Simi Hamilton had to look behind him inches before the finish to make sure it was actually happening. Yet the 26-year-old U.S. Ski Team (USST) member hadn’t fully realized what he’d accomplished two hours after his freestyle sprint victory on Tuesday in the third stage of the Tour de Ski.
In his three years on the national team, Hamilton had never made the finals of a sprint. Yes, he was a sprinter, but qualifying in the top 30 among the world’s best, then advancing in the top two or with one of the fastest times in the quarterfinals and semifinals on a given day wasn’t easy.
His best World Cup result of the season had been 14th in a 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint in Davos, Switzerland, and two years ago he achieved seventh in a World Cup classic sprint in Drammen, Norway.
Just over two weeks ago in Davos, Hamilton nearly made it to the semifinals after placing third in the quarterfinals. On the first day of the Tour on Dec. 28, he placed 42nd in the 4.5 k freestyle prologue in Oberhof, Germany. A day later, he was 35th in the 1.5 k freestyle sprint at the same venue.
Not qualifying didn’t sit well with Hamilton, a guy who lives, breathes and trains for sprinting in southern Vermont with the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team.
“I didn’t have a very good day on Sunday, which I was pretty pissed about,” Hamilton said in a post-race phone interview. “I got a little shafted with some crazy intermittent weather that was going on and just didn’t do what I really wanted to do that day. I knew waking up this morning that all the stars were aligning and that I really wanted to go for it and it turned out well.”
Among the things he and 102 other male competitors had in their favor in Lenzerheide, Switzerland — the weather. It wasn’t snowing, raining, and there was an ample amount of landscape for them to work with on yet another 1.5 k freestyle course.
The race was two loops — unlike Oberhof’s single narrow-and-zigzagging lap — and Hamilton knew he could ski big, just the way he liked. Lenzerheide was also more than 5,000 feet above sea level, with altitude effects that might bother some but typically help the Aspen, Colo., native.
“I had a lot of really good things going for me today,” Hamilton said. “It was fast conditions, nice and sunny, hard-packed. And then a course that’s not super long, has some technical corners, and nothing like crazy steep. I’m a bigger skier, I’m better V2er, and I can kind of carry my speed up through the gradual climbs.”
The last day of 2013 started off like a page out of the Canadians’ storybook from last Saturday, when Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw took first and second in the men’s prologue. On Tuesday, Hamilton qualified in first and USST teammate Andy Newell — who’s usually in the sprinting limelight — advanced in second. Both are teammates at Stratton.
Hamilton topped Newell by 0.31 seconds with the fastest time in 2:35.01. Sunday’s sprint winner, Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden ranked third, 0.73 seconds behind Hamilton.
“It felt good yesterday just doing some speeds around the course, and knew that it was going to be a good course and venue for me,” Hamilton said. “Just going into the qualifier, I definitely had a hunger for having a good day.”
A typical World-Cup qualifier, Newell wasn’t quite expecting his time to rank second.
“I felt like I didn’t have a super great run in qualification and I was surprised when I came across with the fastest time,” he said on the phone. “But I think it just goes to show that our wax techs obviously did a very good job.”
China’s Qinghai Sun qualified in fourth (+1.17), and the Tour leader, Harvey advanced in 24th (+4.25).
“I have three sprint podiums in my career and I have qualified in the 20’s every time so I know when you get into the heats, and the gun goes off, it is a fresh start,” Harvey said in a Cross Country Canada press release.
Hamilton went on to win the first quarterfinal by 0.29 seconds over Tim Tscharnke in 2:36.37. He had aimed to lead early and control the pace for both laps and did just that, topping Russia’s Ilia Chernousov, Martin Jaks of the Czech Republic, Sweden’s Carl Quicklund, and Ales Razym, respectively.
Hamilton’s quarterfinal was the second fastest and Chernousov ended up making the semifinals as a lucky loser. (Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh won the third quarterfinal in 2:36.14 and advanced with Switzerland’s Eligius Tambornino, whom he beat in a photo finish for first, and fellow Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby in third.)
