FasterSkier’s coverage of SuperTour Finals and U.S. Distance Nationals is brought to you by the generous support of Concept2, the leading manufacturer of indoor rowers, racing oars, and the SkiErg.
SODA SPRINGS, Calif. — When Andy Newell (SMS T2/U.S. Ski Team) shows up to a sprint in the U.S., his name carries a certain cache with it. As the fifth-ranked sprinter on the World Cup this season and the only man in the world to qualify for the heats in every sprint he started, he is undoubtedly the standard-bearer in short distances whenever he returns to the domestic circuit. His name precedes him; Newell’s younger competitors grew up with posters of him on their walls, and when they meet him in an A-final they plan their entire strategies around him.
“I remember my first Andy Newell poster I got in, like, elementary school,” says Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/USST), a teammate of Newell’s on the national team. “I remember my friends and I talking about him in school, like, ‘That guy’s such a badass!’”
There may come a day when one of the upstart generation of American sprinters upsets him, but Saturday was not that day. Four rounds of the sprint course later and Newell lived up to his reputation, winning the third stage of SuperTour Finals in commanding fashion against Pat O’Brien (Craftsbury Green Racing Project), Bjornsen, Tim Reynolds (CGRP), Rune Ødegård (University of Colorado) and Mike Sinnott (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) in the A-final.
It’s been two years since Newell last entered a sprint race in the U.S., as he was sick for spring series a year ago, but he picked up right where he left off in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2011. Based on his track record, the casual observer might conclude that Newell’s win was a sure thing at the Auburn Ski Club; that nobody in the domestic field could hope to touch someone who has been competing on the World Cup since he was 20 years old and has since proven himself to be one of the most consistent sprinters in the world.
But Newell has been around long enough to know that losing is always a possibility, no matter what the field. His finish in the prologue in variable conditions put him nearly a minute out of the lead and limited his chances at winning the four-race tour on day one. Forced to shift focus from the SuperTour Finals title to individual races, Newell showed up for the sprint aware that nothing is ever a sure thing, particularly against a rabid domestic group of skiers.
“There’s a lot of good sprinters in the U.S.,” Newell said. “Obviously qualification isn’t quite as competitive as the World Cup, but when you’re racing heats against these people it’s like, anybody can win. It’s sprint racing; so much can happen out on the snow. A lot of these guys are really fast. So I wouldn’t say I expect to win, but I definitely go into a sprint in the U.S. hoping to win.”
From word ‘go’ in the qualifying round through to the A-final, Newell made his supremacy known. He was one of a small set of athletes with the confidence to start the preliminary round on skate skis in conditions that were changing and softening in steadily falling snow, and on a course with two serious climbs to boot. Newell’s double-pole is unparalleled in this field, however, and it was clearly the right choice for him — he won a three-minute qualifier by five seconds over CU’s Gustav Nordstroem to start the day.
In the heats, Newell played a more tactical game. Back on classic skis, he took second behind O’Brien in each round and never used more energy than he needed to advance.
For the final, both Newell and O’Brien went in with a good idea of what the other would do. O’Brien was riding the high of an unanticipated late-season resurgence and “really good” skis, and led each of the early heats from start to finish. He left the start line knowing he wanted to get out fast enough to pick his own lane again after the scrub zone, as a difference in track speed developed as the day wore on.
Newell, for his part, guessed O’Brien would go to the front early again, and planned to tuck in behind him down the descent out of the stadium and take control on the climbs.
“I was thinking I wanted to conserve as much energy as possible, but that didn’t really happen,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know; it was just kind of racehorse instincts. I wanted to try to take it pretty easy, but it was also pretty easy to ski from the front there and be able to choose your own lines.”
With O’Brien out front, Newell was able to decide when to ramp up his own power output. He made his move on the first climb and O’Brien was unable to respond; nor was Reynolds, Bjornsen, Ødegård or Sinnott in line behind them. When Newell emerged from the woods and climbed the hill back into the stadium, he had an even bigger lead than he had expected.
“I was able to choose my own line and was able to get my own track on the uphill, which is what I wanted to do,” Newell said. “I just put my head down and went, and I didn’t know I had such a big lead because I was hammering into the first part of the stadium. I looked back and I couldn’t see anybody. So I guess it worked out.”
O’Brien expected the move when it came, but was to gassed to respond.
“He opened up a little bit over the top and I just couldn’t quite close him,” O’Brien said. “I knew that’s how he’d been skiing the quarter and semis, so I knew he was going to go there and I expected it, I just couldn’t really match it.”
O’Brien hung on long enough to hold onto second, and behind him Bjornsen passed Reynolds and Ødegård in the final straight to claw his way onto the podium. Reynolds skied across the line in fourth for his best result of the year, Ødegård held on to fifth and Sinnott took sixth.
Finishing second to someone like Newell left O’Brien extremely pleased with the way the end of his season has been going.
