Daron Rahlves wins 2016 Arctic Man
For the last 11 years, the U.S. Ski Team has dominated Arctic Man. Racers like Scott Macartney (Kirkland, Washington) and Marco Sullivan (Squaw Valley, California) have snatched the title year after year, refusing to let the bragging rights and cash prize go to mere non-national team mortals. This year, after days of delays, four-time Olympian Daron Rahlves (Sugar Bowl, California) and pro snowmobiler Levi LaVallee — a dominant rider in X Games Snocross and Freestyle events — snagged the top prize for the first time at the 2016 Arctic Man.
Started as a bar bet by Howard Thies more than 30 years ago, Arctic Man is an exhilarating combination of snowmobiling and skiing. The skier kicks out of the start gate to instantly descend 1,700 vertical feet in about a mile and a half before grabbing the tow rope of his partner’s in-motion snowmobile in a ravine called the Hookup to ascend 2.2 miles up another mountain. At the top, the snowmobile slingshots the skier, who then tucks — going over 90 mph — the last 1,200-foot descent to the finish. The fastest racer to the finish line wins.
"It was sketchy up there!" said Rahlves. "But it was redemption for Levi and me. In 2014, we blew up our sled at the top of the canyon. And this year we started off with problems, but it worked out and came together for race day."
This year, Rahlves and LeVallee were unbeatable, finishing the 5.5-mile course in 4 minutes, 2.8 seconds. But it wasn’t an easy win. Their snowmobile had issues and it took two days to get parts to the remote camp where the Arctic Man competitors were living.
"I was just sitting there watching racers take laps and practicing. It was frustrating," said Rahlves, whose competitive fire honed during 12 years on the World Cup tour is clearly still burning. "You want to go up there and have fun on the track."
But like ski racing, it all comes down to race day.
"You can have a horrible training day and then go out and execute," laughed Rahlves. "And that’s what I did."
Weather and luck also worked out for Rahlves. Women’s snowboarding and skiing got off on Thursday, along with 11 male skiers before the race was postponed. Snow and clouds rolled in, sending athletes down the track at 90 mph with no idea where they were going.
"It was really bad visibility — all white and bad light," said Rahlves. "You couldn’t see the snow banks on the side of the track, so people were crashing everywhere."
After two days, the men were finally able to race. Wearing bib 23, Rahlves pushed out of the gate. There was fresh snow, but the 22 guys in front of him helped smooth out the track, making the snow faster. Expecting to be beaten by the guys that weigh in at 200-plus pounds, the downhiller pushed the skis and knew he could make it up on the snowmobile pull — since leaving the World Cup, Rahlves had dropped to only around 170 pounds, giving him the advantage on the uphill portion. He grabbed the tow rope and flew up the mountain before dropping into the last skiing leg of the race — over a mile in a tuck, battling burning legs and heavy breathing. He came through the finish and yes. That was the run he was looking for. He had won all three splits.
It was a big win for Rahlves, taking home $61,000 — the biggest purse in Arctic Man history. Last year’s race had been canceled due to weather, so the money rolled over into an extra-lucrative prize.
"There’s no other race in the world like Arctic Man," said Rahlves. "There’s a kind of romance with it. It’s unique, one of a kind — a bucket list event."
Among Rahlves’s competitors was Sullivan, who recently joined Rahlves in retiring from the U.S. Ski Team. Sullivan and his snowmobiling partner Tyler Aklestad still hold the fastest time set on the track (3:52.7 in 2013) and have won Arctic Man five times, including the last four years in a row. Many other former U.S. Ski Team members have participated over the years, including Macartney, current U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Beckmann, Steven Nyman, Erik Fisher and Wiley Maple.
"When we started this, there were 10 teams and 60 people," said race director and founder Howard Thies. "Now there are 55 teams, 15,000 people watching and 30 percent of the racers are Olympians. Not bad for a bar bet."
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