Popular opinion has crowned Tad Elliott (CXC) as the next prince of US distance skiing, and on another cold morning in West Yellowstone, Montana, Elliott added evidence that those hopes are not ill-founded.
In his first start of the 2011 season, Elliott skied away from a challenging field of elite US and Canadian domestic racers, to claim a 14.5 second victory over Lars Flora (APUNSC) in the 15km freestyle. Leif Zimmermann (BSF/Madshus) was third, another five seconds in back of Flora.
“I felt awesome today,” Elliott said after the race. “Our skis were really good. It is always nice to have the confidence in your equipment…when you are tucking and catching people it is fun.”
At 32, Flora is one of the “old men” on the SuperTour junket, but is showing no signs of slowing down, claiming his third 2nd place finish in two days.
“I am a little surprised for sure,” the 2006 Olympian said. Flora has never been a top sprinter, and has self-admittedly struggled with 15km skate events “
“So two races that aren’t my strength – I’m pretty psyched at this moment.”
And he had no issue with being behind young gun Elliott. “Tad, he is always going to skate strong at altitude. To be that close to Tad, that is good,” Flora said.
Elliott skipped yesterday’s Sprint Showdown after crashing earlier in the week. Though he described the fall as “not a big deal,” and took the opportunity to cheer on his teammates in the sprints.
But CXC Coach Jason Cork told FasterSkier that Elliott was also questionable for today’s race due to the crash, which involved running into one of his teammates.
“I knew I was skiing well,” said Elliott, who, according to course splits, accelerated as the race went on. At the 5k mark, he was down on Zimmermann and Canada’s Chris Butler.
Butler, starting just 30 seconds ahead of Elliott, skied well early, but could not maintain the pace. Elliott reeled him in, and caught a ride with the Alberta World Cup Academy skier, before moving off on his own. Butler ultimately slipped out of the top-10.
Zimmermann knew he was up on Elliott, but according to him, “lost something like 30 seconds in 4k.
“I think he got it [the time] on all that gradual terrain in the middle of the course. I was lacking a little pop, so it was hard to work those grinding long gradual flats.
Just three days removed from Europe, Zimmermann felt solid, but not his best.
“The legs were not very fresh. But my capacity felt good,” he said.
“It was just the legs holding me back a little today,” he continued. “I started hard, hit a little bit of a wall, worked through it and skied the rest of the way well.”
Zimmermann’s equipment got lost on the trip back from Europe, so he ended up on a pair of skis from the Madshus demo fleet, which he described as “working pretty well.”
He did not have many expectations for this race. The travel coupled with a significant training block in Europe left some questions in his mind.
“You never know exactly what your body is going to do after a big change like that, but I know I am in decent shape and just wanted to come out and ski well.”
At this point, Zimmermann is not looking too far ahead. He will race the two December NorAm weekends in Canada and then prepare for US Nationals.
World Championships are not a specific target at this point. “If I bring up my fitness and ski well enough to do that, then I will be fired up, but if I am not there, I will do SuperTours and some marathons.”
Zimmermann took some time off from specific ski training last spring after a tough season, and recognized that World Championships may not be a reasonable goal.
But he will build through the first racing period with his sights set on racing fast in January and February, and see what happens.
Elliott, on the other hand, has restructured his training to focus more on World Championships. An elite mountain bike racer in the summer, he opted to skip the two-wheeled version of World Champs in order to begin preparations for the ski season.
Cork does not see Elliott at a disadvantage because of his dual sport lifestyle choice.
The key has been in the transition from one sport to the other. In the past, Elliott has had as little as six weeks before the first races in West, but by making the decision to end his mountain biking season early, he had closer to three months.
“At this point he has done biking and skiing for so long, he knows where he makes the best improvements,” said Cork.
And despite a strong performance today, Cork is not concerned about an early peak, saying “he isn’t that snappy right now. I don’t think anyone out here in the top-15 is at their peak. All those guys have room for improvement.”
Flora, a former teammate of Elliott’s on the Factory Team, has also been impressed by the Colorado native.
“Each year he gets stronger and stronger,” Flora said. “He is so laid back…and has a really good race mind…He never gets caught up in the little details that can pull some athletes down.”
Like Thursday’s sprint courses, the 5km loop featured a new route from previous years, adding in several more climbs, but is still comprised primarily of more gradual terrain and lots of transitions.
Flora summed up the race strategy, explaining “in West Yellowstone distance races you’ve got to bring it to the red line and just hold it. On this course you start noticing that on each lap every transition is harder and harder to carry your speed into.”
All three podium finishers plan on racing in Saturdays 10km classic, though Zimmermann will wait to make a final decision.
Graham Nishikawa, also of the Alberta World Cup Academy, took 4th, less than a second behind Zimmermann, while Mike Sinnott (SVSEF) rounded out the top-5 less than half a second behind the Canadian.
Pre-race favorites Garrott Kuzzy (CXC) and James Southam (APUNSC) finished 6th and 7th respectively, nearly a minute off the pace.
Complete Results (PDF)
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.