Leif Zimmermann is one of only two athletes in West Yellowstone with European racing experience this winter. But he’s also one of two athletes coping with the effects of a transatlantic jet flight, making a pair of sensational performances this weekend even more impressive.
With his 20-second victory in Saturday’s 10 k classic, Zimmermann (BSF) won for his third time in four years in West Yellowstone, less than one week removed from racing 4,500 miles away in Finland.
“I still feel like I haven’t caught up on sleep yet,” he said.
Alaska Pacific University’s Bart Dengel and CXC’s Brian Gregg were second and third, separated by less than half a second. Canadians Graeme Killick and Graham Nishikawa rounded out the top five.
Saturday’s race offered powdery, firm tracks and warm weather, with temperatures nearing 30 degrees by the middle of the day—a respite from brutal cold earlier in the week.
After two strong performances in the opening West Yellowstone events, the 10 k classic looked like it could belong to APU’s Lars Flora. Four kilometers in, Flora had nearly closed down the 30-second gap to the starter in front of him, his teammate James Southam.
But as the pair crested the course’s big climb—Telemark Hill, which has one pitch of roughly 20 percent—Flora was starting to flag. On their second lap, the gap began going out again, and then Flora completely cracked, losing ten seconds to Southam on their second time up Telemark. He looked ragged, and ended up outside the top 10.
“I just blew up…It’s this course,” he said. “My legs were locked up—I could barely hold a tuck.”
With Flora’s collapse, the race was wide open, especially considering that Friday’s winner, Tad Elliott, struggles with classic skiing. And while Zimmermann had also skied well on Friday, finishing third, he was hardly a favorite on Saturday. He had raced in Finland last Sunday, flown back on Tuesday, and was without his race skis to boot—his gear had been lost between Europe and the U.S.
In his first race in West Yellowstone, Zimmermann had raced on Madshus demo skis, while on Saturday he used an old pair that didn’t make the cut for the Finland trip. And despite feeling exhausted after Friday’s race—he said his goal on Saturday was to crack the top 10—Zimmermann found himself in the mix. On his first of two trips up Telemark Hill, he got a split that he was just six seconds out of the lead.
“I thought, ‘okay, that’s a perfect start—I’m not going out too hard.’ And then, I started getting splits that I was leading on the second lap,” he said. “So…I knew that I was skiing hard, and just tried to keep it pinned.”
Zimmermann has always skied well in West Yellowstone, which he credits, at least partially, to the town’s elevation: 6,660 feet.
“I like the altitude, and a lot of people don’t,” he said. “It’s a strength for me, for sure.”
By the finish, he was 19.6 seconds up on Dengel, his nearest challenger—especially impressive given that Zimmermann had struggled with his classic skiing in Finland. Now, he said, it’s time for a few days of well-earned rest, and some non-specific training before heading off to Canada for more domestic races.
The win by Zimmermann stole the spotlight from what was otherwise a spectacular race by Dengel, who nearly took APU’s second surprise win in as many days, after Kate Fitzgerald’s victory on Friday.
The 25-year-old Dengel had never so much as cracked the top 10 in a SuperTour distance race, but on Saturday, he topped no fewer than five Olympians, including names like Kuzzy, Southam, and Goldsack.
“There [were] a lot of guys that I really respect that were a little behind me. That was a pretty big moment, to see those guys there,” Dengel said.
In distance races, skiers are generally seeded in groups of 20, based on ranking points acquired at previous races. And on Saturday, Dengel had been relegated to the second group, or “B-seed.” It didn’t seem to bother him, though.
“I went out really hard, and just gave it,” he said.
Dengel, who hails from town of Valdez, Alaska, said that he had been hoping for results that were better than the ones he had on Thursday and Friday, when his top finish was ninth.
The APU Head Coach, Erik Flora, said that Saturday’s course fit Dengel, who is “technically, one of the best striders we have.”
Dengel has always had speed—he has cracked the SuperTour sprint podium once before—but according to Flora, it “just takes time” to build up aerobic fitness.
“He’s just been really patient and training hard…It’s the same story as Kate Fitzgerald—he comes to training every single day and throws down, crosses all of his t’s,” Flora said. “We could see his fitness building every year—we were just waiting for the results to come with it.”
Between Dengel’s result Saturday, Lars Flora’s three second places, and impressive showings from its sprinters, the APU men are beginning to rival the dominance of the club’s women.
“We haven’t had the depth on the men’s side, and this year you can see the depth is really increased,” Erik Flora said. “If it’s a sprint day, our sprinters step up, and if it’s a distance day, our distance skiers step up. And it’s not necessarily one guy—it’s a mix of guys.”
While Alaska is clearly turning out some impressive performers, Gregg’s third place served as a reminder that the Midwest is still a force to be reckoned with, notching CXC’s second podium of the week after Elliott’s win on Friday.
Before Saturday, Gregg had never finished better than 15th in a classic race in West Yellowstone, and was “a little surprised” to end up third—though he said that he usually fares better in the latter events of race series.
He was boosted by a support crew that included his brother, Chad, and his parents, who were out on course cheering on Telemark Hill.
“You can get all sorts of splits out there, but nothing’s quite the same as having your mom yell, ‘come on, you’re doing awesome!” he said.
— Topher Sabot contributed reporting
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.