SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Sun, warm weather and abundant smiles welcomed the final day of competition at 2015 SuperTour Finals, which featured the U.S. Distance Nationals 30- and 50-kilometer freestyle mass starts.
The men’s 50 k took place on icy and fast snow that made it difficult for skiers to find traction as they skated around the 9-lap course. The 62 starters of the race remained relatively close throughout the first laps, but as the kilometers continued a pack of 14 skiers gained nearly a minute on the field.
The pack was often led by University of Colorado’s Rune Malo Ødegård while other top skiers such as SSCV’s Noah Hoffman and Tad Eliot, Canadian National Team’s Ivan Babikov and Graeme Killick, Alaska Pacific University’s Erik Bjornsen, New Mexico’s Aku Nikander and Brian Gregg shuffled in the mix as well.
Just before the final two laps, Babikov switched his right and left skis to take advantage of intact, smoother edges for further stability on the icy downhills. Regardless of whether the ski switch helped, the Canadian demonstrated his superiority in the remaining 10 kilometers.
On the eighth lap, Babikov sped up one of the 5 k course’s early hills, leaving the remainder of the leading men behind. He held the advantage until the finish, where he crossed in first with a time of 1:57:06.2. Behind him, a four-man fight for second was brewing as Ødegård, Hoffman, Killick, and Bjornsen drew closer towards the finish. The skiers entered the last meters together, but Ødegård used a strong final kick to claim silver, 51.9 seconds from Babikov. Hoffman crossed the line in a close third, 52.4 seconds from the win.
Bjornsen (+52.8) was fourth, while Killick (+54.5) took fifth.
After his finish Babikov, who is fresh off a week of racing at Canadian Ski Nationals, said that he expected the competition to respond to his game-changing move, but soon realized they were nowhere in sight. “The altitude actually works well for me. I pushed a bit with two laps to go and I was surprised I dropped the guys,” he explained.
Babikov’s strategy for the 50 k was to stay at the front of the pack to avoid any mishaps on what he described as “dangerous” conditions.
“To be honest, even at the end, the track was poorly prepared. The downhills were super dangerous and people were all over the place,” he said. “I just tried to stay ahead, not to get in a crash and not to get into a pile up. Then I wanted to go faster in the last laps and that’s what happened.”
Babikov was pleased with his win, especially given his history with U.S. domestic racing. Babikov was once a member of the Subaru Factory team and a regular at SuperTour and U.S. Championships events.
“This is really important for me,” Babikov said of his win. “ U.S. Nationals, I’ve done it so many times, and doing all the SuperTours. I love coming here, all the people are so friendly. Graeme [Killick] was really surprised because all the coaches were offering help, and everyone was really friendly.”
After his second place finish Ødegård said that since the 50 k was the last race of the season he entered with nothing to lose. Like Babikov, the University of Colorado skier worked to stay at the front to control the speed and avoid crashes on the treacherous downhills. “I felt really good in the warm up so I just felt like I should be offensive today and stay in front and control it, especially the downhills,” he said.
As the race became a four-way fight for second, Ødegård said that he was focused on conserving energy for the final meters instead of chasing Babikov.
“When he got the gap I thought it was not that smart for me to chase that down,” he said of Babikov’s move. “I would die and I probably won’t even be able to take second, so it was better to focus on second place today.”
The senior recently finished his college skiing career with a pair of third-place finishes at the 2015 NCAA Championships in Lake Placid earlier this month. He plans to make the jump into professional skiing within the next year and hopes that Thursday’s performance will catch the eyes of teams in his home country.
“It means a lot,” the Norwegian said. “It’s really good skiers around me today, World Cup skiers, and you know they are top performers in 50 kilometers. I hope people back home can notice that I went fast today and that could help me get in some team for next year.”
Hoffman placed third overall and was crowned U.S. National Champion in the 50 k as the first American finisher. Hoffman, who suffered a fractured leg in November and returned to racing in February, said that he was happy to end the season on a high note.
“It’s a good way to end a challenging season,” Hoffman said. “I’m happy with the way I skied today especially given the conditions. It was so hard to stand out there, especially on that hill. It was so icy in places.”
Before the race, Hoffman said he was discouraged from a week of mediocre racing at the SuperTour Finals. In the first laps of the race he felt like the 50 k was headed in a similar direction, but he recovered as the race progressed.
“I wanted to feel it out,” Hoffman said of his strategy. “It’s been such a rough week and not an encouraging two months of racing. To be honest, I was really hurting and I thought it was going to be a really rough day, but then I felt better as the race went on and the conditions softened.”
Hoffman said he was proud of his finishing sprint, which is not something the distance skier is known for; “I’m happy with that finishing sprint. Not that long ago I would have gotten last out of the group,” he said. “Bjornsen is a great sprinter so it’s a little team battle there. It’s fun for me to come out on top.”
Gregg Skis Away with 30 k Victory
The women’s 30 k welcomed vastly diverse conditions as the sun and warm weather transformed the icy course into a wet, speed-sucking loop. From the start of the race USST/Burke’s Liz Stephen took an early lead on the first uphill. By the top it was just Stephen and Team Gregg/Madshus’ Caitlin Gregg with he rest of the field several seconds behind. Originally suggesting to work together, Gregg took the lead on the downhill but at the bottom of the course her superior skis gave her a large lead over Stephen.
