With some big climbs and minimal recovery, the 3.75k course in Hinterzarten demands some restraint and smart pacing. That’s no accident, according to Karl-Heinz Lickert, the FIS official who laid out the loop that was used in the U-23 men’s 15k.
“We don’t want athletes who are only physically strong,” he said.
The winner here, Vladislav Skobelev (RUS), clearly had both the brawn and brains Lickert was looking for—though he also wasn’t hurt by the snow squall that blew in just as he was finishing, slowing many of his rivals still out on course.
Back in seventh place after the first lap, Skobelev–who rose through the field over the next three circuits to take the win by 20 seconds over his teammate, Stanislav Perliak. Gennadly Matviyenko of Kazakhstan was third, another second behind.
Noah Hoffman led the way for the Americans in 20th, while Kevin Sandau was the top Canadian, in 13th.
After some long-overdue warmth and sun, it was back to the same snow and fog that blanketed the first two days of competitions. The crowds, however, were not deterred. Local schools sent their teachers and students to the trails here, and like yesterday, they helped line the toughest hill on the course, along with coaches and many of the athletes who weren’t competing.
“I was super-impressed with how many people were out there,” Hoffman said. “I’ve never skied quite through anything like that. It was just a tunnel of noise.”
Hoffman said that he had been working on his pacing, and that today’s effort was definitely an improvement—though still not his best.
It was what Lickert’s course demanded, though. While the late snow may have slowed a number of the top-ranked skiers towards the end of the race, it was still clear that the best finishers today all started very conservatively. Out of the top six finishers, only Matviyenko was ranked in top five after the first lap. In the post-race press conference, Skobelev said that he always starts conservatively, and that today he did so with the final climb in mind.
Unlike the Russians, though, Canada’s Graeme Killick received the sharp end of Lickert’s loop. He was sitting third after 3.5k, but he faded hard, losing between seven and ten places each subsequent lap to finish 24th. He said his legs seized up on his last circuit, even though he said that he began at a pace that “I thought I could keep.”
Lickert said that FIS courses are designed to challenge athletes in three areas: physical fitness, technical skill (like with challenging downhills), and mental resilience. Today’s placed a premium on the latter—while there’s only an average amount of climbing in each loop, “there’s nowhere you can really relax.”
“You have to plan your race—you have to be clever and smart. This is why Petter Northug is the champion,” Lickert said, citing the Norwegian’s skill at pacing and his killer finishing kick.
Simi Hamilton, who finished 33rd, perhaps summed it up best.
“It wasn’t a ton of recovery, but it was just enough to let you go really hard up the hills,” he said. “So it hurt.”
Other Americans in the race were Tad Elliot and Patrick Johnson, who finished 32nd and 52nd, respectively. Frederic Touchette and Julien Nury were the two other Canadians starters, in 19th and 47th. For complete results, click here.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.