Harvey took second in the second quarterfinal, 0.12 seconds after Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, who qualified in seventh and won the heat in 3:27.97. Russia’s Andre Larkov was third in the heat (+0.23), Sun finish fourth (+1.44), and two Brits, Andrew Young and Andrew Musgrave placed fifth and sixth, respectively.
Newell also automatically qualified for the semifinals in placing second to Germany’s Josef Wenzl in the fourth quarterfinal. Hanging behind Wenzl and pushing him to the line, Newell was seven-hundredths off Wenzl’s win in 2:36.98, Poland’s Maciej Starega took third (+0.62), Germany’s Sebastian Eisenlauer was fourth (+0.79), and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin fifth (+2.46). Finland’s Ville Nousiainen did not start after qualifying in 22nd.
Halfvarsson won the fifth quarterfinal in 2:38.75, the slowest of the day, after overtaking Norway’s Petter Northug, who advanced in second (+0.13), and Austria’s Bernhard Tritscher in third (+0.28). Italy’s David Hofer placed fourth (+0.8), Austria’s Harald Wurm was fifth (+0.97) and another Italian Enrico Nizzi sixth (+1.19).
Approaching his semifinal with a similar tactic as the quarters, Hamilton floated to the front early, creating space for himself and skiing big while staying low. Pellegrino tucked into second and hovered in fighting position around the inside corners, but Hamilton held is own and picked his line into the finishing stretch.
In fourth at the time, Harvey used a slingshot effect and some conserved energy to rocket to first while holding off both Pellegrino and Hamilton. Harvey won the semifinal in a three-way photo finish with Pellegrino and Hamilton, edging the Italian by four-hundredths of a second for the win in 2:37.94. Pellegrino automatically advanced in second and Hamilton placed third another 0.02 seconds behind. Sundby was fourth, 0.3 seconds after Harvey, and all four ultimately made the final with the fastest times.
In the second semi, notably slower, Krogh won it in 2:38.7, just one-hundredth of a second faster than Halfvarsson in second. Newell stood in the top three for essentially all of the race, getting into second early behind Wenzl. Tucked behind the 6-foot-2 German for most of the race, Newell maintained his position while Krogh attacked on the first significant climb.
While Krogh took the lead, Halfvarsson passed Newell on the second tier of the hill, and Newell trailed them both into the finish. On a sweeping lefthand turn into the stadium, Northug caught up with the pack and passed Newell, pushing down the stretch to contend with the top two. Northug ended up third (+0.11), Newell fourth (+0.34), Chernousov fifth (+0.89), and Wenzl lost steam to finish sixth (+1.59). That would be the end of the road for those four, as Northug placed seventh overall, Newell eighth for his best result of the season, and Chernousov ninth.
“I should have been just a tiny bit more aggressive to get into the top two but our skis were running so fast I thought I would have been able to get around people at the bottom,” Newell said. “I guess that’s what cost me from going into the final. I’m sure Northug and I were probably pretty close. I don’t know what the times were. I’m bummed not be in the final, but, oh well.”
Hamilton realized his plan of skiing one hill better than anyone else “in terms of being able to conserve energy and stay relaxed” backfired a bit in his semifinal, when he didn’t create enough of a gap over to the top of the hill. That allowed guys like Harvey to get into his slipstream.
“Going into the final I knew I was a little more tired than I had been earlier so I was focused on getting a good position within the pack, either second or third, and just kind of conserving energy, getting a good draft on the downhill, and then when I needed to make a move, put some pressure on,” Hamilton said.
He essentially did that, initially following Pellegrino — who leapt out to the front off the start — and Krogh, who quickly reined Pellegrino back in. Harvey put himself third around the first corner behind Krogh and Pellegrino, with Hamilton right there in fourth, along with Halfvarsson and Northug, respectively. On a downhill, Harvey dropped to fifth ahead of Northug, while Krogh and Pellegrino duked it out on the first part of the ensuing climb.
The two nearly tangled when Pellegrino nicked Krogh’s ski, but pushed on as Hamilton followed in third. With Pellegrino leading, Hamilton followed Krogh toward the second tier.
