After Tad Elliot skied his way to a second place finish in yesterday’s 15k freestyle, the cross country cognoscenti didn’t quite express the same degree of confusion as they did over Tyler Kornfield’s fourth place in the sprint. After some solid racing at last year’s West Yellowstone SuperTours and a trip to the U-23 championships, Elliot has a little more name recognition. But it’s safe to say that there probably weren’t many people here in Anchorage who expected him to come within 30 seconds of Kris Freeman in a distance race.
FasterSkier caught Tad this afternoon for some questions about his life racing on skis and mountain bikes.
FasterSkier: To start out—you grew up both mountain biking and cross country skiing?
Tad Elliot: I grew up nordic skiing, since I was about 2 or 3 years old. My parents got me on skis ever since I could walk, and then when I was in eighth grade a friend took me to a mountain bike race, and that’s how I started mountain bike racing competitively.
FS: And your dad is a former Olympian in cross country skiing? Was he kind of a coach or an advisor for you?
TE: He was on the U.S. Ski Team for a number of years and went to a few Olympics. He oversees the local nordic program, but I always had my respective coaches within that program. But he always helped guide me in the right direction with skiing.
FS: This year you’re racing for CXC—did you train all fall with them?
TE: I did not. I still live in Durango, Colorado and train alone pretty much all the time out there, which is how I’m doing it. Jason Cork with Michigan Tech has helped me a little bit in training, and my dad helps me a little bit, but mainly I write my own programs.
FS: What kind of stuff do you get from Cork? How did you start working with him?
TE: Cork will give me certain ideas to implement in my training. He was the Durango Nordic head coach for I think four or five years, and he was my coach all through high school and my first year out.
FS: How did you hook in with CXC? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
TE: Yuriy Gusev from CXC gave me a call and asked if I’d be interested in being part of their marathon team. I said sure. That’s how I got involved with them, and it’s been great.
FS: What kind of support are you getting from them? Skis, wax, travel?
TE: They help with skis and travel and everything like that. Also, Bryan Fish, who is a great coach, great wax tech—it’s always nice when he’s at the races, because he can direct you.
FS: So when you’re at races with them like this one, are you within their structure, or are you more flying solo?
TE: I’m within a structure when I’m at the race, for sure.
FS: Okay, so with regards to your race yesterday: did you have any idea that your fitness was this good?
TE: No, I had no clue—I had absolutely no clue. I went to a local JOQ [Junior Olympic Qualifier] in Colorado and got beat up on by some juniors three weeks ago. They were all going fast, and Colorado has some real great skiers right now. Then I came home and rested for nationals and had a plan I was confident in coming here, and I ultimately dreamed of a top ten. I thought that if I got a top ten that was going to be amazing. After my race yesterday I was pleasantly surprised, really beside myself with that result.
FS: So you’ve been racing mountain bikes for the U.S. Under-23 National Team. Do you have a new plan for next year? (Tad is 23.)
TE: I do have a plan for next year—I just signed with SHL Air and Specialized. It’s a domestic team in the US, and USA Cycling has also said that they’re going to continue their support of me. I will be racing World Cups with USA Cycling over in Europe, and the Pan-American Championships down in Guatemala with those guys.
FS: Can you walk me through a typical training year for you, starting at the end of the ski season?
TE: At the end of the ski season—it usually ends up going to the Birkie, or last year I did The Great Race—I take zero time off. I get on a bike and usually about two weeks later I’ll be in California or somewhere warm racing. I’ll race probably three out of every four weekends and try to keep the racing season going in the U.S. for about six weeks. Then I head over to Europe for about four or five weeks, racing World Cups and Swiss Power Cups, which are like big UCI [International Cycling Union] races, and then come home. I usually have about a couple weeks. I race nationals in Colorado—it’s an easy travel day. Then I go back to Europe to race a couple more World Cups, and race more domestically if I’m going well. I end my mountain bike season in mid-September with World Championships.
From there, I go into ski training. I take like four days off, usually completely off, doing nothing. Then the next week I just wake up in the morning and do lifestyle training— whatever’s fun and whatever sounds appealing—and then it goes into a ski training plan, where I’ll build up until West Yellowstone with the hours.
FS: Does all the travel get to you?
TE: Eventually the travel will wear on me. I’m getting better at learning how to travel, but it gets kind of lonely sometimes when you’re away from friends and family for a while. But I’ve got a lot of friends on the bike and ski circuits, which makes it a lot better. The biggest thing for me is trying to stay healthy on all those international flights.
FS: What do you take to skiing from mountain biking, and the other way around?
TE: Since I race so much, a lot of race experience. I learn how to prepare better for big events, and also how to race well. I also think that I’m faster in each one by doing the other because when the fall rolls around, I’m really excited to rollerski and to run and to weightlift. I’m excited with skiing, and it’s never dull to me all through the end of winter. And the same with biking—I’m psyched about it until the season’s over.
FS: Do you get pressure from both sports—people saying that you should be specializing?
TE: Honestly, you always hear, ‘maybe you should think about specializing.’ Cyclists actually say that skiing is great, and they approve of it—maybe they harass me a little bit to get on a bike in the winter, but it’s nothing bad. In skiing the biggest thing I hear is not to get so many race starts and so much travel.
Right now I can’t see any time in the near future to specialize in one. My goal is to have people not saying, ‘oh, Tad is a good skier for biking all summer,’ or ‘Tad’s a good biker for skiing all winter.’ I want to be a good cyclist or a good skier.
FS: Have you ever talked with Carl Swenson [a former professional mountain biker and cross country skier)?
TE: I have actually never talked to Carl Swenson, which is my fault—I’ve never gone out and contacted him. He was my hero growing up, and I’ve only ever seen him racing—I’ve never gotten to talk to him. He paved the way for me being able to do both at such an amazingly high level.
FS: What are your goals for the rest of the season?
TE: That is something I need to evaluate now, but I hope to race [the] Owl Creek [Chase], which has been a huge goal of mine for the last two years, and then hopefully go to the Birkie and do well. Now I might be going to the Midwest and doing the Midwest SuperTours. My main focus has been the Owl Creek Chase, and the Birkie and U.S. Nationals, but I hope to make it to the Midwest for those SuperTours.
FS: Does the mountain biking fitness help for the marathons?
TE: Truthfully, no. On a mountain bike, it’s so much easier to go two hours than to go two hours skiing. Last year at the Birkie I thought my mountain bike background was going to for sure help me, but I bonked so bad. I think it’s something I need to learn how to do on skis.
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.