Strong winds halt Birkebeiner race

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Around 17,000 eager skiers were halted at the starting line Saturday morning, prevented from racing 54 kilometers over the mountains between Rena and Lillehammer. Organizers of this year’s popular Birkebeiner race felt compelled to cancel it, claiming that strong winds made it irresponsible to send the racers into a storm.

Friday's preliminary Birkebeiner race, which is half the distance of Saturday's main event, also attracted several thousand skiers and went on as scheduled in sunny, spring-skiing conditions. The winds picked up, though, during the night. PHOTO: Birken AS/Geir Olsen

Friday’s preliminary Birkebeiner race also attracted more than 2,000 skiers and went on as scheduled in sunny, spring-skiing conditions. The winds picked up, though, during the night. PHOTO: Birken AS/Geir Olsen

It’s only the second time that the traditional long-distance cross-country ski race, which also has cycling and running versions at other times of the year, has been cancelled. The last time was in 2007, when gale-force winds also were blamed.

The cancellation disappointed the thousands of skiers who had paid their registration fees, arranged transport to Rena and home from Lillehammer and were ready to race. It was hard for many of them to understand the reason for the cancellation, since the weather both in Rena and in Lillehammer was brilliant, with sunny skies and barely a breeze.

But at the highest elevations of the course, the winds were gusting at speeds organizers felt were dangerous. They’d already warned skiers on Friday that they’d be bucking strong headwinds on Saturday, making the race even more challenging than normal. After first merely postponing the race’s start by an hour, they made the difficult decision to cancel after receiving reports from those preparing the ski tracks that the wind was simply blowing them away.

“I just got back from Raudfjellet and it’s extremely windy there,” Runar Austgarden told Norwegian Broadcastng (NRK). “It’s like a cauldron over the summits and the ski tracks were disappearing two minutes after I’d driven over them.” He said he had to really hang on to his wind gauge so it wouldn’t blow away.

“This is just not the weather to go skiing in,” Austgarden said. Organizers agreed. “We’d been evaluating the situation all night long, and when the ski tracks’ boss drove the course around 1am, he barely made it over the mountain,” race leader Sølvi Amundsen told NRK. “In such conditions, it’s just not responsible to let racers start. We’re very sorry of course, but safety has to be the first priority.”

Some skiers were expected to venture out anyway, but it would be at their own risk.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund