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Unbeknownst to most Americans who don’t live in ski towns, the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships are a pretty big deal. Amid hype similar to that of the Olympic Winter Games, for the first two weeks of February Vail and Beaver Creek will become home to more than 600 athletes from 70 countries and more than 2,200 volunteers, with 8,000 spectators each day sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the finish stadium bleachers at Red Tail Camp. Plus, races will be broadcast to almost 750 million TV viewers across the world.

All of the races—which, unlike those at the Olympics or World Champs in Europe, are free for spectators—will take place at Beaver Creek, while award ceremonies and entertainment will move to Vail Village in the evenings. It’s going to be an exciting couple of weeks, but potentially discombobulating for the uninitiated. Lucky for you, VBC contributor and international ski racing journalist Shauna Farnell is happy to pass along some hard-earned inside information to give you a ski-leg up on the spectating competition.

Must-have App

Download the free mobile app (slated for launch on iOS and Android on December 1; search for “Vail 2015” in your app store) that serves as the one-stop shop for the World Championships, complete with full event schedule, live race timing, news, announcements, maps, and bus routes.

Where to Park

Garages

Beaver Creek Village garages: NO go. If you have aspirations to slap a Norwegian flag on your forehead and pretend like you’re part of the team to scoot past the gate attendants, forget it. Both Beaver Creek paid parking garages are closed during race days to anyone without an official pass, and sneaking in is impossible. (Trust us, we’ve tried.) The Vail Village and Lionshead garages (free after 3 p.m.) will be open on a first-come, first-served basis, with excess parking (as seen on powder days) spilling onto the north and south Frontage roads.

Free lots

The Elk and Bear lots at the base of Beaver Creek will be open, but how big are they? Only sooo big. The early birds get the spots. But how early? Sooo early: the shuttle from all lower Beaver Creek lots begins running at 5:20 a.m. If you’re not there by 7:30 a.m., you’re probably out of luck. For those who washed out of the dawn patrol, the Beaver Creek free shuttle also runs to and from the Rodeo Lot in Avon, behind Chapel Square and caddy corner to City Market.

Getting There

By bus

Happily, there will be free shuttles to all 2015 races and events from bus stops throughout Vail, Avon, and Beaver Creek, running every half hour from 8 a.m. to midnight. The shuttle running from the covered bridge in Beaver Creek Village runs to and from the finish area every 10 minutes. From the shuttle drop-off, it’s a 5- to 10-minute hike (depending on how quickly you can huff uphill at altitude) to the stadium.

By skis/board

To ski or snowboard to the finish area (as most locals do), take the Red Tail run from the top of the Centennial Express chairlift, then follow signs down Cinch Road to the stadium. Via the Upper Beaver Creek Mountain Express lift or Strawberry Park or Larkspur chair, make your way down Larkspur’s Yarrow run to the Beaver Creek Mountain Expressway trail.

By your own steam

Attention, cardio junkies: you can skin or snowshoe from the Beaver Creek Village base area up Trail 2015 (a.k.a. Dally Road). Plan on 30 to 45 minutes (unless you’re a wuss).

Where to Watch

Sitting (or standing) at the finish area

Don’t be heartbroken if you don’t land a seat in the stadium. Unless you’re dying to sit down, standing outside of the corrals where athletes and media congregate is much more exciting. Thanks to the Jumbotrons, you can easily see all of the action, and depending on how close you are—and unlike those glued to their seats—you might get sprayed by snow as racers come to a high-speed hockey stop after crossing the finish line.

Along the course (skiing)

Expert skiers can access the women’s courses from West Fall Road (off Red Tail) or the bottom of Peregrine or Goshawk; from Grouse Mountain, experts can watch the men’s speed races and all technical races from the end of Screech Owl and at the mid-point on Raven’s Ridge. Although these spots fill up fast and you’ll only have one perspective of the race, you’ll be rewarded with the thrilling and explosive “whoosh” of racers flying by like speeders on the highway. If you’re not an expert skier, from the top of the Cinch express lift, follow the Centennial trail to reach access points along Raptor, the women’s downhill course.

Along the course (hiking)

Slap on a pair of burly boots with good traction (or strap on Yaktrax or crampons) and follow the fence line uphill from the finish area. From here, you can appreciate the steepness of the course, hear the play-by-play on the loudspeakers, hear the “whoosh” around the gates, and be front-and-center for racers taking flight for 100 feet off of the final Red Tail jump.

Autographs/Photographs

Keep an eye on the Vail 2015 app for organized autograph sessions with athletes, or hang out near the finish area corral and catch them as they walk out through the crowd (elated or deflated). Also, athletes continuously take the Birds of Prey chairlift, but take heed: it’s best to hit them up postrace, as they don’t like to be distracted before start time. Have your camera, a permanent marker (keep it warm inside a jacket pocket or the ink will freeze), and the item you want signed (card, helmet, jacket, forehead, etc.) ready.

