THE EVOLUTION OF RACECOURSE SETTING BY JON NOLTING
Steve Mergenthaler lines up a gate for his
GS at the 2010 Trofeo Topolino in Italy.
“There’s no such thing as a bad course set, there’s only bad tactics.”
This is a mantra I’ve shared with many athletes, and it can be a reassuring one for the rookie course setter in the first few
trials with the drill and a bevy of plastic.
But while it’s right for racers to adopt this attitude — since every course will have a winner and they’d better find the best
way through — for the coach, there is absolutely such thing as a bad course set. And those bad course sets are not the
obvious ones. Any course set that does not meet the training or competition goals for the particular situation is a bad course set. Your perfectly flowing, brilliantly rhythmic, completely legal, full-length course set
right into the middle of the finish may be a real stinker. Or it might not be.
So what is a good set, then?
We’d better start with the rules, and perhaps some recent history. While the FIS International Ski Competition Rules (ICR) doesn’t rank high on the “exciting reads” list, its guidelines for course setting are actually
Take rule 802.1.3: “The slalom should permit the rapid completion of all turns. The course should not
require acrobatics incompatible with normal ski technique. It should be a technically clever composition of
figures suited to the terrain, allowing a fluent run, but testing the widest variety of ski technique, including
changes of direction with very different radii.”
Rule 803.4 gives us more guidance: “In setting slalom, the following principles should be observed:
avoidance of monotonous series of standardized combinations of gates, and avoidance of gates which
impose too sudden sharp braking on competitors as they spoil the fluency of the run without increasing
the difficulties a modern slalom should have.”
And quickly for giant slalom rule 903.1: “The skillful use of the ground when setting a giant slalom is, in
most cases, even more important than for a slalom…set mainly single gates while exploiting the ground
to the utmost. A giant slalom consists of a variety of long, medium and small turns. The full width of a hill
should be used wherever possible.”
U.S. Ski Team coach Pete Korfiatis summarizes it well. “The FIS, the same organization we deem as
‘traditionally conservative,’ is encouraging course setters to elude a monotonous series of gates, to use
the hill to its entirety, and vary distances,” he says. “They are asking us to set with character, flow, and
If you’ve been watching the World Cup lately on your Winning Runs DVD ( educationshop.ussa.org) or on
Universal Sports, you’ve no doubt noticed the variety of sets.
But it’s less obvious to tell from the TV what the trends are with distances. As ski racers continue to get stronger and ski
technology continues to improve, the FIS and USSA have made subtle adaptations to course-setting rules that have led
to significant changes in course setting.
For slalom, the rule changed in 2008 for gate counts to standards based on vertical drop of the venue. On the World Cup,
with its steep and unrelenting courses, this meant course setters had to set more turns. The outcome was that open gates
have less vertical distance between them; we see more double combinations (hairpin into flush, etc); and that there is a