They say, if you want a powder day, schedule a ski race.
The World Pro Ski Tour (WPST) kicked off at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, Colo. for the season-opening Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival Cup amid feet of new snow leading up to race. At the end of a long day, it was Americans Robert Cone and Garret Driller in a head-to-head battle in the finals.
Saturday’s race started at the crack of noon as clouds lifted and visibility improved for the qualifiers. The course crew and athletes worked tirelessly to break through the soft snow to Howelsen’s world-class hard-pack conditions. Man power alone could not overhaul Mother Nature, creating ruts and inconsistent conditions throughout the four qualifying runs.
The limited 22-athlete field altered the planned schedule, eliminating the round of 32 and adding a second qualifier to the schedule that left 16 spots for the fastest runs to qualify for the head-to-head races. With the field having limited training leading up to the event, athletes, such as Driller, took a particular liking to the additional qualifying runs before the race.
Early on, the blue course was noticeably faster, with the top-qualifying times coming from athletes’ runs down that course. The red course had a late rut forming from soft snow, creating trouble throughout the qualifying rounds for athletes. Ultimately it was last season’s third-place overall finisher Driller to put down the fastest run and clench the top-qualifying spot moving into the round of 16. Vermont native Robby Kelly was just behind Driller in second, with the defending overall champion, Cone, in third.
Qualifying rounds finally got down to the hard surface, so hard on the red course that dirt was showing and needed an uncommon redress before the round of 16.
Kelly was victorious in the first round of 16 but was knocked out early by Utah skier and Argentine Tomas Birkner in the round of eight. Cone met with last season’s second overall champion Michael Ankeny in the round of eight, with Cone ultimately taking a win in both runs. Tucker Marshall from Vermont gave Driller a run for his money in the same round, with Driller trailing behind in his second run down the blue course. Driller miraculously pulled ahead in the last four gates, finishing ahead of Marshall.
Cone quickly progressed through the next rounds into the finals, winning all of his head-to-head battles. Last season’s rookie of the year Simon Breitfuss-Kammerlander from Bolivia met Driller in the semifinals, capitalizing on Driller’s early on mistakes down the first run. Driller knew he had the chance to clean up his second run moving over to the blue course but barely held himself together through the finish, landing just 0.01 ahead of Breitfuss-Kammerlander to move into the finals.
“That was ridiculously close, I just reached further,” said Driller. “My top was less than ideal, all the way to the mid-section, and I slowly got more speed up to the very end.”
Meanwhile Cone had silky smooth skiing against Birkner in the semi finals and clenched his spot in the finals against Driller.
“I’m really trying to keep it balanced and all the runs are really adding up,” said Cone. “Last year I faced Garrett in the finals at the season opener in Vail so hopefully I will have a similar finish, hopefully.”
It was an international battle between Breitfuss-Kammerlander and Birker for third. Breitfuss-Kammerlander had strong skiing in the first run to build a slight lead over Birkner, who was pushing to close the gap and move into the third spot. Breitfuss-Kammerlander prevailed in the second run, capitalizing on his lead and finishing third.
The finals were all too familiar for Driller, who lost to Cone last year at Vail. Driller was in the red course to start with Cone having a slight advantage in the faster blue. Having cleaned up the top of his run Driller looked to be a match for Cone, skiing neck and neck until Cone barley pulled ahead in the last three gates to finish 0.17 ahead.
Driller knew his final run down the blue course was his opportunity to make up lost time. Out of the start, it was Cone ahead on the red course after an early mistake by Driller. Driller started to tighten his line, determined to make up the distance Cone had created. Just feet away from the finish Driller’s ski caught on the last gate, projecting the right side of his body headfirst through the panel and down while crossing through the finish line. Luckily without any injury from the crash, Driller’s attempt was not enough to beat Cone.
“It’s great to have this start up again, I have really been looking forward to this,” said Cone. “In qualifying we were really trying to get down to good snow. It was a little inconsistent on my part, but I tried to do my best and have fast runs. Garrett was the fastest there, so it was great to run against him in the final.”
Cone brought consistency and speed into his skiing, a focus he wants to carry into the races on Monday. Driller hopes to bring his experience of the hill he’s gained from this new coaching role with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, as well stronger starts, to his next match against Cone.
“I just got to get one on him,” said Driller, reflecting on his matchup against Cone. “It’s so close. I think I just get a little bit jumbled, I risk a little too much and it’s always one mistake where I just kind of watch him go away. He’s just super consistent.”
The WPST will host its third annual junior race at Howelsen Hill on Monday Feb. 8, 2021. The race will feature WPST pro racers mentoring Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athletes, who will compete in a unique, mixed age-group format. The youth race will be held at Howelsen Hill at 4:40pm, before the WPST Moose Barrows’ Trophy Race begins at 7 p.m.
World Pro Ski Tour – Steamboat Springs – Feb. 6, 2021