35 years ago, the world's best cross-country skiers competed in Biwabik
It was Minnesota's first and only World Cup race. But it almost never happened.
The International Ski Federation’s Cross-Country World Cup was scheduled to return to Minnesota in March, but it was canceled just days before over COVID-19 concerns.
The Minneapolis event would have been the state’s second cross-country World Cup race, and the first and only, held 35 years ago at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, also almost faced a last-minute cancellation.
From Dec. 12-15, 1985, the world’s top Nordic skiers descended on the Iron Range and raced in an ESPN-televised event as leaders hoped it would spur the area into a training base for winter sports and diversify a mining-dependent economy.
But it was almost too cold to race.
Temperatures during that weekend barely reached 4 degrees below zero — the lowest allowed for racing by the sport’s governing body.
The frigid forecast made organizers like Duluth's Gary Larson, the race’s chief of course and Giants Ridge’s Nordic director at the time, nervous the whole event would be scrapped.
To make sure the races would go if temperatures touched the legal limit, he and others donned headlamps and worked overnight in temperatures 10-15 degrees below zero to reroute the course around major downhill segments.
“With minus-4 Fahrenheit and really fast, long downhills, the frostbite danger would have been so high,” Larson said.
The women’s 10-kilometer event was held that Friday, when it was 2.2 degrees below zero, which the News-Tribune & Herald described as “violently cold.” One race official told the paper: “There were some problems with frostbite” in the women’s race.
The men’s 30-kilometer, planned for that Saturday, when temperatures only reached 9.4 degrees below zero, was rescheduled for Sunday, and temperatures reached 1 degree, the paper said.
“You can’t call it warm, but it was probably just up to the legal limit for racing,” said Peter Graves, also a Nordic director at Giants Ridge at the time. He served as announcer on ESPN’s taping of the race.
It was close to having the same fate as the 2020 World Cup.
“It was nerve-wracking because we had everything in place and everything was done really, really well. I do remember watching the forecasts pretty closely and realizing that this really cold front was going to come in,” Graves said. “And how would that impact the race?”
A morale booster
The 1980s were rough for the Iron Range. Iron ore mines were idled, bankrupt or struggling.
But the World Cup offered a brief repose from all that.
“A lot of the mines were closed and so it was a great morale booster,” said Gary Lamppa, then-commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Commission.
When teams from around the globe descended on northern Minnesota for the World Cup, their home countries' diaspora, now settled on the Iron Range, welcomed them.
The Finnish team was entertained at Kaleva Hall in Virginia and the Italian team visited the Sons of Italy Hall in Hibbing.
“Teams that came from around the world would go there and would talk to Range people in their native language,” Lamppa said.
When the teams flew in, Graves would try to greet them at Duluth and Hibbing airports.
When the Slovenian team got off the plane, they were greeted by a button-box accordion group dressed in traditional clothing.
“And (the team) started to cry. They said, ‘Is this for us? Nobody does this for us.’ And that was a really seminal moment for me when I realized how special this environment was that we were going to host this World Cup in,” Graves said.
For Lamppa, the feeling of accomplishment came during the opening ceremonies.
“When I was commissioner, I was sitting up on top of the hill and I saw all the cross-country skiers coming in there for the opening ceremonies, their flags and everything else,” Lamppa said. “I was really proud of what the hell we pulled off.”
The event inspired spectators, too.
As a 13-year-old growing up in Mountain Iron, Chad Salmela, now of Duluth, went to watch the dominant Swedish team, including Gunde Svan, who easily won the 30K race.
“I skipped school to ski behind those guys,” Salmela said. “It was really cool.”
A few years later, Salmela went on to compete, then coach, for the U.S. team in biathlon — the blend of marksmanship and cross-country ski racing. He helped organize the Nordic events at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and call ski races for NBC in the four Olympics since.
Had the World Cup been held in Minneapolis in March, Salmela would have been calling the race for the Olympic Channel and NBC, while Graves, the 1985 race’s ESPN caller, would have been the event’s public announcer.
For Salmela, Giants Ridge was instrumental in shaping his career.
Giants Ridge 'was the place'
Giants Ridge was far from the expansive, year-round resort it is today when Ed Karkoska opened a single alpine run on the hill in 1958. There was no mechanical aid to help pull skiers up the hill that first year, but by the next season, a modified 3-ton Mack truck engine pulled a tow rope up the hill and a 1959 Plymouth powered the beginner’s hill tow.
Those early years proved financially trying, and from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the ski hill was completely closed.
Then the IRRRB bought it in 1983.
The state agency immediately poured money into the construction of chalets (designed by Salmela’s father, architect David Salmela), new chairlifts and world-class cross-country ski trails — designed in part by Duluthian and Olympian George Hovland — all with the hope of transforming it into an official Olympic training center.
“I don’t think we would’ve ever bought Giants Ridge if we didn’t have that in mind,” Lamppa said. “When we bought Giants Ridge, our thought was to develop that into a training center for Olympic athletes.”
Graves remembers pitching the idea to Iron Range leaders.
“Those thoughts were met like, ‘Really? Do you think we could do that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I really think you could,’” Graves said.
It gained traction, and organizers submitted a bid for hosting a World Cup race. Gov. Rudy Perpich, Lamppa, Graves and a contingent of other Iron Range delegates even traveled to Seefeld, Austria, in January 1985 during the Nordic skiing world championships, where they hosted a reception for the sport’s governing body.
Shortly after, Giants Ridge was awarded a race for early in the next season, December 1985.
And once that weekend of racing in Biwabik was underway, Perpich and Lamppa announced Giants Ridge was looking to capitalize on the World Cup and designate Giants Ridge as a U.S. Olympic training facility.
“We are not satisfied just with the World Cup,” Lamppa said at the time, according to the Duluth News Tribune & Herald. “We designed Giants Ridge for the serious athlete to come and train.”
While it never became an official Olympic training center, the U.S. Ski Association did use Giants Ridge as a training center for years. And throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Giants Ridge hosted a number of other large events, including two Nordic Combined World Cups — a sport that combines cross-country ski racing and ski jumping. The cross-country ski portion took place at Giants Ridge while the ski jumping took place at Ely’s ski jump.
“(Giants Ridge) was the place because it was the most modern and best ski area,” Salmela said. “In my teens and early 20s, it was kind of the hotbed and that World Cup was the first big event.”
But then other world-class cross-country trails emerged across the U.S., and Giants Ridge, still a state-owned facility, faced scrutiny for how heavily it was subsidized.
And in 1997, Giants Ridge added a golf course, which caused several of the trails to be rerouted. The focus also changed to a year-round event center.
“The novelty had worn off and the focus just kind of changed to golf and alpine skiing more, and so there wasn’t the same kind of desire to bring in national or international races,” Larson said.
Today, Giants Ridge, which has an expanded alpine hill, resort, housing development and another golf course, still hosts the Minnesota State High School League’s cross-country ski state championship and the Mesabi East Nordic Invite, considered the largest high school cross-country ski meet in North America.
Lamppa expressed frustration with the evolution of Giants Ridge, calling the original vision of Giants Ridge being a destination for elite winter athletes and competitions a “long-term ambition.”
“But then I left commissionership and then I don’t know where the hell it went after that,” Lamppa said.
It’s unclear if Minnesota will vie for a second World Cup again, so for now, the World Cup 35 years ago, pulled off despite cold temperatures that threatened the race and last-minute course changes, will remain the state’s only memory.
“Under really tough conditions, we did a really good job to provide the best race we possibly could,” Larson said.