Amidst Environmental Controversy and Weather Concerns, the Matterhorn-Cervinia World Cup Downhill Goes On

This article originally appeared on Ski Mag

The men's World Cup speed circuit is scheduled to kick off on Saturday, November 11, with the long-awaited Matterhorn-Cervinia downhill, canceled last year because of lack of snow. This year, the race - promoted as the first cross-border World Cup, starting in Switzerland and finishing in Italy - could face the opposite problem: snow in the forecast.

"We will be battling weather," said Sam Morse, the top American in the first training run on Wednesday (he finished seventh). "This is a very unstable part of the season with the weather transitioning from fall to winter and lots of storms rolling through. Being up at 4,000 meters makes for hosting a fair and safe race very challenging."

The weather isn't the only challenge the Matterhorn-Cervinia downhill has faced recently. Earlier this fall, Switzerland's chapter of Protect Our Winters shared a controversial post about the Solden and Zermatt World Cups on social media, claiming that FIS and the organizing committees of these events were bulldozing and excavating glacier ice to prep courses for the World Cup Tour.

"Last year, the same competition was canceled due to a lack of snow," Protect Our Winters Switzerland posted on social media, and photos showing yellow excavators clawing through glacial snow and ice. "This year, the resources deployed to ensure that the event actually takes place are beyond the bounds of acceptability and common sense. Such a spectacle is incomprehensible at a time when glacial melt is accelerating, and glaciers have lost 10% of their volume in the last two years alone."

Local authorities ordered excavation and snow grooming stopped outside the course boundary, reported 20 Minutes, a Swiss newspaper, and World Cup organizers in Zermatt claimed that the course work is "in order." The organizing committee also created a document highlighting sustainability measures, including the glacier. With two-thirds of the course laid out on a glacier, snowmaking is only needed on the lower part of the course. But controversy has continued. FIS strives to make ski racing more sustainable and has moved the Matterhorn-Cervinia downhills to two weeks later in the season.

The race was first proposed in November 2019 as a way to highlight the completion of the Matterhorn Glacier Ride, a cross-border cable car that connects Testa Grigia in Cervinia with Klein Matterhorn on the Zermatt side (the highest alpine crossing in the world). But the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the lift's opening, thus the race.

Now, the only way racing won't get underway this upcoming weekend is because of impending weather, not the quality of the track, which FIS extensively evaluates and cleared as "OK" for racing in late October. The athletes have arrived, and training got underway on Wednesday on the "Gran Becca," as the course is called (Italian for "great peak"). The course features the highest start on the World Cup tour (3,720 meters or 12,205 feet) and, at 3.8 kilometers (2.36 miles), is one of the longest courses on tour.

After all the controversy, Morse - affectionately known as "Moose" by his teammates - did not notice any significant issues with the Gran Becca and found conditions to be "better than expected."

"The conditions of the track are a dry and cold packed snow surface with some glacier ice coming out on the pitch for a few gates," he noted. "Compared to our other races, the snow conditions are considerably soft though."

In fact, Morse looks forward to racing the Gran Becca as it is "on the easier side" of downhill courses the men typically face, which will make for a great season opener.

"The American Downhillers I believe are very well suited for this course since it has lots of gliding and jumps, the true essence of downhill," commented Morse. "The big question is the weather. But since I haven't figured out a way to control it yet, I will simply roll with the punches and give it my best on race day."

Other American athletes competing this weekend include Bryce Bennett (who finished 21st in initial training), Ryan Cochran-Siegle (29th), Kyle Negomir, Jared Goldberg, and Erik Arvidsson. In the first race of the season, many of the athletes will still be making equipment adjustments and coming up with a plan as to how they want to attack the more aggressive courses on the schedule in the coming months.

The American women will head to Zermatt later in the week to prep for a downhill races series on Nov. 18 and 19. The U.S. Alpine Ski Team has not yet released starters on the women's side. However, Mikaela Shiffrin's team has confirmed she will not be racing in the first speed series of the season. Expect to see the likes of Breezy Johnson, Bella Wright, and hopefully, a few of the women's speed team athletes returning from injury.

Otherwise, watch out for the Canadians on the men’s side and some younger Swiss and Austrian athletes who are moving up in the ranks after the retirement of the legendary Mattias Mayer and Beat Feuz. Italy's Sofia Goggia and Switzerland's Lara Gut-Behrami will be ones to watch on the women's side.

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