CANMORE, Alberta — While the United states women’s cross-country team turned in one historic performance after another in the early part of the 2013 season, the men struggled to find top form and post strong results of their own.
Not that there is any competition as the men have repeatedly spoken of the inspiration of their female counterparts, and on Sunday, for the first time this season, they their own collective day in the sun.
Noah Hoffman led the U.S. in 8th, closely followed by teammate Kris Freeman in 10th. Both men spent the entire race in the main pack, and were just seconds off the podium. Add in Tad Elliott in 28th, and the team thad three skiers in the points.
After the completion of the 30km skiathlon, Freeman tried to recall a better day in his World Cup career.
“I think this is the first time in the twelve years I’ve been racing that we’ve had two in the top ten,” Freeman said, including only distance results in his tally.
“Swenson and I had some good days, but I think the best we ever did together was 11 and 14. Maybe 6th and 14th,” he continued, referring to former U.S. Ski Team (USST) member and Olympian Carl Swenson. “But we never had two in the top ten so this is pretty cool.”
“We felt like we would have some success in this first period…it just took a little while for the guys to get into it,” USST Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier.
He pointed to Andy Newell’s consecutive 5th place finishes in the Canadian sprint races as kicking things off for the squad.
All three of the top men in Sunday’s race skipped the Quebec City sprint weekend, with Hoffman and Freeman heading to Aspen, Colorado for some training at altitude, a move that Grover said “was a big part of allowing them to be successful.”
Hoffman spent the race toward the front of the pack, usually in the top five. This was intentional — the 23-year-old does not like the stop and start characteristic of the back of World Cup packs.
“He likes to ski a more even pace,” Grover said, saying the strategy was of Hoffman’s devising.
Freeman prefers the opposite, opting to “be sucked along in the draft.” He was aware of where Hoffman was, however.
“I kept looking up and seeing Hoff banging it out in front,” Freeman said. “It was great.”
The two train together regularly, with the younger skier sometimes putting the hurt on the veteran Freeman.
“Sometimes he kicks my butt in training and I’m like, ‘oh man.’” Freeman continued. “But when you know the guy who kicks your butt can get 8th in the world, you’re like ‘ok that’s all right.'”
While a number of top athletes were missing from the field, a fact Hoffman recognized when evaluationg his place, the fact remains that both he and Freeman skied in the pack for the entire race.
USST coach Matt Whitcomb was not worried to see Hoffman at the front. From his trailside vantage point he was in position to “get a feeling for the breathing and the level of anguish.”
“He was looking around, not wanting to lead the whole time, taking turns, switching it around,” Whitcomb said. “That is always a good sign with the Hoff, rather than just grabbing at straws, hoping to just stay with the pack…There was no hoping. He knew.”
Whitcomb points to technical improvements, as well as some modifications to his boots, as factors in Hoffman’s breakthrough.
Both Freeman and Hoffman felt the pace was manageable.
“I felt nice and calm and controlled the whole way,” Freeman said.
The classic loop featured the biggest climbs of the Canmore courses, while the skate was more flowing.
Hoffman described the course as “one that really builds on itself,” and was ultimately “unrelenting,” especially with the altitude factor.
“The pace didin’t feel super hard early on but by the end…you were feeling the 30 k with those hills,” Hoffman said.
In the skate there were several surges that left Freeman “worrying a little bit,” but the race “chilled out” again before a major attack on the last climb to the top of the course.
After a long descent, one last shorter hill remained, and then the big drop into the stadium for a fast finish.
Starting from further back when the race accelerated, Freeman moved up on the final pitch, closing on Hoffman.
“I was closing on him in the last hill and I was like, ‘oh he looks ragged’, but then I realized I wasn’t putting any time on him. Started thinking I must be looking pretty ragged too,” Freeman said.
Hoffman said he was “hurting up there” on the final lap, but in another positive sign, he held is position in the homestretch, an unusual feat given his poor sprinting speed.
After watching the sprint races, he knew what to expect from the last 500 meters, and opted to ride his tuck longer.
“At the end of a 30k it’s not quite the same as a sprint at the end of a sprint race,” he explained. “I was just trying to stay smooth and push hard and hold my position.”
Moving forward he hopes to reach the point where he can be picking up places in the final 200 meters, but for now he is satisfied to hold off threats from behind.
Freeman did one better, moving up a spot when he got by Italian Giorgio DiCenta at the line to move into the top ten.
In addition to earning 32 World Cup points for his finish position, Hoffman picked up another 20 during the race.
There were four preems on the course, each worth 15 points for first, down to 1 for 10th.
Hoffman intentionally ignored the first one on lap two, letting others go by, a move he termed “the right call.” In Thursday’s 15km classic, he was more agressive at the early preem and paid a price.
But at each successive bonus he picked up the pace, ranking 8th, 5th and 3rd.
“I’m blown away at how well he skied and how he stayed out of trouble and skied really smooth and how confident he skied,” Grover said of Hoffman.
Elliott joined Hoffman at the front early in the race, but was unable to hold on.
“I know I can skate with those guys so I was really digging tough and then bonked a little bit,” Elliott said. “I really went under to try to stay in that group.”
He added that he is missing his “top-end gear in classic,” so adjusted his strategy accordingly, moving up on the flats and downs, and then drifting back on the climbs.
When the pace increased on the final classic loop, he couldn’t respond, and ended off by himself for most of the skate.
“Not ideal!” he said emphatically of that situation, but he recovered from his earlier effort and skated his way back into the top-30.
“Hopefully we are taking a cue from our women and maybe later in the year I can join Kris and Hoff up there in the top 15,” Elliott said.
He feels like he is still looking for his top form after a rough start to the season, but sees himself on an upward trajectory.
Hoffman headed out on Monday for Vermont to do some work with coach Zach Caldwell, while Freeman flew to Europe, where he will prepare for the Tour de Ski in Davos.
Hoffman will join Freeman on the Tour while Elliott will race at U.S. Nationals at Soldier Hollow.
All three see good things ahead for the men’s team, though finding consistency is nevery easy on the World Cup.
“I’m still looking for that elusive podium, but its coming,” Freeman concluded. “I’ve been praying for a teammate that can push me for the whole time I’ve been here, and I’ve got that now so I’m pretty psyched.”
More information on Hoffman’s and Freeman’s races can be found in the full race report.
– Alex Matthews contributed reporting.