Over the course of the 30 k Gregg increased her lead and crossed the finish line in first with a time of 1:42:46.2. Stephen maintained her second-place standing throughout the race and crossed the line 2:40.8 behind Gregg.
The fight for third proved more competitive, with four skiers – APU’s Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Chelsea Holmes, and Utah’s Veronika Mayerhofer – vying for the final spot on the podium. The three APU skiers eventually dropped Mayerhofer and entered the finish together. In the end it was Sadie Bjornsen who claimed bronze, 3:54.0 behind Gregg.
Brennan (+4:01.8) and Holmes (+4:05.7) finished fourth and fifth.
Gregg’s victory was reminiscent of the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Midway, Utah where she skied to a massive victory in the 20 k freestyle mass start. Unlike 2014, many strong skiers from the USST like Stephen and Bjornsen were present in Thursday’s 30 k, making the blowout win even more impressive.
Although it was apparent that Gregg was in top-shape, she was unsure if she would participate in the 30 k prior to its start. Earlier this month, Gregg suffered a concussion after being hit with a feed in the Homenkollen 30 k. She explained that she hadn’t raced or trained significantly since the incident.
“To be quite honest I woke up this morning and I sat a little bit and thought I wasn’t going to race,” she said in a post-race interview. She explained that after watching the men’s 50 k she began to change her mind especially as the snow became slower.
As the conditions began to change more rapidly than expected, Gregg realized she had skis that would match the wet conditions – a pair of new Madshus that she hoped to use in the Holmenkollen 30 k that were ultimately never skied on due to the lack of a ski switch. As the race began, it was clear the skis were the answer to the warm Idaho afternoon.
Gregg said that she had originally wanted to ski at the front and slow the pace. However, after a couple hard pushes from the start she realized it was just her and Stephen ahead of the pack.
“Liz skied an amazing first climb and I was doing everything I could do to hang on,” Gregg said of the first part of the course. “I could tell we had a lead and I said, ‘let’s work together, I’ll lead on the downhill because I’ll be a better draft.’ I started going on the downhill and I turned around and she just looked at me and couldn’t keep up.”
Once alone in the front Gregg said her strategy was to ski the uphills efficiently and the downhills aggressively – knowing that was where she could make up the most time. Even with her large lead, Gregg said that there were times when she doubted her ability to maintain the distance.
“There were moments out there where I felt like ‘oh man maybe I only have 10 k in me,’ but after you get positive feedback you just start to build on that,” she said.
Thursday’s win marks the end of a historic season for Gregg where she earned a bronze medal in the 10 k freestyle at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden in February. Originally, Gregg wasn’t sure if she would continue to pursue international racing in the upcoming season, but with her continued successes she plans to try and prove herself on the World Cup circuit once again.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep racing, but it seems kind of silly to stop now,” she explained. “I feel great and we are really fired up about the rest of our careers going forward. I know what I need to work on and where I’m at. I have a lot more confidence after this year.”
In second, Stephen said the 30 k was the hardest race she’s ever completed and was happy to end the season knowing that she earned a break. “I’m really psyched to put an end to the season. It’s been awesome and I’m ready for a break… and to find a beach,” she explained after her finish.
Stephen skied the majority of the race alone and said that she played some “little games” to keep her mind from the slowing and wet conditions. Whenever she hit the shade she would work as hard as possible until she reached the slow snow in the sun.
“Dropping out definitely goes through your head,” Stephen said with a laugh, after being asked what was on the Burke Mountain Academy skier’s mind throughout the lonely 30 k. “You just ski it in and keep fighting. I was focused on not having the pack behind me catch me.”
As Stephen crossed the finish line she collapsed from exhaustion and burst into tears. “Sadie and I have been calling this the trail of tears,” Stephen explained of the finish. “The last five weeks we’ve done three 30 kilometers. Today the trail was definitely a teary one. I was just so happy to be done and have my team around me.”
Although Stephen is focused on getting as much rest as possible in the coming weeks, she said that her mind is already going to next season.
“We’ve had a great season as a team and we’ve all had highlights,” she said. “Even though I’m so exhausted, I am looking forward to making some changes and starting the training up again.”
Taking the final podium position, Bjornsen was happy to ski the race with two APU teammates. She explained that the three were able to take advantage of eachother’s strengths to ski the long race in the most efficient way possible. “It also made for some more smiles than we would have had in a 30 k,” she added.
“It’s a great way to end the season with my teammates,” Bjornsen said of the final race of the year. “I’m really glad we had spring series because I finished the World Cup wanting more. I never felt like I found that shape and had some unlucky things at the end. It was fun to come here and go into the training season with some confidence and believe in my shape.”
SuperTour Final Rankings
With the culmination of the 2015 SuperTour, Brennan and Kris Freeman (Freebird) were named the overall leaders. The two will automatically earn starting rights on the World Cup this coming fall.
Holmes claimed the distance title, while Bridger Ski Foundation’s Jennie Bender won the women’s sprint rankings. For the men, Freeman was the top-ranked distance skier while bend Endurance Academy’s Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess earned the sprint title.
Brennan and Freeman also won the titles of U.S. Grand Champion after earning the most points combined from Thursday’s races and the week of racing in Houghton, Mich. in January at the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships.
The final award of the season, the National Nordic Foundation Cup, was given to APU for its domination on the domestic circuit in the 2015 season.