ERZURUM, Turkey —No matter what the level or competition, mass starts have a tendency to separate the men from the boys. Saturday’s 30 k skiathlon at U23 World Championships was no different—and with the top 11 U23s on the FIS ranking list present at Kandlilli for the skiathlon, the competition was certainly stacked.
After over an hour of alternately hammering and dogging the pace, the lead pack got serious in the final kilometers. Russia’s Raul Shakirzianov led the way into the stadium with a sizeable but not untouchable lead. He took the win by 0.9 seconds, with places two through eight all within 1.1 seconds of each other. Thursday’s 10 k classic winner, Evgeniy Belov (RUS) took second and Hannes Dotzler was third (+1.1).
As the eighth seed on Saturday, Shakirzianov was a relative unknown, but skied within striking distance for the entire course and put himself in a position to make a move on the eighth and final lap—much later than he had been planning on.
“Me and my teammates were planning to break away in the classical part of the competition but we did not make it,” said Shakirzianov. “Then it was clear the race would be very tactical until the finish line.”
Belov, who led for a good portion of the race, tried to force the skiers trailing him to take turns pulling from the front, but they did not always oblige. Noah Hoffman (USA) staunchly sat in second or third behind the leaders for nearly the entire race, and declined to take the lead when Belov pulled up and waved him ahead.
“It was not a fast pace; we were pretty relaxed,” said Hoffman. “I tried not to take the lead, and [Belov] wasn’t too happy about that at times, but I pretty much just sat in near the front.”
Hoffman appeared to be in control and biding his time for a gold-medal effort, but as the final lap approached, he knew he had to perfectly calculate his move in order to have a shot at winning. Hoffman is not a sprinter, and knew he wouldn’t stand a chance in a sprint finish. On the other hand, if he went too early in an attempt to put himself out of reach, he risked running out of gas before the finish line.
“I tried to make a move on lap five, and maybe got a couple of meters ahead, but I wasn’t sure if I could hold it till the end—I didn’t want to go backwards through that whole back,” said Hoffman. “So I let them back on, and was going to try the same move on the next lap’s big uphill, but just didn’t feel like I had quite enough at that point.”
Shakirzianov and Belov eventually moved back in front of Hoffman, and when Shakirzianov began to pull away, Belov didn’t respond.
“You know, it’s his teammate, so [Belov] didn’t chase him,” said Hoffman.
As Shakirzianov put on more distance, Hoffman tried to get around Belov to chase him, but “I didn’t have enough to get on him at that point. Those guys are fast sprinters,” he said.
After the winner, the next seven places came down to the wire. Seven skiers lunging within a second of each other was too close to immediately tell the outcome, and after his name appeared on the jumbotron in eighth position, Hoffman threw his equipment to the ground in frustration.
“I’ve got to be better than being last of the people sprinting for the win, or for second,” said Hoffman after skiing a cool down. “I knew if I couldn’t get away, it was going to be a sprint finish, and I know that’s not my strong point.”
“I’m not sure at this point how I do better in terms of how I win the race, because I felt like I was strong enough to do that. You live and learn—next time I’ll try something different.”
Skiing near the front like he did is one part of his race Hoffman wouldn’t change, however.
“I find it easier [up front]—the pace, less surges, more consistent, less tangles, easier to move around—I just prefer it up there. When the pace was slow like today and it’s easy to get up there, there’s no reason no to be [leading].
Killick Hangs With Leaders, Finishes 15th Despite Falls
A few positions behind Hoffman, Graeme Killick (CAN) skied a strong race, and sat in the top 10 on the second skate lap before falling on an icy inside corner as he tried to make a pass.
“I just lost all my speed, and tried to keep fro breaking anything with all those guys coming by,” said Killick. “It was just a struggle to bridge back because they really started attacking at that point.”
As skiers fell off the pack, Killick picked a few off again, but on the final uphill before the descent to the stadium, he misplanted a pole on his boot and went down again. He ended up finishing 15th (+44.1).
Killick’s race experience was slightly different than the leaders’, as the alternately slowing and speeding pace set at the front created an accordion effect further back in the pack.
“It was really up and down—once in a while they’d accelerate quite a bit, then other times it’d just be standing there,” said Killick. “The pace was all over the place, which made it sort of tough in the back, it kind of bunched up and then you’d have to sprint over the top of the hill.”
Overall, Killick said he’s happy with race, but regretted taking two costly spills.
“It was too bad I couldn’t stay on my feet a little more, maybe I would have gotten a top 10,” he said.
After Killick, Jesse Cockney (CAN) was 29th (+3:45.4), David Greer (CAN) came in 35th (4:39.7), and Christopher Hamilton was 40th (+6:20.0).
The other two Americans who started the skiathlon dropped out—Ryan Scott was pulled from after getting lapped and Eric Packer dropped out after throwing up at about 12 k.
“I think I ate something this morning,” said Packer, who didn’t feel anything wrong until 3 k into the race.
Erik Bjornsen (USA) woke up with a cold on Saturday morning and scratched; Reese Hanneman couldn’t take his place as the morning-of was too late to submit a new starter.