For most of the 119 starters in the men’s 10 k freestyle, Saturday’s race was hardly a walk in the park. That is, unless you like to go out in windy, misty, rainy, sleety and snowy conditions and enjoy encroaching darkness. And if you love long, steep hills — three per lap to be exact — the course in Kuusamo, Finland, was for you.
Fortunately, the conditions on the second day of the Ruka Triple mini-tour were the same for everybody. Miserable.
Tad Elliott, who finished 46th, had one of the more upbeat attitudes about the race — and even he went inside to watch his American teammates finish the staggered start on TV.
“It was good out there,” Elliott wrote in an email to FasterSkier after clocking the second-best U.S. finish after Kris Freeman (24th). “Not too many factors affecting my race. I just had to go out early. Real early.”
On Friday, Elliott finished 122nd in the classic sprint. That result put him in bib No. 3 for Saturday’s 10 k skate — a race that suited him better. The early starting spot was difficult to overcome regardless.
“No worries,” the 23-year-old Elliott wrote. “I put myself there. I knew I would go out early, hopefully not that early but it’s a skate race … Enjoyed it out there. I had fun.”
Fun wasn’t the word most North Americans used to describe their races on Saturday, especially not U.S. veteran skier Andy Newell. He finished 100th, 2 minutes and 40.1 seconds behind Norwegian winner Petter Northug.
“Today was a bit of a disaster for me,” Newell wrote in an email. “My legs felt really fatigued on a lot of the climbing today.”
He started near the back of the pack, directly in front of Northug, which almost gave him too much time to warm up.
“(I) ended up going on a ski that didn’t have nearly enough structure,” Newell wrote. “So I was skiing with suction cups on my feet.”
He was looking ahead to Sunday for a better result, as were the rest of his teammates. Freeman said he was in a good position after placing 24th on Saturday (+1:29.8). That put him 34th overall, about 13 seconds out of 20th.
In Saturday’s race, Freeman acknowledged he could have skied better. After 10th-place finisher Lukas Bauer (CZE) passed him on Freeman’s second lap (it was Bauer’s first), Freeman stayed with him for 2 kilometers, but “blew up and skied slowly to the finish.”
As for Sunday, Freeman stressed the importance of kick in the distance classic race.
“Starting in 32nd, it’s probably not realistic to hope for more than 15th, but that does not mean I wont try,” he wrote in an email.
The top Canadian in Saturday’s race, Ivan Babikov intended to push for a top overall place as well. He was 16th in the 10 k, which was his best early-season result and came despite “missing some snap on the uphills,” he wrote in an email.
He compensated by pushing harder on the flats and bumped himself up to 20th in the Ruka Triple standings (after placing 100th in Friday’s sprint).
“I’m very happy with my result (Saturday),” Babikov wrote. “I think I paced it well, wasn’t as fast in the beginning but it let me push hard in the 2nd lap.”
Babikov’s time of 22:40.9 (+51.8) narrowly bested that of Russian Evgeniy Belov (+52.0), who ranks ninth in the mini-tour standings.
For the 15 k classic pursuit on Sunday, Babikov aimed to finish in the top 30. At the same time, he knew the race would be packed and be like a mass start because of the narrow time differences between athletes.
“It’ll be very busy and tight out there,” Babikov said. “I think the best for me would be just to stay calm and work the pack.”
Several North-American competitors said the 15-k course (six 2.5-k loops) was especially challenging, which could suit Babikov’s strengths.
“The bulldog can climb, that’s for sure,” teammate Devon Kershaw wrote in an email.
Kershaw was the third-fastest Canadian on Saturday in 32nd, after Babikov and Alex Harvey (27th). Harvey wrote in an email that he was disappointed with his finish after struggling on the hills.
“The course here is super hard,” Harvey wrote. “Definitely not the best course for me, but I thought I could be better than that.”
“With a good day and good skis” on Sunday, Harvey hoped for an overall top-10 finish in the mini-tour. After two days of racing, he ranked 24th.
Kershaw planned to keep pushing and hoped his body would cooperate. In Saturday’s 10 k, he wasn’t happy with finishing 1:13.7 behind Northug. He narrowly missed scoring World Cup points in 32nd.
“I fought hard, and I’m happy I did that — but the feelings out there were agony,” Kershaw wrote. “I feel beat down and all I’ve done is a spring qualifier and a 10 km … We aren’t here looking to squeak into the points, or just be outside them (in my case).”
If all goes well on Sunday, Kershaw wrote he could move from 37th into the top 20 overall.
“But the front of the race looks quite out of touch for me at this point,” he wrote. “I guess I’ll just have to pray for a huge snow storm or something … I’ll just get out there and get after it.”
Teammate Lenny Valjas, who was fifth in Friday’s sprint, was the highest-ranked Canadian heading into the men’s final day of competition in 17th overall. He finished 55th (+1:42.1) on Saturday, noting that his body was tired from Friday’s hard effort. He gave the 10 k his all anyway and entered the stadium looking completely exhausted.
“This is the toughest distance course I have ever raced,” Valjas wrote in an email. “Tomorrow’s race will be a fun one, everyone is feeling tired after today.”
Canada’s Graham Nishikawa finished ahead of him in 48th (+1:32.6), which Nishikawa wrote was “a step in the right direction” after a slow start to the season.
American skier Noah Hoffman cited similar improvement after placing 68th (+1:53.9). Kevin Sandau (CAN) was 69th and Lars Flora (USA) was 86th.
“I am looking forward to tomorrow,” Hoffman said. “There will be great opportunities to move up in the field and there should be a lot of people to ski around. … (It) should be a fun race.”