STRATTON >> Sitting back on his Delta flight bound for Europe, Andy Newell's mind drifted to the friends and family he left behind. It would be nearly four months until he hung out with them again at Stratton.
In the cargo hold was a lone U.S. Ski Team High Sierra duffel bag — his personal closet on the road across a dozen countries until March. Such is the life of an American World Cup ski racer in a Euro-centric sport.
"Mentally, the first few times you do it can be intimidating — just the thought that I'm going to be gone four months or more," said Newell, a Shaftsbury native. "I've learned to take it one week at a time."
Newbies might fidget, stress and overpack. But Newell's a veteran of more than a dozen years on the tour — a world class sprinter. Not only does he know the ropes, but he's energized by it. Four months on the road, one bag.
"We have a big team for the amount of resources we have," he said. "We have to carry all of our luggage in one cargo van. Each athlete can only bring one duffel bag. We do laundry and pack light."
Newell starts the process two weeks in advance — organizing training gear, different types of clothing, medicines, preventatives, hand sanitizer and checking all the lists.
"Less is more. You don't need to bring as much as you think. You have to be prepared for that airport hustle and changing hotels. That's the lifestyle we love, to be a ski racer with life on the road," Newell said.
Skis are another story. Newell will bring one ski bag himself with his skis. His wax techs will have another and his ski company, Fischer, will bring additional pairs. He'll start the year with 35 to 40 pairs of skis, trying to knock that number under 30. He'll go into each race with six to eight.
Newell's day will eventually take him to Gällivare, Sweden, for a week before heading north of the Arctic Circle for the World Cup opener on Nov. 29 in Ruka, Finland.
This year, U.S. athletes get a two-week reprieve at the end of the season, with the World Cup Finals in Montreal and Quebec City, Canada, next March. Until then, while his fellow competitors from Europe head home most Sunday evenings, Newell and his teammates rely on Skype and cell phones to maintain a link to their own lives in America.
"I thrive on it," Newell said. "And I think we're pretty good at it. The Scandinavians don't have these tricks of the trade like American racers. They don't know how to travel as well. It gives us a leg up on the competition."
A couple of those tricks are maple syrup and hot sauce. Being a Vermonter, the team relies on Newell to pack some Vermont grade A maple syrup. "We basically adapt to the food. With maple syrup and hot sauce — you can turn bad food into something decent to eat."
With just one bag, Newell and teammates have learned how to improvise. Before heading out from home in Stratton, Newell hits the post office to drop off a few packages to himself for delivery to hotels through the winter.
If there's one blessing out of the packing process, it was the new gear from suppliers L.L.Bean and CRAFT Sportswear. Newell and many other members of the U.S. Nordic ski team are part of a national advertising campaign playing right now.
"We're all really psyched this year because we've gotten such great gear from L.L.Bean and Craft," he said. "Weather is a big factor for so many months on the road. Going to the far north and knowing that we have a warm puffy [coat] and knowing that we have good long underwear under our suits is a big difference maker."
As dawn broke over the European coastline, Newell's thoughts turn to the season ahead. Soon, the World Cup will open with a classic sprint in Ruka, Finland. Two weeks later in Davos, Switzerland, a skate sprint. It's go time. He thought of his teammates on other flights heading to Scandinavia to bring their U.S. ski family together again.
While it's a lonely life on the road, living out of a duffel bag, 12-hour drives, same old, same old at dinner every night, there's solace in knowing people care about what you do.
"Hearing from fans is huge for morale for U.S. cross country skiers," he said. "You can get caught up in the European bubble. When you get those e-mails from fans back home or see a cool press release online, you get a glimpse that there are people back home following you. It makes a difference for all of us."