ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Separated by 30 seconds at the start, nearly 70 men in Saturday’s 15.9-kilometer freestyle raced around Kincaid Park individually on Saturday in the SuperTour Finals opener.
One by one, they ascended massive hills, like Elliott’s Climb at the end of each 5.3 k lap, and descended a winding section of the course known as S Turns. They made their way back to the stadium World Cup start area via trails named Burky’s Climb and Roller Coaster.
Some made up ground on their competitors; others lost it.
With one lap to go, it was pretty obvious which side of that Noah Hoffman of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), Ski & Snowboard Club Vail and Team HomeGrown was on.
Watching him climb Elliott’s the second time around 10 k was unlike anyone else. Scott Patterson of the University of Vermont (UVM) led Hoffman by half a second after the first 5 k loop, then fell behind by 4.6 seconds by the end of the second.
“There’s no recovery out there,” Hoffman said after the race. “You’ve got to work the whole thing. The downhills are turny, really require you to work, but for the most part it’s just rolling terrain and no big uphills, no big downhills, quite different than anything I’ve raced [overseas] all year. It was fun.”
With about 5 k to go, Hoffman, 25, put the hammer down on the hills he knew were his strength. The lone skier at Spring Series from his Colorado club, Hoffman stood out in white — and in his ability to attack when most were visibly slowing.
“My strategy was try just to ski really high energy but keep it relaxed, knowing that I couldn’t really go over the line because there was no place to recover,” Hoffman said. “There were limited opportunities out there to attack on the uphills so I had to really focus when I did have that opportunity.”
Hoffman continued to gap Patterson, a UVM senior from Anchorage, on the final lap and ultimately beat him by 10.9 seconds for a victory in his first SuperTour Finals since 2012.
“I knew I was close to Scott,” Hoffman said. “I was getting word out there, ‘Tied! Up by two, down by two,’ so I knew it was a close race and you’ve just got to work for every second out there and see what happens.”
While Patterson gave Hoffman a run, nobody else came too close. Erik Bjornsen of Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the USST was in a three-way fight for third with Patrick Johnson (Far West Elite Team) and David Norris (Montana State University) with one lap to go.
Bjornsen ended up third, 59.3 seconds behind Hoffman and 3.1 second ahead of Norris in fourth, and said he lost time on the second loop and didn’t have the finishing punch he’s used to.
“I really didn’t find that top gear in the last lap that I was looking for, so that was a little disappointing,” Bjornsen said.
But a podium is a podium at a race series that ranks right up there with U.S. nationals prestige (on March 28, the 30 and 50 k classic mass starts will serve as U.S. Distance Nationals).
“It’s been cool this year going to the Olympics,” Bjornsen said. “I think Anchorage has started to notice my name. Just a ton of fans out there. It was so fun.
“I thought I was fourth,” he continued. “I’m happy with [third]. … It’s a tough race. You’ve just got to keep working the whole time and keep moving. As soon as you kind of rest or chill for a little bit I think you lose a lot of time.”
“I think Anchorage has started to notice my name. Just a ton of fans out there. It was so fun.” — Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST), third in SuperTour Finals 15 k freestyle
Patterson didn’t let off the brakes, especially with Anchorage spectators lining the course, but thought he came undone a little bit on the final climb. At the halfway point, he recalled being two seconds ahead of Hoffman in the lead — an accomplishment for any non-USST member, let alone a college racer.
“It seemed like every person was giving me splits, every volunteer was cheering for me so it was pretty cool. Definitely had a good crowd out there that knew me well,” he said.
“Scott’s a great skier, I’ve known that for a long time,” Hoffman said. “It was never a guarantee I’m going to win this race. I’m just glad to edge it out. I hope to ski Scott at the World Cup level sometime soon.”
If Patterson, the younger of the two siblings at the Finals (Caitlin of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project is the other), has his way, that’s exactly how his career will go down. The first step is not being intimidated by a USST athlete. The second: learn how to deal with limited splits on when you start ahead of the person you’re trying to chase down.
“It was hard to kind of know — up, down, going back and forth — so I tried to push it in, but I was a little slow on the last hill,” Patterson said. “He definitely picked it up towards the end.”
For Hoffman, the attack made all the difference. Besides Patterson and Bjornsen on the podium, Hoffman beat everyone else by more than a minute. Norris was fourth (+1:02.4), Lex Treinen (APU) fifth (+1:06.2). Johnson placed sixth, Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) took seventh, Reese Hanneman (APU) was eighth, Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) ninth, and the former APU skier Mark Iverson (Rossignol) 10th.
Hoffman and Bjornsen were among four in the top eight getting wax help from APU this week, including Norris and Hanneman.
“I don’t really know how my fitness is at the moment; it was a lot of travel,” Hoffman said after flying from Sweden to Anchorage earlier this week. “I’ve been sleeping pretty well for the most part this week, but it’s a hard transition, it’s also just been a long season.”