What a difference a year makes.
At this time last season, the Craftsbury race crew were shoveling snow like crazy in an attempt to host spring series and the national championship marathon. This year? It’s not spring series, but rather the venue’s Spring Tour, a three-day mini-tour. And there’s plenty of snow, meaning that they can use some tough courses instead of the loop that racers were so used to last season.
“As tends to be the case (curse) of hosting national-level events, we were of course virtually snow-less last year and have been inundated with beautiful late-season powder this year,” Craftsbury GRP racer Clare Egan, who is also heading up communications for the event, told FasterSkier. “On Tuesday we received 12 to 14 inches of snow and have been getting an extra several inches every day since then. All of our trails, even Grand Tour, are open.”
So this is a little bit more like what Craftsbury had in mind a few years ago when they originally floated the idea of Spring Tour; the first was canceled completely due to lack of snow.
And so, too, is the competition. Stratton Mountain School T2’s Sophie Caldwell has dominated the women’s competitions so far, but there’s plenty of depth in the field, with NCAA qualifiers, U23 and World Juniors racers, and a national team biathlete toeing the line with her. For the men, there’s a U.S. Ski Teamer, a former Olympian, plus the same collection of college and senior racers, a few of whom have just returned from Europe.
“The courses we’ve been racing here are very hard and could probably be World Cup courses because they’re so hilly, so the racing isn’t too different in that sense,” said Caldwell, who is back in Vermont after a long stint in Europe that included World Cup, FIS, and World Championships racing. “There aren’t many people here but it’s a fast group and there are a lot of college skiers, and then Stratton and Green Team skiers. So it’s been good competition and really fun to see everyone after being gone all winter.”
Caldwell picked up a 34-second win in the 3.6 k classic prologue after University of Vermont skier Stephanie Kirk and University of New Hampshire’s Elizabeth Guiney. After winning Saturday’s skate sprint going away, Caldwell goes into the final pursuit on Sunday with a more than one-minute lead over Guiney, who sits in second.
“The prologue and sprint both went well and I’m excited to do a distance race tomorrow because I’ve been primarily sprinting the second half of the season,” Caldwell told FasterSkier. “I haven’t seen a start list and don’t know what my lead will be but I’m looking forward to it!”
Caldwell won the sprint qualifier by ten seconds over Caitlin Patterson of Craftbury, showing why she was picked for World Championships and how she finished 20th in the sprint there.
“Ten seconds is actually in my normal range for how far back I am from Sophie in qualifiers,” Patterson said in an interview that Egan posted on the Craftsbury website. “It just shows how she’s a head above the rest of the field. I was definitely happy I got second and happy to be racing after feeling a little funny recently.”
Things were complicated in the heats as fresh snow, which had begun falling in the morning, began to accumulate. Craftsbury has made this mini-tour “LF only”, so the skiers didn’t have any help from their skis. With both slow skis and heavy powder, it was easy to bog down; Patterson said she was “lurching in the fresh powder” and only made it through the quarterfinals as a lucky loser.
After that, though, things came together for the Alaskan and just as in the qualifier, she finished second to Caldwell in the A Final.
“I was still in fourth coming into the last hill and for whatever reason that last hill was really good for me, so in both the semi and final I made a big move there,” Patterson said. “In the A final I moved from fourth to second on the last hill and finished comfortably in second. I am happy with the day.”
Linda David-Malm and Anja Gruber of UVM finished third and fourth, with Guiney and NH teammate Elizabeth Izzo rounding out the final.
In the men’s race, prologue winner Patrick O’Brien of Craftsbury was unable to do what Caldwell had made look easy: repeating his win in the sprint. And second-place prologue finisher Paddy Caldwell of the Stratton Mountain School didn’t make the final.
Rather than calling it a bad day for these guys, chalk it up to some great competition.
In the end O’Brien was third, and the sprint came down to a drag race between SMST2 teammates Eric Packer and Skyler Davis. Packer prevailed.
“My strategy was to conserve some energy throughout the heats for the final, but it ended up being really tough to save anything with the slow skiing,” Packer told FasterSkier. “The skiing was definitely slower than normal with the new wet snow and the LF only wax restriction. With the fresh snow it was important to stay light on your feet and not bog in the soft sections.”
Davis said that despite Stratton’s good day – three podium finishers in two races – it’s not like their team had figured out something special with the LF. Instead, it was just about strategy and adjusting to the conditions.
“The conditions were pretty brutal,” he told FasterSkier. “It pretty much a blizzard for the entire day with snow piling up throughout the rounds, it for sure made the track softer and slower. It was all about staying in the best line throughout the heats because once you got into that powder, all momentum halted. The race was run very well though and it was a fun day.”
Davis, who is also a member of the U.S. Ski Team’s D Team, said that he had a plan for the final, and followed it perfectly. He had no regrets about his racing, it just turned out that his teammate was a little faster.
“My big goal was the prelim and to feel strong throughout the heats, and I think I accomplished both,” he said. “The final was exactly how I wanted it to play out, I hammered from the get go. Packer managed to stay on me and make a move in the final stretch, but yeah, very happy with the day.”
He and Packer have been on very different trajectories in the last few weeks. Davis hasn’t done any FIS racing since U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, two months ago. In fact, he hasn’t done much racing at all, skipping the domestic race circuit as well.
“I haven’t raced in a long time,” he said. “I took some time to refocus and train hard… the end of the season has been good for me, good training, lots of fun and excited to get a couple more races in!”
In contrast, Packer stayed in Europe that whole time and has just returned after ten weeks.
“Racing in Europe is pretty unforgiving,” he said of the experience. “At races like U23’s and Scando cups, the fields are stacked with national team skiers. With a great race, you can be in the mix, but if not you end up at the back of the field in a hurry. The last few weeks in Europe were pretty rough for me, so it was awesome to bounce back from that and have a good one today.”
Besides the results, what’s it like to be back in the States?
“It’s definitely nice to be home!” Packer said. “The conditions here in Craftsbury have been incredible, with tons of snow and great grooming.”
For Caldwell, too, the weekend has been a nice way to feel at home before Spring Series kicks off out in California.
“I had a relaxing week at home and enjoyed the nice skiing around, but this time a year I’m not worrying too much about training and mostly just focusing on racing and resting,” Caldwell said. “The Spring Tour has been great so far. Conditions are perfect and the snow is still coming down. It definitely doesn’t seem like late March!”