Andy Newell didn’t have time to make a game plan. It all came kind of naturally.
The 27-year-old U.S. Ski Team veteran (who also skis for the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) was pretty busy worrying about whether he’d have enough time to warm up for the inaugural WinSport Frozen Thunder Classic on Friday, and how late that school bus he was following was going to make him.
Turns out he had just enough time after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finished testing him that morning for a urine and blood sample at his team’s lodging in Canmore. With 25 minutes or so to test skis at the Canmore Nordic Centre, Newell quickly decided his classics weren’t going to work for him.
And so he shaped the fate of the race, winning the 1.8-kilometer classic qualifier by more than nine seconds on skate skis in 3:36.47. Even with a sizable, two-tiered hill near the end, double poling made the difference. A few others used skate skis as well, such Mikey Sinnott and some of his Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation teammates, but Newell said they were the exception.
It stopped snowing after the preliminaries, and Newell switched to classic skis on the straight hard-wax day. He won both his heats before throwing his competitors for a loop and clicking into skates for the final.
There, he hammered away once more, beating Canadian National Team member Devon Kershaw by nearly four seconds in 3:32.10. Kris Freeman of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and Maine Winter Sports Center was third, 4.47 seconds back, and Skyler Davis (USST/SMS) was fourth (+10.68).
“It was always kind of my plan, as long as my arms were holding up, to switch back to skate skis for the final just because, I don’t know, it’s kind of fun to do something different,” Newell said on the phone from Canmore.
Facing Kershaw, Freeman and Davis in the A-final, Newell reasoned that if he could get ahead early and hold his own with the leaders to the top of the last hill – the highest point of the course – he could win it.
Kershaw knew it, too. Confident in his decision to stay on classic skis from the qualifier on, in which he was third behind Alberta World Cup Academy skier Phil Widmer, the overall World Cup runner-up wasn’t so sure of himself at the start of the final – especially when he saw Newell in his skate gear.
“He double poled the qualifier and then he was striding the heats, so I’m like, ‘This makes sense, I feel like the course is speeding up, and Andy switched back to classic skis,” Kershaw recalled thinking.
Things went well enough for Kershaw in the heats; he beat Freeman by nearly a second in the quarterfinal and six-tenths of a second in the semi. Every time, he said he made the same move to gap the field and had a comfortable double pole to the finish. Why then, would he mix it up in the final?
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth advised him to.
“He was just like, ‘I think maybe use skate skis for the final, man. You were nine seconds down in the qualifier and you had a fine, OK qualifier. It’s way faster to double pole,’ ” Kershaw said. “I’m like, ‘I really think it’s speeding up,’ but it absolutely wasn’t. I think that was pretty obvious in the final that it wasn’t.”
When he glanced over at Newell and realized he switched back, Kershaw had a flashback to the times he was on the World Cup start line in skate equipment when everyone else was using classic skis, and he’d end up fifth or sixth.
“So I kind of had to laugh at myself, like, hey, I’m 29. Just start double poling, man” Kershaw said.
Within 30 seconds, he could see how the race was going to play out.
“Andy out-foxed me, for sure,” Kershaw said. “I made a mistake. … The gap he had was insane. I’m like, ‘OK, it is way faster.’ It’s like two different races, so oops.”
The final started out with Kershaw and Davis chasing hard after Newell, while Freeman initially fell behind.
“I’m not known for my world-class speed so off the line I was not doing fantastic,” Freeman said.
Kershaw caught Newell on the final climb, but as soon as Newell crested the top and went into a tuck, it was all over. At that point, Kershaw said he would have needed to be at least five seconds ahead, but he wasn’t. Newell won by 3.83 seconds.
Freeman, who was sixth in the qualifier and second after Kershaw in both heats, tried closed the gap on Kershaw, but ran out of time. At the top of the last hill, Freeman estimated he was about 1 ½ seconds behind, and he finished 0.64 seconds after Kershaw.
“On the World Cup [Newell and Kershaw] are known as being some of the best sprinters in the world,” Freeman said. “I don’t like to lose, but being beaten by them isn’t the worst thing.”
While he didn’t use skate skis, either, he said Newell was smart to do so.
“It kind of changed the complexion of the final,” Freeman said. “Devon and I were just chasing the whole time.”
Davis wrote in an email that he fell off the pace at the top of the last climb in the final and missed the draft. The 21-year-old discussed using skates with his Stratton coach, Gus Kaeding, but they decided he should work on his striding.
“Newell is also just really fast,” Davis wrote. “Probably should have just gone with [the skate skis] in the final, but it was all good.”
Several of the 45 men who raced the qualifier probably thought the same thing. However, in most cases, nobody was on their best racing skis (Davis was grateful to borrow Freeman’s pair). According to Davis, his team raced on LF6, as did the Canadians. It was only an October time trial, after all.
After nearly three weeks of intense training with the USST between Canmore and Park City, Utah, Newell was simply glad he felt so well.
“It’s still encouraging to feel fast and pretty good during sprint even after putting in a lot of training,” Newell said. “It’s fun to start off the year with a win even if it is a low-key race.”