Course inspection is a critical component of skiing to your potential on race day. Most racers slide around the course looking at the gates, but don't really think about it or know what to look for. There's a lot more to it than knowing "where the hard part is." Inspecting a course is about getting a feel for it, knowing the line to ski, knowing if it's a fast and straight course or a slower, turny, cranky course. The better job you do inspecting, the easier it will be to ski a fast line and to look ahead and ski with confidence down the course. While you inspect a course you should consider the following elements: Rhythm changes, changes of direction, snow type, terrain features.
Please also review the FAQ, An Athlete's Guide to Race Day for additional information.
Every gate in the course is made up of a pair of gates. Slalom gates are single poles alternating red and blue. Giant Slalom gates are pairs of gates alternating red and blue. Each part of pair of GS gates is made up of 2 poles connected by a flag or banner.
How to Inspect
Assuming that you were smart and got up the chairlift as soon as it opened you should make your way quickly to the start and put your prepped skis off to the side somewhere safe, probably base down in the snow. Get 2-3 quality inspections and then warm up. If you eat lunch quickly you can often watch a course get reset. This is a huge advantage. Often the course or race hill will be closed while the reset is happening, but not always.
As you examine a course for the following elements you should visualize yourself actually skiing through the course with perfect form and a perfect line. Visualization makes a tremendous difference in how you ski. Most sports experts agree that it's an integral part of success for an athlete and almost as good as actually doing the sport. Visualizing skiing down the race course is almost as good as getting practice runs down it.
It's not easy to memorize a course, but the more you practice the easier it will become. The most successful racers can remember every turn of the course. It's to your advantage to practice this important skill. You won't remember the entire course initially but eventually with practice you will. The important thing initially is to get a feel for the course, to know what to expect. With limited practice you will be able to remember that there is a rhythm section for five or so turns, then a hairpin followed by a shorter rhythm section, then a flush, then a longer rhythm section, then a hairpin, a couple more turns and then the finish.
Now make your way over to the start. Examine the start gate and the ramp. Is the ready position flat? Is the ramp angled smoothly away and consistently? Is there a big transition or dip between the end of the ramp and the beginning of the course? Does the ramp point you into the line or at the first gate? Is the snow firm? Slide over and inspect the angle you need to come out of the start gate to get 1-2 quality skates into the race line. Remember that you are skating at a point above the first gate not at the first gate. You need to establish the proper line before you get to the first gate. If you skate to the first gate you'll be starting with a low/late line for the whole course. There are exceptions to this, but they aren't common.
Generally, after you exit the start ramp you'll be presented with a section of consistent rhythm turns. Look down the course at the reds and then the blues. They should be in a line. Anything that's not in a line indicates a change of rhythm. As you examine rhythm sections in a course constantly look up and down at gates of the same color to see if they are in alignment.
As you inspect the course, look at the distance between the gates and the distance across the hill. Distances for each should be pretty consistent. If you visualize the skiing you'll be better able to see where the "cranky" gates (turns that are sharper/harder than average for the course).
Look for the hairpins and flushes. These will cause changes in direction and rhythm. Inspect where you need to be coming out of each one and work backwards up the course. Don't get caught skiing straight at the turning pole of the last gate of the hairpin or flush. You'll generally need to turn through that gate. If you're new to ski racing, inspect hairpins and flushes from the bottom. Look where you need to exit the closed gates to get to the next open gate and then work backwards to see how to enter the hairpin or flush.
Look for delays or through gates where you are not making a change of direction but rather making a long drawn out turn. It's important not to make two turns here which will decelerate you. Make one long turn. These are typically used in courses to move you to another part of the hill.
As you inspect the finish area (the last 2-3 gates before the finish line) look for the easiest line to the finish. Most of the time at this point of the course it's faster to ski a low/late line, making as long and soft a turn as possible around the last gate than to make a hard turn and ski through the center of the finish which wastes time/slows you down/decelerates you. You only want to make as much turn as you need to make the gates without decelerating or jamming on your edges.
Snow & Terrain
Look at snow condition throughout the course. Is it scrapping away and icy or is it loose snow? Generally Snow will be icy and scrapped away. If it's not look for glazed over glossy snow in speed events. In technical events you should know whether it's likely to be icy or rutted.
As you examine terrain look for depressions, bumps, fall-away turns, double fall lines, etc. Pay particular attention to the transitions between variations in terrain. Visualize moving over these objects with good form, absorbing and staying balanced and properly positioned.
So there you have it, now you know what to look for in the course. You need to remember to be on time for inspection and to listen to your coach for his/her input on the course. If you have any questions please ask them.