“Finn kind of died on that very last steep pitch up and over the bridge,” Hamilton recalled. “We came down on the first part of the downhill and I thought Federico Pellegrino had definitely just wrapped it up at that point. So I was focused on just what I could do to ski for second or third.”
Before he knew it, Hamilton said he and Krogh were back within striking distance after catching Pellegrino’s draft. Zooming around the last corner, Hamilton started coming up on Pellegrino quickly and searched for an opening to make a move.
“I just went for it, getting through without tripping on any poles or anything,” Hamilton said. “The last 100 meters I focused on skiing powerfully and quick tempo and smooth and good balance.”
Seconds later, he had done it — winning his first World Cup event (technically a stage as its worth half the points, but an ample amount of cash around $3370 dollars) in 2:37.02 — and becoming the first American man to win a Tour de Ski stage in the eight years of its existence.
Right behind him, Harvey and Sundby had slingshot from behind to overtake both Pellegrino and Krogh, beating them both to the finish for second (+0.32) and third (+0.74), respectively. Pellegrino took fourth (+0.94), Krogh was fifth (+1.61), and Halfvarsson sixth (+2.96).
For Harvey, second place was exactly what he needed to keep the leader’s bib, putting him 22.7 seconds ahead of Halfvarsson and 27 seconds up on Sundby in third. Northug improved to fourth overall, Sweden’s Jens Eriksson is currently fifth, and Newell sits in sixth with one race left in his journey through the Tour. Krogh ranks seventh and Canadian Devon Kershaw slipped from third to eighth after failing to qualify in 56th on Tuesday.
“It is awesome to have the leaders bib,” Harvey said. “Every day I start with it on my shoulders is extra special. … Lots of people are fighting to grab the bib from me so it is special to keep putting it on. Who knows – maybe that even makes me go faster.
“Outside the World Championships and Olympics, the Tour de Ski is the next biggest thing for us,” Harvey added. ‘I can take a lot of confidence into the Olympics this year knowing that I have been able to get on the podium when the lights are shining and everyone is racing in their top form.”
“You start to realize what you’ve done. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.” — Simi Hamilton
Moments after the finish, Hamilton and Harvey grabbed hold of their respective nations’ flags and skied together backward down the final stretch. They smiled and hugged each other, living in the moment and soaking up the jovial atmosphere all around them. Hamilton almost looked starry eyed.
“It’s hard to put the feelings into words,” Hamilton said. “I’ve just had texts and emails and tweets pouring in from friends and family and supporters … You start to realize what you’ve done. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. I’m just so psyched right now.”
Kikkan Randall, who opted out of this year’s Tour to train in nearby Davos, has won two Tour de Ski stages, but remains the only American to have won a race in the multi-stage event.
“I’m in very good company for sure; Kikkan is a hero to us as U.S. skiers,” Hamilton told FIS.
“I felt really good waking up this morning and knew that it was going to be a good day and decided to kind of go for it with guns blazing from the very start,” he said. “It turned out pretty well and I’m pretty ecstatic for sure.”
Aside from Hamilton, four USST members made the rounds, all hailing from the SMST2 Team. Jessie Diggins finished fifth in her quarterfinal for 21st, Sophie Caldwell made her first final for a career-best sixth place, and Newell ended up eighth on the day.
“Both the guys were poised to have good races,” USST head coach Chris Grover said on the phone. “We definitely had an average day in the second day in Oberhof, so you saw that a little bit reflected in their stronger performance today. … Because a snow squall came in that really affected skiers with start numbers 30 through 60 [on Sunday] … he never had an chance to show what he could do in Oberhof.”
In terms of New Year’s celebrations, well, the Tour isn’t exactly designed for that with 10/15 k classic mass starts on Tuesday.
“There probably wont be too much celebrating in terms of the traditional New Year’s celebration, but we’ll save that for another night,” Hamilton said.
Wednesday’s classic races in Lenzerheide in Stage 4 mark the first of two classic events in this edition of the Tour. Hamilton planned to race, then head back to Davos (just 30 minutes away) after that to train for the next World Cup races Jan. 11-12 in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
– Lander Karath and Pasha Kahn contributed reporting