At the beginning of every mass start classic race, there are several points when the number of available lanes diminishes, and racers must scramble to find a new spot in the tracks. Starting lines 10-plus lanes wide must funnel down to two in a matter of a few hundred meters. Sometimes, a field of 100 athletes can make it through each transition with minimal collision. The men’s SuperTour 10 k classic in Lake Elmo, Minn. on Saturday was not one of those races.
Between 20 and 30 athletes went down in a pile-up within the first 100 meters, including eventual winner Dylan McGuffin (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) and runner-up Matt Liebsch (Team Strong Heart/Team Birkie). Karl Nygren (Central Cross Country), who ended in third, managed to escape the carnage and led the race for the first few kilometers.
“Luckily I didn’t break anything, it just took me 3 k to catch back up,” said McGuffin said on Saturday afternoon.
Though it happened too fast for him to know exactly how the pile-up began, Liebsch recalled somehow getting tripped up when he and the skier next to him moved to take the same lane at the first point that tracks disappeared.
McGuffin escaped with his equipment intact, but at its epicenter, Liebsch took the full force of the ensuing pile-up.
“I got hit from behind by about 30 kids,” said Liebsch. “I used my body as a shield, so when I finally felt confident I was in the clear, I put my pole down and someone shot their ski into it.”
After finding a replacement pole, Liebsch began working his way back from the back of the pack. He was so far behind, he “treated it as an interval start at that point.”
The tangle put all skiers who went down at a disadvantage, but McGuffin said he remained fairly confident he could weave his way back to the front.
“After I’d started skiing a little bit, I knew I’d catch back up. The race went out fairly slow, and I just made sure I didn’t panic; didn’t get too excited,” he said.
The pace may have started slow, but the bonus sprint 4.5 k into the race ensured that it would soon pick up. With additional Tour points on the line (15, 10 and 5 for first, second and third), Nygren said the pace got going heading into the climb to the bonus checkpoint.
“It spiced things up—going for the [sprint] made it no man’s land,” said Nygren.
Pat O’Brien (CGRP) took the 15-point bonus and Nygren took the extra 10. After the second lap, the pace cooled down as the leaders recovered from the intermediate surge, which may have been just what McGuffin and Liebsch needed to reel the race back in.
“I caught the main pack just as people broke off the front to go for [the sprint],” said McGuffin.
With a big gap between the top three and the rest of the field after the bonus, McGuffin passed the checkpoint in fourth, in the lead of the chase group.
“I just went with it—I pushed off the front, and then caught and passed the three guys that had initially broken off,” he said.
Back in contention, McGuffin said he essentially led the race for the final two laps.
“It was kind of an interesting course, I don’t think I’ve ever done one quite like it—pretty punchy, short hills, and then the rest was just double poling,” said McGuffin. “So it was basically herring bone or double poling the whole time.”
With 500 m to go, Liebsch finally climbed his way back to the front of the race on the last uphill into the finish. As the group crested the top, Liebsch decided to go for it and took the lead.
McGuffin didn’t let him get too far in front, however, and closed back the gap on the following downhill into the stadium. In a lunge for the line, he edged Liebsch by a tenth of a second.
“I’m pretty psyched,” said McGuffin of his first win of the season. “It was sort of unexpected, so it felt good.”
Liebsch, who had hoped for a top-20 in the immediate aftermath of his crash, was upbeat in light of the photo-finish.
“I hoped there was enough in the tank—they said it was a tenth of a second, but it was more like two inches,” he said. “I made the mistake of looking over—you’re supposed to race to ten feet beyond the finish line!”
The mass start classic race was the fourth event of the five-race Tour. Racing resumes again on Sunday with a freestyle pursuit based on skiers’ times from Saturday. The overall points leader after five races—not the best time composite, as in the Tour de Ski—takes the Tour win and a $3,000 purse.
Note: This article has been updated.