Souvenirs

Forrest Gump’s pal Bubba would have a field day naming all of the bright and shiny 2015 Vail Beaver Creek World Championships merch that’s available for purchase at Vail Style (Solaris), at Zone 2015 (Sonnenalp), and at 2015beavercreekvail.com: pint glasses, shot glasses, coffee mugs, beanies, ball caps, T-shirts, hoodies, phone chargers, Christmas ornaments, and even an official 2015 longboard. The classic souvenirs, however, are the official cowbells (from $18.99 to $299.95), which conveniently double as tools for making a racket during the race and can be taken home and repurposed, at one’s own risk, as a means of informing a spouse to go fetch your dinner.

Swag

Don’t forget to grab a pair of free inflatable slapsticks to bang together. Just like the cowbell, at home they’re great for disrupting one too many hours of Monday night football or bouts of sibling rivalry.

Pin Swaps

Wear unique pins on your jacket and keep an eye out for others you covet. Trading pins is a tradition at Olympic and World Championship events. You may end up with a one-of-a-kind emblem from the Turkish ski team or a cool little nugget from a little-known ski club in France. 

Team Houses/Après Parties

It’s also a tradition that powerhouse ski countries have an official “house” where their living legends, compatriots, and fans congregate. Join the predictably raucous and probably unending party supporting the U.S. at the Red Lion in Vail (theredlion.com). The Austrians, as is their custom, will be at Pepi’s (pepis.com), but public access will be limited. The life of this world party—live music daily—coalesces around the Sonnenalp (sonnenalp.com), where the Swiss Chalet houses (surprise!) the Swiss Team and the Bully Ranch hosts the Germans, who are, as of last summer’s World Cup, the soccer Weltmeister—and won’t be shy about reminding you.

Athlete Hangouts

Celebrating its 45th ski season, Vail’s Lancelot (lancelotvail.com) has long been a favorite of international skiers. You’re bound to spot stars from the Austrian, German, and Swiss teams here. At Beaver Creek, U.S. athletes have been known to frequent the Dusty Boot (dustybootbeavercreek.com), and party types from every country end up at the Coyote Café (coyote
cafe.net) next to Beaver Creek’s main ticket office, where happy hour stretches from 3 to 6 and last call happens at 2.

Closed Restaurants

Call ahead before you head into the village to dine, because some of your favorite restaurants—including Lindsey Vonn’s, Matsuhisa (matsuhisavail.com)—will be closed to the public during the World Champs to host private sponsor events. The same goes for Talons, Beaver Creek’s signature on-mountain restaurant, which rose out of the ashes of Red Tail Camp just for the World Championships. Although the lower level of Talons will be open during the Birds of Prey Men’s World Cup (Dec. 5-7), and the entire restaurant will be open for breakfast, lunch, and après beginning Dec. 12, as HQ for the World Champs press corps, Talons will be closed for the duration of the big event. So while the press corps and athletes are cloistered inside during the races, follow your nose to the Flight Deck on the concourse just outside the stadium, where the grab-and-go cuisine will be Western-themed, and include adult and kid-friendly beverages. 

Volunteer Opportunities

Ski events at Vail and Beaver Creek are famous for being among the world’s most sought-after volunteer opportunities, if only for the ultracool J. Lindeberg race jackets that (aside from that warm-and-fuzzy feeling) serve as the only compensation. While a few rotten eggs have signed up in the past only to run off with the free jacket before fulfilling their duties, the 2015 event has more than 2,200 dedicated unpaid staff members ready to work long, hard hours. To count yourself among them, check the volunteer page
at vvf.org.

Free Booze

Now we’ve really got your attention! Never mind the signature free cookies: for revelers hanging out Après Avon, the World Champs post-race street fair along the town’s new pedestrian promenade, craft brewers and distillers will be pouring free samples for those 21 and over. And in Vail, Sierra Nevada, the event’s beer sponsor, will conduct daily tastings at its Winter Beer Camp at Vail Village’s International Bridge; check the Vail 2015 app for details.

Get Seen on TV

Getting naked might earn you some screen time on the Euro channels during soccer season, but baring it all will instantly get your bootie booted from the premises at the World Champs. However, cameras love color, so bring (and wave) a star-spangled banner, a garish hat, or a sign containing a quirky (but family-friendly) message—or come up with a dance-in-place group choreography number—and maybe you’ll have your 15 seconds of fame on NBC. There is another way, of course: join Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, train for a dozen or more years, and earn your fleeting (and hopefully record-breaking) moment in the limelight. But the free-beer-bus-and-garish-hat approach sounds like a lot more fun. 

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