one hell of a lot of earth moving must have kept one hell of a lot of Bulldozer drivers busy for one hell of a long time. Indoor attractions tended to be somewhat tarnished by the ever-present pall of concentrated cigarette smoke that seemed to afflict all public areas. Smoke detectors in German buildings would be about as useful as a Tasmanian on 'Sale of the Century'. The sightseeing completed, we awaited Brian's arrival at Munich airport. And then we waited. Finally, contact - it seemed that our highly competent friends from British Airways were having some trouble at their end of the line. After encountering great difficulty in locating a plane for Keebs to travel on, they then struggled with relatively straightforward task of filling the luggage hold with, wait for it…luggage. They finally compromised - luggage got on, catering supplies didn't. Having sampled their offerings three days previously, this seemed a very satisfactory compromise. Unfortunately, this abject incompetence resulted in Keebs arriving some 4 hrs late. This threw our car hire plans into chaos. To cut a long story short - we picked up our van just in time - the 160km/h taxi-ride was an optional extra that made the day just that little bit more special. Our nine-seater diesel van was a disappointment. A high-performance auto-bahn machine it was not. I distinctly remember explaining to Finn that I would be quite willing to forfeit 4 seats (and hence Sally and Esther) in the name of handling and performance - but it appears there was some kind of misunderstanding. The trip to Ramsau, Austria was reasonably uneventful, although I am now very familiar with the rear-ends of many late model BMWs and Mercedes. It must be stated that Keebs drove like an absolute trouper considering that he had not been afforded the luxury of sleep in the previous 40hrs.

Much has been said and written about Ramsau, but much like Darlo's silken legs, it is not possible to appreciate its true beauty without seeing it 'in the flesh'. It might not be cross-country skiing's Mecca - but at the very least it is a significant holy site worthy of a pilgrimage by humble Aussie worshippers. To further add to the religious mystique of the place, upon our arrival, Ramsau was one of the few ski venues in Middle-Europe with abundant snow. Strange, but again and again snow seems to play quite an important role in overseas ski trips. All was not well in Ramsau however. Ben Derrick managed to catch the chicken pox on the road to Ramsau, throwing a particularly big spanner into his world-cup plans. Sally and Esther also managed to catch some kind of common cold that succeeded more in complicating training sessions than in destroying them completely. Thankfully time heals most things - and this was no exception. The trails in and around the town are spectacular and plentiful - all offering an unadulterated view of the Dachstein glacier. With the trails being quite technical, at first we proceeded much like a Mt. Beauty local pronouncing a three-syllable word - slowly and somewhat hesitantly. As our time on snow progressed however, speed and confidence increased and our attentions turned to the bridge at the entry to the ski stadium. Sorry, did I say bridge? I meant 'large table-top jump'. At the time of writing this we have succeeded in clearing two-thirds of the bridge surface and one crazy day soon, insanity permitting - we hope to clear it.

I feel it is necessary at this point to mention cooking - in particular mine and Circa's. There seems to be some kind of prevailing 'wisdom' in the world at large that adolescent males are incapable of preparing food that is fit for human consumption. I would like to dispute this claim. In fact, words aside, I think our cooking did the talking. In short, it was indescribably (some less generous people did attempt to describe it…) brilliant, frozen pizzas have never tasted so good. Anyway, when was the last time that Ian Parmenter was asked to prepare a 'lacto-vegan' masterpiece?

At the end of our first week on snow the Continental Cup circus came to town. The Saturday race was the first of its kind in the world - an experimental ski duathlon. The format of the race consisted of a 7.5km classic leg followed by a ski and pole change (and for a few foolish individuals, a boot change) followed by a 7.5km skate leg (5km + 5km for the women). Many of the competing teams experimented with different approaches to the race with around half of the athletes wearing classic boots for the entire race and the other half, skate boots. The race seemed to be a success and I would not be surprised if we see a lot more duathlons in the future. For the record, the Australians racing were Chris Darlington, Ben Sim, Paul Murray, Camille Melvey and Katie Calder. The German and Italian teams cleaned up. Katie Calder's race effort does deserve special recognition - the race would have been tough enough as it was, add three layers of thermals to the equation and a couple of hats (it was around -18°) and she did well to put her skis on, let alone race.

The following day was an open men's and women's relay. Australia entered two women's teams and two and half men's teams. Katie & Camille and Rhiannon & Esther skiing for the chicks and Ben Sim & Chris Darlington, Andrew Mock & Ben Derrick and Paul Murray & Leftaris Fafalis (…that was the half - Leftaris is a very fast Greek) representing the men. With six start lanes and nigh on forty teams, the start was always going to be crazy. Don't ask Darlo for his opinion on Turkish skiers…an eye for an eye, two for an Avanti. Thankfully everyone else's equipment survived intact. Paul in particular looked in ominous form - I would not be surprised if, by the time anyone reads this, Paul has secured himself a sprint berth in the Olympic sprint, such is his level of skiing at the moment. [Note - Paul's next World Cup Sprint is on December 27]

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