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The Dolomitenlauf: Ski Racing in the Shadows of the Dolomites

Racing Adventure

Sun, Jan  29, 2006 - By Mark Madorski

The Dolomitenlauf, a 60 km freestyle event, is Austria’s legendary Worldloppet race. It both starts and finishes in the town of Lienz which doubles as the political capital and the unofficial outdoor sports capital of the state of Tyrol. Lienz has excellent alpine skiing in the surrounding mountains and well-groomed Nordic trails starting within the city and extending to nearby villages.

The race takes it name from an unusually rugged and majestic portion of the Austrian Alps known as the Dolomites. These mountains buttress the southern edge of the valley in which Lienz sits and are easily its most dominant feature. In the way that mountains often do, the Dolomites seem within touching distance and in Lienz’s case they almost are. The bases of the mountains rest less than a mile and a half from the center of town.

Town of Lienz
 

As I stood in the starting corral on race morning watching the first rays of pink sun hitting the peaks with a half moon still high in the sky, I found it hard to believe I was actually there. Calling the views breathtaking wouldn’t do them justice. If there’s a prettier start to a Nordic Ski race, I haven’t seen it!

Studying the course profile on the Internet, however, did very little to prepare me for the experience of the race. The course is essentially flat. There are two or three hills near the ten-kilometer mark and a big climb right in the middle. Other than that, it looks quite easy, albeit a bit long at 60 kms. What the profile fails to show, however, is that the first 30 kms are down the valley and the last 30 kms are back up the valley often into the teeth of a 20-30 mph wind. On a heavily-forested course, this might not be a big deal but much of the Dolomitenlauf traverses open alpine meadows. This is the first ski race I recall where wind became the predominant factor. Since the first half of the race tends to be so fast, it’s easy to ski a bit over your head anyway, and then when you’re forced to turn back into the wind, well, I think you get the picture! It can be very, very tough. Several times, I tried to organize groups of skiers to take turns pulling but nobody ever wanted to take over once I was toast. I could hardly blame them.

Lienz ski trail
 

For some reason numbers, of participants in the Dolomitenlauf are traditionally low. Only 600-700 skiers generally ski the 60 km event making it the smallest field on the Worldloppett circuit where 3000 or more is the norm. The level of skiing ability amongst those 700 skiers, however, is extremely high. It’s almost as if many of the citizen skiers (who race in other countries) choose to sit out the Dolomitenlauf while all the elite racers are there. The end result is a fierce competition. One could ski a pretty decent race and still finish quite low in the overall percentile rankings.

The race is also notoriously hard to wax for. Temperatures in the morning are often in the mid teens (F) but can quickly rise into the low 40’s (F). I used Swix high-fluro (28 – 36) and had pretty good glide in the sun but my skis were definitely on the slow side in the shade. Many other skiers later told me they had the same experience. The last km of the race winds through the streets of Lienz and finishes on a plaza known as the Hauptplatz (also the site of an intense sprint competition on Friday night). After surviving 30 kms of wind, relatively slow skis, and an intense field, the finish line was arguably more beautiful than the start. I finished in 3:51.

The last km of the race winds through the streets of Lienz
and finishes on a plaza known as the Hauptplatz
 

While in Lienz I stayed at the hotel Traube (hotel.traube@tirol.com) and I highly recommend it! I booked it online without knowing anything about it except that it was in the middle of town. It ended up being less than a kilometer from the start and literally only about 20’ from the finish. It was probably the most convenient place I’ve ever stayed for a ski race.

Getting to Lienz from North America isn’t as easy as getting to many Worldloppet races. Most people fly into either Munich or Klagenfurt, Austria. I chose Klagenfurt, a medium sized city near the Slovenian boarder. Since Klagenfurt’s airport can’t handle large jets, I first had to fly to Frankfurt, Germany, and then switched to a small 40-seat prop plane for the rest of the trip. The last half hour (before arriving in Klagenfurt) is worth the journey alone. As long as it’s clear, the views out of the plane are spectacular. You’re flying at a very low altitude over the snow-covered Alps replete with lakes, rivers, pine forests, and alpine villages.

Once in Klagenfurt, both train and bus service are available to Lienz but it isn’t terribly convenient. I chose to rent a car and it worked out really well. It’s only about an hour and a half drive to Lienz with incredible scenery to boot. It’s also handy having a car once in Lienz in case you want to explore neighboring villages and lets face it, it’s kind of fun driving 140 mph on the Austrian autobahn. Even if you ski slow you can drive fast!

On the way home, I chose to spend a day and a night in Klagenfurt. It has some very nice ski trails only a few miles out of town and it’s a great place for some shopping and a pub-crawl. Austria has some excellent beers; Stiegel and Gosser were two of my favorites and the latter is a major sponsor of the Dolomitenlauf (you get two free pints at the party after the race). I found Austrian food exceptional and you haven’t lived until you’ve been to an Austrian Deli and or an Austrian bakeshop.

Last if anyone cares where I finished in the race, all I can say is I know exactly how Bjorn Daehlie felt at the 1994 Lillehammer games. Silvio Fauner nipped me by only an hour and nineteen minutes and John Muhlegg beat me by a mere hour and fourteen minutes. See, I told you the field was tough.

Auf Weidersehen and Happy Ski Travels

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