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The Nordic Normal: Crested Butte Nordic’s Historic Alley Loop

Last year, the historic Alley Loop drew costumed competitors from across the planet. Here’s a look back at the fun. We have our fingers crossed for 2021.

Every February for 34 years, Crested Butte, population of 1,700, swells with an additional 700 folks for the state’s largest cross-country ski race. The Alley Loop is an American Birkebeiner qualifier. Known as the Birkie, the iconic competition pulls 13,000 people to Wisconsin later in February. “The American Birkebeiner is a bucket list experience. Serious American cross-country skiers participate at least once in their life,” says Laura Puckett Daniels, marketing and development director of Crested Butte (CB) Nordic, the nonprofit that organizes the Alley Loop and maintains the cross-country trails. For international travelers, university athletes, and core racers, their performance today influences their Birkie wave placement. For recreational Nordicers, like us, the focus is our quirky appearance: The Alley Loop is arguably Crested Butte’s primo costume party.   

Throughout the morning, close to 1,000 skiers shove off from Elk Avenue in eight different swells. The distances range from 1K to 42K for skate, classic, and freestylers. The routes criss-cross streets, alleyways, and bridges over Coal Creek before fanning out onto peripheral trails. The loops finish near the picturesque candy-cane colored Old Town Hall, erected 137 years ago. Back in 1986, 30 skiers inaugurated the Alley Loop. “Photos of ski racers in the narrow streets of European villages inspired the creation. I realized Crested Butte is snowy enough to host that type of event,” says Alley Loop Founder Gary Sprung, a.k.a. Gnurps, the CB Nordic Council co-founder. The event retains its genuine spirit. “The Alley Loop accommodates both the serious and silly. We may hold the silliest record for the slowest 5K: over 3 hours,” says Keith Bauer, former CB Nordic executive director. 

I’m entertained by everyone’s flamboyant, frivolous garb and don’t mind the congested kickoff. As my crew and I reach town’s edge, the fastest 5K skater finishes—far ahead of us—in 12 minutes, 35 seconds. Moments later, we jump aside for the first place 42K competitor, who’s on lap two. Beside us, a Tigger onesie, a bobbing Tyrannosaurus rex, and a troop of rocket ships disperse. Mount Crested Butte towers over us, like Mount Crumpit above Whoville. We dig in our poles, and skate. 

Planing for the 2021 Alley Loop with COVID-19 risk mitigation is underway. Check for updates and info. 

—Morgan Tilton

 Cover photo by Eric Phillips

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