JAY, Vermont — At the outset of the hill climb up Jay Peak on a blistery Wednesday morning, the four-race fight for the overall SuperTour Finals win had come down to two skiers: Kris Freeman (SSCV/USST) and Noah Hoffman (SSCV/USST). In the end, Freeman claimed the title just as he did in Sun Valley last spring: on a brutal pitch that left him and just about everyone else completely spent at the finish.
Hoffman finished second, 22.7 seconds back. He posted the fastest time of the day, but it wasn’t enough to reel Freeman in. Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST), with an effort that surprised even himself, took third (+54.7) in the mini-tour.
Freeman and Hoffman are friends and frequent training partners, but as soon as the race bibs go on they’re competitors — both were skiing to win the overall title, but it could only go to one of them.
Freeman led the tour after the first three races at Craftsbury, and started 36 seconds ahead of Hoffman in the pursuit-start climb. Bjornsen and Simi Hamilton (SVSEF/USST) stood between Hoffman and Freeman on the start list, but Hoffman caught both fairly early on as he attempted to gun down the leader.
“I knew Hoff was my main competitor,” said Freeman. “He put ten seconds into me on the first half, but I paced it well. I didn’t explode until I had about two minutes left.”
Freeman ended up posting the third-fastest time of the day. To Freeman that hardly mattered, as his primary focus had been to hang onto the overall win.
“I set it as a goal to win the SuperTour Finals, not necessarily the hill climb today,” said Freeman. “It is so much harder to be in the front, and I just wanted to make sure that I stayed mentally with it and was able to pace it well.”
After an up and down season in Europe, Freeman almost hadn’t shown up in Craftsbury. But with a win in the classic race and an appearance in the sprint A-final already under his belt, he’s surpassed his own expectations all week.
“I almost didn’t even come out, and I’m really glad I did now,” he said. “I’m feeling better and better as the week goes on, so that’s been good.”
The fourth-place sprint result was a lynchpin to Freeman’s win, as it made his lead going into the hill climb practically insurmountable for Hoffman.
“I started 36 seconds down to Kris, and that’s too much time to a skier that good,” said Hoffman. “I wasn’t sure going in whether I’d have a chance at catching him, but when I was out there it was just too far.”
“I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t a better fight, but my energy was good today and I felt good overall.”
Though disappointed, Hoffman’s top split was incredible given that he’d dislocated his shoulder in the sprint quarterfinals the day before.
“I was pretty sure when I did it yesterday that I’d be able to race on it today,” said Hoffman after climb. “Unfortunately, I’ve got quite a bit of experience with this.”
Prior to surgery on his right shoulder last spring, Hoffman had had recurring dislocation problems.
“The big bummer is this is the first time it’s happened since having it repaired, and the surgery was designed to stop it from dislocating again,” said Hoffman.
The long-term repercussions of his crash are not yet clear, but for now Hoffman believes he’ll be able to race the 50 k on Saturday. For the hill climb at least, the discomfort from skiing with the shoulder was fairly minimal.
“It was definitely a little sore last night and this morning, but once I’d started skiing and got warmed up, by the time I started the race it was no issue at all,” said Hoffman.
Good thing too, as the hill climb induced plenty of its own discomfort on the 142 men and women brave enough to face the 1,079 ft, 1.8 k ascent. The average grade was 15%, and certainly much steeper on the bigger pitches.
Pain is what skiers sign up for, but Jay Peak doled it out in higher than usual doses. Skiers approached the guaranteed suffer-fest with one common goal in mind: just don’t blow up too early.
“You redline this and you’re gonna come to a stop,” said Freeman. “I knew I couldn’t afford to do that with too much of the course left.”
Even with correct pacing, “I lay in the snow a good long time after this race.”
Bjornsen, whose third-place Finals showing came unexpectedly to him, caught a welcome ride from Hoffman as the latter passed him a few minutes in.
“I just wanted to catch a ride as long as I could,” said Bjornsen. “Noah ended up catching me and I stuck onto him longer than I expected to — maybe five minutes. That really helped me out.”
With Hamilton breathing down his neck, Bjornsen just told himself to keep pushing over the top. He wasn’t even sure how far he was from the top since he hadn’t previewed the course and the only indication of distance remaining was a small “400 m to go” sign.
“I expected it to be much longer,” said Bjornsen. “As soon as I got around that corner and saw that finish line I was like, ‘Oh my God, I actually did it.’”
“I did not come into this week thinking I had a chance at the podium,” he continued. “I guess I’m in good shape right now — I can feel it.”
Bjornsen held off Hamilton by eight seconds, and posted the sixth-fastest overall time of the day.
Another of the top hill climb performers was Brian Gregg (CXC), who posted the second-fastest time of the day. Over the 13-minute course, he climbed from 21st to 11th.
Gregg thought his starting position would have put him in no-man’s land, but he ended up having one of the better races of his season as he hunted down and passed ten skiers. The later start ended up working to his advantage.
“It’s a benefit, I think, being able to come through some people and get a confidence boost,” said Gregg, who is typically strong in climbs.
The time difference between starters were also somewhat misleading, he said — objects were further away than they appeared due to the slow going during the race.
“It’s crazy; even though time gaps can be pretty large, because of the uphill someone might be 30 seconds ahead of you, but you can see them and they’re only 30 meters [away] sometimes.”
Tad Elliott (SSCV/USST) also made the most of having someone to chase. He moved from sixth to fifth, making up 31 seconds on teammate Sylvan Ellefson (SSCV).
Elliott felt good early on, but later in the race thought it may have been a bit premature.
“It was nice to have those fast skis and I maybe got too excited — I was hurting a bit near the top,” said Elliott. “I had to hike a little bit, and it was hard to stand up at the finish because the legs were so tired.”