One day into their three-race series in New Zealand, it’s U.S. 1, Canada 1.
In Friday’s 10/15 k classic mass start at the Waiorau Snow Farm, the North American teams stamped their authority on the trails of the southern hemisphere. In the women’s race, Liz Stephen (USA) bested teammate Morgan Arritola in a lunge at the line, while Canada’s Devon Kershaw took the victory over American Kris Freeman in the men’s edition.
Kikkan Randall (USA), who would have been the favorite, made a last-second decision to sit out the race only a few minutes before the start. In an interview from the Snow Farm, Randall said that she “just wasn’t quite ready to go.”
“Camp has been going pretty well, but yesterday something hit me, and I got pretty tired,” she said. “I was hoping to rebound today, and got out there and felt like maybe I could make it happen. But with a couple more chances still to go, it’s better to give myself one more day, I think.”
Randall said she hopes to start Saturday’s classic sprint, but her scratch Friday left the women’s field open. Chandra Crawford (CAN), occasional World Cup competitor Chisa Obayashi (JAP), and Esther Bottomley (AUS) were all potential challengers to Stephen and Arritola.
But according to Randall, who watched the action unfold, it was a two-woman race as soon as the field hit the first major climb.
For the opening kilometers, Randall said, the course was mostly downhill and the pack stuck together. Then, as they started climbing near the two-kilometer mark, “Liz and Mo [Arritola] had started to pull away from Chandra and Chisa…and Esther.”
“They just kind of pulled away steadily,” Randall said. “They weren’t playing tactics and drafting off each other; they were pretty much skiing in tracks side-by-side the whole time.”
The duel came down to the final 20 meters, where Stephen managed to get a slight edge and out-lunge Arritola at the line.
“Liz just wanted it really bad,” said Kershaw in an interview. “It looks like she’s in really good shape now.”
While Arritola didn’t, she was still skiing with impressive technique, Kershaw added—“bang on, from the gun right to the end.”
Obayashi finished just over a minute behind the American pair, while Bottomley was another 12 seconds back in fourth place. Crawford has been suffering from a minor back injury, and she quit mid-race to ensure she was healthy for Saturday’s sprint.
The men’s event was Freeman’s to lose, and the American did everything he could to shake the dangerous Canadian trio of Kershaw, Ivan Babikov, and Alex Harvey.
According to Kershaw, the pace was “casual” and the racing “tactical” up until a few kilometers from the finish, when Freeman “threw down.”
“It was a pretty heavy attack, and I got blown off right away,” Kershaw said. “I’m like, ‘oh, man—if he can hold that pace to the line, no one can touch him.’”
Rather than flailing to catch Freeman immediately, Kershaw said he just looked down and focused on skiing efficiently.
“My body was responding fine, and I reeled him in, and then was double poling well,” he said. “I caught [Freeman] on the last little uphill section of the course, and he was just completely blown up.”
Kershaw established a decent gap, then glided into the finish to win by seven seconds. The victory will cost him a six-
pack of beer—Kershaw said he bet against himself in a wager with teammate Stefan Kuhn on the outcome of the race.
Babikov and Harvey were next, both less than fifteen seconds back, while Noah Hoffman (USA) was fifth, thirty seconds down on Kershaw.
While it wasn’t enough to win, Freeman’s attack, Randall said, was impressive, given that the American was feeling fatigued the day before the race.
“It was definitely a tough effort for him today, but he was pretty happy with it,” she said.
According to Randall, the American and Canadian teams collaborated on the waxing to keep things even. With sunny skies and solid klister skiing, the weather wasn’t a factor, she added.
While the results are a good psychological boost for Kershaw and Stephen, they’re probably not much more than that, given the volume of training that the Americans and Canadians have put in down south.
“We’re never going to take any of these races that seriously—it’s a good, hard workout,” Kershaw said. “It’s just confirmation that the training…has been going well.”
The racing in New Zealand continues tomorrow with a skate sprint, which should also feature strong fields. Americans Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton will be competing, along with Randall if she’s healthy, and Kershaw said that Freeman will also race. Crawford and Kuhn are the confirmed Canadian entries, while both teams may add additional starters on race day. A 5/10 k freestyle race concludes the series on Sunday.
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.