Monticello skater recaps Red Bull Crashed Ice experience

Monticello skaters Joe Schaffer and Chris Barta advanced from Day 1 of this year’s Red Bull Crashed Ice competition, but their quest to place higher ended during the event’s rough-and-tumble Round of 64.

The duo took to the 1,200-foot iconic course that starts at the front doors of the Cathedral of St. Paul last Friday starting at 11 a.m., Schaffer said.

In Ice Cross Downhill, athletes race down an obstacle-filled ice track four-at-a-time at speeds approaching 50 miles an hour.

The top two skaters advance to the next round as the field is whittled down from 128 to a final four in an extreme test of stamina, conditioning and exposure to the elements.

St. Paul has hosted a Red Bull Crashed Ice event the last six years, with huge crowds of more than 100,000 witnessing the high-speed action.

“There are so many people running around downtown St. Paul,” Joe Schaffer said. “For many of the international skaters, coming to St. Paul is the highlight of the season.”

Schaffer, his son Eli, and Barta recently returned from Finland with a trio of other U.S. skaters.

Minnesota and the United States have become one of the most enthusiastic Ice Cross Downhill nations thanks to the success of the St Paul race.

Schaffer’s 700-foot training track on his farm outside of Monticello has been used by some of the world’s best crashed ice skaters.

The Red Bull Crashed Ice event is held over a two-day period. Qualifying took place Friday, Feb. 3, and the main competition Saturday, Feb. 4.

The Red Bull Crashed Ice Junior Cup on Friday night ended around 9 p.m. and the final championship round ended Saturday night about 9:30 p.m.

Five years ago, Schaffer first competed in Crashed Ice. He and Barta placed in the Top 16 U.S. skaters to qualify for this year’s Red Bull Crashed Ice competition.

The Wednesday prior to the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition, the Schaffers and Luke Halvorson, a skater from Red Wing, who met Joe during his second year of Crashed Ice, honed their skating skills with a late afternoon training session.

While suiting up in their protective gear, the Schaffers provided an update on their Ice Cross Downhill activities and provided a recap of how they became involved in the fast-paced winter sport.

Eli Schaffer said he’s been skating for four of five years. When he turns 16, he’s planning on competing in an Ice Cross Downhill junior league. He currently plays on the Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake (MAML) hockey team. “It has to snow first before we can think about putting in the track,” he explained. “We use the snow to make the jumps, then it really needs to get cold and stay cold.”

On a average day, Eli said he spends about two or three hours on the ice. “People may think that this is totally dangerous and impossible to do, but really, it’s just a matter of staying on your feet. If you can do that, you’re going to survive. The rest of it is a combination of speed and hitting the right line.”

Each year when he laces up the skates, Joe Schaffer said his goal is making the competitive trek to St. Paul.

“I’ve been doing this since 2012,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun, But, I am getting old, and sometimes, it can be a little awkward, because most of the guys are in their early 20s and early 30s.”

Schaffer said he played a lot of hockey in his youth and participated in speed skating at the John Rose Oval in Roseville. Joe played youth hockey at Bloomington Jefferson, then graduated from Holy Angels in 1990.

“I had three brothers who played hockey there,” he said. “I was the second one to play. I played college hockey at Iowa State in the club program. That was kind of like a D-3 program.” He also played a season of professional roller hockey.

“This sport has been going on in Europe for a good 10 years,” Joe said. “In 2012, they decided to bring it to the U.S. and have an event in St. Paul.” That summer or spring, I was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal, reading the paper, and there was an article about the sport that said, ‘You don’t have to be crazy [to compete] but it might help,’ ” he said with a grin.

Schaffer continued reading the article, and learned that tryouts would be in Duluth. “I went in and signed up,” he said. “The event was three to four months down the road, and at the time, I was 40 years old.”

The day of competition came, and during a conversation with his wife, Amy, the couple started laughing. “She told me I just better grab my stuff and go,” Joe said. “She said if I didn’t, I would regret it. The first year, non of the U.S. skaters had any experience, and when we went down to St. Paul and raced, there were a ton of causalities. There were a lot of ambulance trips away from the track.”

According to Schaffer, part of the problem with the large number of injuries the first year involved the number of unexperienced skaters.

“Many had never been on a track before, and the track designers were learning their trade, too,” he said.

Eventually, the track layouts improved as well as the skaters, he added.“Last year, I had to sit out. I didn’t make the cut,” he said. “We used to have 120 national athletes, but in the last three years, things have become more structured and competitive.”

The Red Bull races have been whittled down to 64 participants total, Schaffer said. Skaters complete time trials on Friday of the Red Bull Crashed Ice event, with the top 64 skaters advancing to Saturday night’s main event.

“It’s been harder and harder for the U.S. athletes to get in,” he said. “For me, previously, I had qualified on a lot of luck and hard work, then last year, I didn’t make the cut, but carried the flag down for the opening ceremony. That was awesome.”

This year, heading to Finland to compete helped Schaffer cement a return to St. Paul. “The people of Finland just love this sport,” he said. “It’s a big deal. They have a very good recruitment plan for their young skaters.”

Joe said Eli, competing as a 15-year-old, represented something of an anomaly. That’s because in the U.S. there aren’t many skaters his age. Overseas, there’s a bunch of them.

“They have a national training program and tracks in Finland and have a permanent, year-round track where skaters can go and practice,” he said.

Joe said he’s extremely fortunate to have a training facility right outside his back door. “This track puts Monticello on the map. It’s the only training track in North America, and having it in my backyard is probably the only reason that I’m still competitive in the sport,” he said, adding the rural Monticello track is open to anyone who wants to learn more about the thrills, chills and sometimes spills of Ice Cross Downhill.

Schaffer said he’s hosting an Ice Cross Downhill event at the track Saturday, Feb. 11. For more information about the event, or Ice Cross Downhill in general, contact Schaffer at (612) 490-5987.

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]