Aspen's First Forerunner
The year is 1976. Franz Klammer has recently solidified his place amongst the gods of skiing by taking downhill gold at the Innsbruck Olympics in what is still regarded as one of the greatest ski racing performances of all time. Mike Maple, a 16-year old Aspen local and member of the Aspen Ski Club is at home, eagerly awaiting the inaugural running of America’s Downhill, the crowning event of the 1976 Roch Cup World Cup event in his hometown. The phone rings. His coach, Sim Thomas, advises him concisely, “Maple, you’re in. You’re forerunning the downhill, tomorrow.” Maple recalls his equally short response: “Holy Shit!”
fore·run·ner /ˈfôrˌrənər/: one that precedes and indicates the approach of another: such as. : a premonitory sign or symptom. : a skier who runs the course before the start of a race.
By 1976, Aspen was already building a rich ski racing history dating back to the 1930s, hosting local and national level races through the 1940s. Aspen’s place in the ski racing world was cemented in 1950 with the hosting of the FIS World Championships, marking the first time the event was ever held outside of Europe. For decades, The Roch Cup would be Aspen’s signature event and was regularly the host of National Championships and effectively became the tryout race for the Winter Olympics. In 1968, Aspen, and the Roch Cup, hosted its first ever World Cup, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the town would host a downhill race on the White Circus. The course would later become known as America’s Downhill and it included Aztec, one of the steepest pitches anywhere on the racing circuit, which takes racers over 80 m.p.h. into a compressed 150-degree turn onto the lower half of the course.
With the ski world buzzing from Klammer’s gold, the 1976 Roch Cup was a huge event on the calendar for Aspen and the skiing world in general. On the morning of March 12, Mike Maple walked to the base of Lift 1A on Aspen Mountain to meet his inspection partner, none other than Andy Mill. At the time, Mill was far-and-away the best downhiller in the United States having just finished 6th at the Innsbruck Olympics. Maple, awestruck, spent the morning following around one of his heroes just trying to hang on while Mill employed the newly-minted “Austrian inspection technique”, whereby the skier runs the course at almost full speed for the first time, rather than the traditional slow-moving side-slip style inspection.
Returning to the start line, Maple was surrounded by all of his idols including the great Franz Klammer and the “local boy” was one of the few people at the start with any knowledge of this new World Cup race venue. “Simply forerunning the event was beyond my wildest imagination or expectation of my own skills. I’m scared out of my mind and now these guys were asking me questions and looking for information on the course!,” remembers Maple. He settles in as the last forerunner to push out of the gate before Klammer. He takes off from the top of Ruthie’s Run, sends it over the Zaugg jump and then, with over 100 international ski coaches standing at the top of Aztec, Maple commits to a full-speed entrance into the course’s most harrowing section. “I stay deep in my tuck, come flying off the top of Aztec. I see the entire city of Aspen below me, and that’s the last thing I remember until I crossed the finish line,” remembers Maple.
Maple’s day of forerunning was certainly his most notable World Cup experience, but as the father of a World Cup Ski Racer, Wiley Maple, Mike has been actively involved in the sport for over 60 years, in Aspen and around the world. Ski racing has always been a corner-stone of Aspen’s community identity. In the days before advanced grooming techniques and injected, flooded and frozen courses, Aspen’s residents would come out in droves to literally boot pack the course, walking up and down the ski slope to compact the racing surface after a day of working. Aspen has now hosted well over 100 World Cup events on the men’s and women’s calendar and the community still comes out in full-force to offer their time and energy to keep the races coming back to town. According to Maple, “hosting a World Cup race is a ton of work, but it’s a demonstration of Aspen’s history and passion for skiing.”
Images courtesy of Aspen Historical Society and the Aspen Historical Society Flint Smith Collection.