Everything to know about the World Cup cross-country ski courses

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Very few World Cup skiers are familiar with the cross-country courses at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. Zak Ketterson knows every inch of them, going back to his days on the ski teams at Bloomington Jefferson High School and Loppet Nordic Racing. A member of the U.S. national cross-country team, Ketterson is in his third season of World Cup competition and has raced in SuperTour events — the circuit just below the World Cup — at Theodore Wirth Park. The Minneapolis resident shared his thoughts on the courses for this weekend's sprint and 10-kilometer races and how they will challenge the world's best skiers.

How do the Wirth courses compare to Europe's World Cup venues?

This year, with low snow, it's going to be pretty much all artificial snow. When you combine that with a little warmer weather, that can often lead to super, super fast snow. Like wicked fast. [The courses are also] a little less hilly. With that combination of being a little flatter and that really fast artificial snow, I think it's going to be a much faster snow and faster course than we've seen a lot this year. It's going to be really fun, probably much higher speeds than at a lot of other World Cups.

How difficult are these courses?

You would think that the flatter the course is, the easier it is. The distance course at Wirth is less hilly compared to some of the ones we see in Europe, but because of how high-speed it is, you have to work the entire time. I think it ends up being just as hard as anything else.

The sprint course has two really good hills in it. One of the unique things is, it has a high-speed finish, where you basically come off of a downhill straight into the finish. That will be really interesting. At some venues, you have this really long finishing stretch, where a lot of movement can happen. But with this one, there's not that much room in the finish to pass or be passed. It's going to be interesting to see how skiers position themselves. They might need to think about that earlier, because they know there's not a long finish they can rely on to pass people.

What kind of tactics and skill does each course require?

The 10k race is an interval start. One skier goes out every 30 seconds, and the fastest time wins. That means you have to ski a really high pace the entire time, and you won't have any help from skiing behind anyone. I think the snow is going to be so fast, and the course isn't as hilly, so that will lend itself to skiers who are really comfortable with high speeds and can work a lot of the downhills and corners. Jessie Diggins is so good at that. I think it's the type of course that really plays into her strengths.

The sprint course has a bit of a flat part at the beginning, then you have two main hills. The first one is a little more gradual, so I don't think you'll see that much moving and shaking. The main feature of the course is that second hill. It has a pretty steep grade, and it's pretty wide. I think that's where you're going to see a lot of skiers trying to get to the front or vying for position. From the top of that hill, it's basically just a ripping downhill into that short finish. Unless you pull off a miracle, it's generally pretty hard to make much of a pass from the top of that hill into the finish. That second hill is going to be a really, really vital part of the sprint in the heats.

What parts of each course will have the most impact on the outcome, the areas where the race could be won or lost?

On the sprint course, that second hill is really going to test people's climbing abilities. In the heats, when we're skiing in groups of six, I think you're going to want to be close to the front at the top of that hill.

On the distance course, it's going to be about how people ski on the downhills, flats and turns. Often when skiers think of a course, they fixate on the big uphills. But on a course like this, where there are no massive, distinguishing uphills, you need to be conscious and thinking of every inch of the course. How am I going to ski this corner? How am I going to carry speed into this downhill? Over the course of 10k, all of those little points are going to add up. On a hillier course, it doesn't matter as much, because often the person who wins is the one who skis up the hills the fastest. On a course like this, you need to be super conscious the entire time.

Will it help to be familiar with the courses?

Yes. It will be important for people who haven't been there to really pay attention to the way the course skis, and keep in mind some of the turns and the downhills. We do some courses where you're basically skiing up a hill for 10 minutes straight, and it comes down to who's the fittest and can get to the top of the hill the fastest. On a course like this, where you don't have one nightmarish hill, it's more about the whole package. It will reward skiers who approach it well.