“It’s a really good feeling,” O’Brien said. “It’s been a tough winter and I haven’t really felt myself. So to come out here to altitude, where I normally struggle, and feel good on the last three races…I’m super happy with today.”
Bjornsen, winner of the prologue and runner-up in the 15 k, was ecstatic with third. Slow skis left him far off the pace in fifth at the furthest point on the course, at which point he nearly gave up on the idea of a top-three. He had asked for more kick before the start of the A-final, and the extra wax slowed him down on the flats.
“I really had to work on the double-pole section, and I actually got to the far end of the course and I was like, ‘I think my day is over,’” Bjornsen said. “But no, I started gaining back on the first hill and coming down into the next one I could see people were dying a little bit, and I saw third place up there and that really fired me up, so I just went for it.”
Reynolds said he had nothing left in the finish stretch when Bjornsen caught him from behind.
“I thought I closed pretty well on the uphill, and then just kind of died in the finish stretch,” Reynolds said. “Bjornsen blew by me.”
Though Reynolds just missed out on the podium, fourth is “easily” his best result of the season.
“I mean, it doesn’t really erase the 20-odd bad races I’ve had…but obviously it’s nice to feel a little more like yourself and ski a little faster,” he said. “I’d actually felt pretty good this week, so I was hoping to have a good race. And we had great skis and my body felt good.”
Ødegård, the 2013 NCAA champion in the 10 k classic, repeated his result from a week ago at Canadian Nationals in taking fifth.
Behind Ødegård, Sinnott conceded that sixth was as much as he could muster at the end of a sprint day. He delaminated a ski in his quarterfinal, and though he managed to advance second in the heat anyway, he had to scramble to find a good replacement for the next round.
“I didn’t really notice it until we went up to rewax some top sauce, and was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work,’” Sinnott said.
He advanced as a lucky loser in his semifinal, and in the final he was “pretty exhausted.”
“I was tired and just couldn’t keep up,” he said. “I kind of slipped a couple times on the climb and just blew my arms out and didn’t have much for the finish. But so it goes.”
The bonus seconds available in the sprint were substantial. With only the hill climb left to go in the tour, Bjornsen now sits in the lead just over 40 seconds ahead of Newell and Freeman in the overall standings. The trio will be separated by this margin in the pursuit-style start of the hill climb on Monday, and whoever makes it to the top of Sugar Bowl will win SuperTour Finals.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Newell said. “I thought I’d be hurting more, but this late in the season your body’s so used to racing you don’t even really get sore any more, you’re just kind of tired. Hopefully the sun will come out tomorrow and we can hang out more and do more California-style things, because I’m kind of over winter at this point.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Other notes from the classic sprint:
— Kris Freeman (Maine Winter Sports Center/USST), who led the tour after winning the second stage on Friday, finished outside of qualifying in 39th. MWSC head coach Will Sweester took responsibility for the wrong ski call — he brought skate skis to Freeman at the last second after observing the success Newell and others had with double-poling and being convinced it would be the right call for Freeman, too.
“We’ve had a steep learning curve, him and me, and all the skis he has,” Sweester said. “Today I sprinted up at the start with skate skis at the last minute and it was definitely the wrong call on my part. We had good classic skis but the snow made me nervous.”
— Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol), in his first race of the tour after being ill for the prologue and 15 k, did not advance to the final after tangling with another competitor and falling in his semifinal. He qualified in sixth position on skate skis in the preliminary round, eight seconds behind Newell. A coach approached the jury with “grumblings” about Koos’ lane crossing technique in the qualifier, but no official protests were filed. According to Technical Delegate Al Serrano, three jury members reviewed the relevant video footage of the qualifier and determined that Koos did not skate when changing lanes at the point in question.
— Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Team HomeGrown) collided with a spectator in his quarterfinal a few hundred meters from the finish, which resulted in his automatic advancement to the semifinals. The spectator stood in the tracks with her back turned when Ellefson, double-poling with his head down, clipped her with his shoulder and “from what I heard, I knocked her over,” he said.
Ellefson was in fifth at the time of the collision and finished fifth in the quarter. As the fourth qualifier he wore the lowest bib number of his heat and only needed to finish third in order to advance to the next round. Unable to say whether the spectator prevented Ellefson from advancing, the jury decided to put him through anyways as a seventh man at no prompting from Ellefson or his coaches.
“I don’t know if I was in striking distance or not,” Ellefson said. “It’s their fault I guess for not having the v-boards up.”
Serrano said there is no rule in the FIS rulebook that covers interference with a bystander, and the jury decided to advance Ellefson as if it he had instead been the victim of obstruction from a competitor.
“There’s a specific rule for what happens if someone is taken out and the person that takes them out is disqualified,” Serrano said. “If another competitor takes them out, then they advance. Basically [that’s] the way we ended up advancing Sylvan, as the seventh person in the heat, starting two meters back.”