Cross-country skiing is becoming the thing "to do" in the Czech Republic. In the past two or three decades, more Czechs preferred downhill skiing either at home or in one of Europe’s Alpine countries, such as neighbouring Austria. Nowadays, the number of cross-country skiing enthusiasts matches those who prefer to head for the slopes and lifts. Radio Prague’s Vít Pohanka visited one of the country’s popular ski resorts - Vysočina Arena in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands.
Cross-country skiing and biathlon are on the rise. Pavel Benc is a former member of several Czech Olympic and World Championship teams. Today he heads the cross-country skiing section in the Czech National Skiing Union:
“There used to be many more Alpine skiers in the Czech Republic. Recently, however, cross-country skiing has become something of a phenomenon. When I look at the official numbers of our union, the downhill skiers used to be much more numerous. These days we have more or less caught up with them. And that leads me to believe that cross country skiing has become as massively popular as alpine skiing.”
For most of the 20th century, cross-country skiing was organized by amateur enthusiasts. During the four decades of communism, there were shortages of most consumer goods and it was very difficult to find and buy quality sports equipment. But after the fall of communism nearly 30 years ago, things changed radically. Sports, including skiing, professionalized. Sports associations are still funded by the state and local authorities but it is necessary to find sponsors, too.
In the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, the skiing club in Nové Město na Moravě obviously did a very good job. A new modern sports center was constructed near a town called Vysočina Arena. It often hosts skiing events including World Cup races in winter. In summer, it has world-class terrains for mountain-bike competitions. Ladislav Slonek served as chairman of the Ski Club in Nové Město for several decades and was an official of the International Ski Federation (FIS). He is proud of what they have built in his hometown:
“It is a tremendous satisfaction for me. The cross-country World Cup races are awarded only to such centers, where the trails are really top-class, all the rules and expectations of the International Federation of Skiing must be fulfilled. And there have to be all the amenities for the racers, technical equipment and rooms for live TV broadcasters and other journalists.
“But first and foremost, there are crowds of fans and spectators. Vysočina Arena is used for three sports: cross-country skiing, biathlon, and mountain-biking in summer. It draws a lot of people. For example, in December just before Christmas, we had a biathlon World Cup here and there were 33, 000 fans. An event like that requires good organization and there is a lot of work around it. It is not like in the old days, when one race track, a pub and one room for the referees was enough.”
The Bohemian-Moravian Highlands offer high-quality cross-country skiing trails for everybody, not just the world-class competitors. Ladislav Slonek again:
“We don’t have peaks 8, 000 meters high, but hills of some 800 meters. Plus we are officially in the 5th cold zone and that, in short, means very interesting terrain and conditions for cross-country skiing. If you look at the satellite images of our region in winter, you can usually see that there is a kind of an island of snow around Nové Město na Moravě. But first and foremost: there is a suitable landscape here similar to the Dalarna region in central Sweden where the famous 90-kilometer long Vasaloppet or Vasa-race takes place. You will not find Alpine terrain with steep slopes. This landscape is not dramatic, it is kind of romantic and ideal for cross-country skiing. This is the right place to enjoy the poetry of cross-country-skiing.”
Ladislav Slonek says the excellent conditions for cross-country skiing now available are leading more and more Czechs and Slovaks to spend winter holidays in their own country rather than travelling to Alpine ski resorts. Pavel Benc, an official of the national Skiing Union, agrees:
“It is a kind of gentle, curvy landscape very nice for skiing. For example, in the Krkonoše Mountains in Eastern Bohemia, you can also find beautiful terrains for cross-country skiing, but they are more suitable for well trained hard-core sportsmen. Whereas around places like Žďár nad Sázavou or Nové Město na Moravě, the trails are more natural, not so hard on you and well suited for recreational skiers. It is similar to the Jizera Mountains in the north of the country. There, you don’t have to climb or go down steep hills and every visitor can find a nice trail suited to his or her taste and how fit he or she is.”
There is one thing you can be sure about: the amenities and trails for cross-country skiing are great in all the important mountain resorts of the Czech Republic. But only Vysočina Aréna in the Highlands can boast such excellent trails and services that the International Skiing Federation (FIS) regularly selects them for world-class competitions.
Vysočina Arena in numbers
Altitude: 620 m a. s. l. (in the starting area)
Artificial snow: yes
Marked trails directly in the Arena and immediate surrounding area
2 km, total climb 55 m
3 km, total climb 92 m
5 km, total climb 154 m
13 km, total climb 330 m
Distance from Prague by road: 166 km
Distance from Brno by road: 80 km
Note: Vysočina Aréna serves as a starting point for many more possible cross-country well-marked trails. Dozens of kilometers of these are regularly leveled by snowcats, weather and snow conditions allowing.
Downhill skiing slope Harusův kopec less than 1 km from the Arena:
Altitude of upper lift terminal: 734 m. a. s. l.
Length: 550 m
Vertical meters: 110 m
Lift capacity: 1400 people/hour
Lift length: 490 m
Artificial snow: yes