WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — Weeks of altitude training clearly paid off for Matt Liebsch (Borton Volvo XC United) in the first race of the year. The pride of the Midwest won the SuperTour 9 k freestyle on Friday morning on a fast but challenging point-to-point course looking like he had gas left in the tank. Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) followed him by 5.5 seconds and Mike Sinnott (SVSEF) came through 8.4 seconds back for bronze.
“I felt like I just raced really well. It was a fun day,” Liebsch said.
It was one of those races that left athletes alone with nothing but the pain of 7,000 feet to keep them company. If you’d forgotten what race pace felt like in the months since March, you were reminded in full force on Friday. The corduroy was crisp and the course winding; most skiers coming up the final hill of the Whisky Trail looked pretty blown out from 20-odd minutes of gradual to steep climbing.
A few, however, — Liebsch, Gelso and Sinnott among them — kept their pacing under control and skied impressively strong V2s into the final chute. Prior to starting, Liebsch’s plan had been to get out quickly, then conserve, and have something left for the end.
“The first two kilometers were pretty fast and flat, so I wanted to ski that really big and eat up some seconds there and then take it easy on that first little climb,” Liebsch said. “Then cruise, notch it back for that middle climbing section and then, off the top, really hammer until the final climb.”
As the first starter in the A-seed, splits were essentially meaningless to Liebsch when he was able to hear them.
“I really didn’t listen for anything, I was just kind of in the zone,” he said. “I just went as hard as I could.”
The race was a major focal point of Liebsch’s season. His goals include returning to the international circuit and qualifying for the Canmore World Cup in December, and if he has a comparably strong result next weekend in Bozeman, he’ll be going.
“I already have lodging and a flight booked up there,” he said. “It’s not to be like, ‘I’m going to make it,’ but it’s on my list of things to make. I figured the only way I wasn’t going to go was if I’d gotten sick out here.”
How’s he feeling after Friday’s result? “I’m excited,” Liebsch said.
Not far behind him, Gelso had similarly high expectations for the first race of the year.
“I was expecting to be up there in the top five — I didn’t want to be fourth, that’s for sure,” Gelso said. “I thought if I was able to get my race gear going then I definitely should be up there.”
Which is just what he did. On brand new skis, Gelso thought he had the “right tempo and right technique,” to put together a good first result. The race was over before he knew it, as Friday’s cooler temperatures made the snow faster than it had been all week.
“I heard people say so many times today that they thought there was one more hill… People were coming up the last hill thinking there was one more pitch, and then: oops, this is it. Then it was: go really hard into the finish,” Gelso said.
Sun Valley time trialed the course on Tuesday, and Sinnott said he, too was surprised to find himself at the end so quickly.
“I still thought I had another hill; I just didn’t have it well memorized,” he said. Still, Sinnott felt strong and fit, and thought the race went well.
“Any kind of podium is a good start,” he said. “[World Cup] qualifying is going to be tight and every race matters, so I’m happy to have a good start to the year.”
SVSEF coach Colin Rogers said his athletes were right where he thought they should be, as his whole team is aiming for Canada.
“I always have high expectations for my team because they’re all good athletes, so I’m psyched they could have good efforts today,” Rogers said. “My whole team for sure has high expectations for trying to make the teams [in Canada]. All you can do is race as fast as you can, but I think everybody’s in a pretty good place.”
The top three put a sizeable gap on the rest of the field. Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) skied to a fourth-place finish (+32.0) and felt his performance was a “pretty good” start to the season.
“I didn’t push it quite hard enough in the middle; I guess I was trying to stay relaxed and the finish came before I was ready,” Bjornsen said.
On the uniquely challenging terrain he wanted to get out in a comfortable V2. “It’s altitude so I can’t do what I normally do when I’m racing and punch it over the tops. I have to stay consistent and get in a rhythm; do what feels comfortable,” he said.
Less than a second behind Bjornsen, University of Denver skier Andrew Dougherty posted the top collegiate result in fifth (+32.8).
Fourth through tenth place finished a close 7.5 seconds within each other. Brian Gregg (Central Cross Country) took sixth overall (+33.1) and was satisfied with his race given that he was sick earlier this week.
“Matt [Liebsch] started right ahead of me and he was way up, so it was kind of hard to tell what was going on,” Gregg said. “I’ve always liked climbing, but there’s a fair amount of V2 up here if you’re skiing strong. Liebsch V2ed the whole thing; I had to bust out some V1.”
SuperTour racing will resume on Saturday with a point-to-point sprint prologue on the Plateau. (The race won’t count for World Cup qualifying).
Alex Matthews contributed reporting.