The women’s 5 k classic SuperTour may have been held in West Yellowstone on Saturday, but the top of the results sheet read like an event from Scandinavia, with international skiers claiming three of the top four spots.
Kristina Strandberg (XC Oregon) edged out Holly Brooks (APU) for the victory, while fellow Swede Maria Graefnings (U of U) rounded out the podium, ahead of Czech Eliska Hajkova (CU).
Strandberg capped an excellent stretch of racing this week, in which she finished in the top five in all four events.
A two-time overall SuperTour Champion, and veteran of nine World Cup starts, Strandberg overcame understandable fatigue to beat out Brooks by five seconds.
“Today was hard,” Strandberg said following the race. “I felt like there wasn’t much juice left in the tank, but I was trying to think that if I feel like this, everybody else does too.”
And while it is still early, Strandberg felt significant pressure, telling FasterSkier, “a lot of people expected me to win, and I didn’t really realize how nervous that would make me, so it is an enormous relief.”
She noted that that the pressure came from herself as well, adding that she “really wanted to win the classic race here, and knew I had a chance. I wanted to prove that I can still do this.”
“I am an M2 after all,” she concluded with a laugh, referring to her relatively advanced skiing age of 35.
Brooks leaves West Yellowstone with the overall SuperTour lead, thanks to her two victories in Thursday’s Sprint Showdown and consecutive second place finishes in the distance races.
“Strandberg is an awesome classic skier, and 5 k classic is her thing,” Brooks said. “I feel good about being five seconds behind her in that.”
The course, significantly changed from past SuperTour events, featured two large climbs, including the wall of “Telemark Hill.”
Despite being a strong double-poler, Strandberg was happy to see the additional terrain.
“This is a much better course, and a much better race altogether.”
The big hill was an obvious pick as the difference maker, but Brooks noted that she was five seconds down on Strandberg before the climb—which didn’t change by the finish, just one kilometer later.
While several women did manage to stay in the tracks for most of the big climb, race organizers eliminated them on the steep pitch toward the bottom, and many athletes chose to step out toward the top.
Brooks described the technique of choice as “a running herringbone,” and noted that the off-camber nature of the hill presented an additional challenge. She said it was important to keep her herringbone narrow and the tempo high, which made the hill go by quickly.
Like Brooks, Strandberg chose to climb a majority of the way outside the track. She opted for more glide, trying to “stay a little light with the kick wax,” and wasn’t entirely thrilled with the decision.
“I ended up going outside the track, which—I don’t necessarily think that was the best,” she explained. “But on the other hand, going in the track and slipping is not good either.”
Strandberg “just tried to hammer” over the top, and said that she was glad she could stick to double poling for the last kilometer of the race, “because my legs were gone.”
Hajkova, the fourth place finisher, was also happy to see the large climb.
“I love uphills, so I felt really good on the big hill,” she said. “It is a nice change, because you have to change your tempo, and it wakes you up again.”
Graefnings, a 25-year-old student at the University of Utah, clocked in at just a hair over 16 seconds behind Strandberg. She skied last season for the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR), but transferred to Utah when the UNR ski team was cut.
“The conditions were awesome today, not too cold, and really good tracks,” said Graefnings, who also has World Cup experience.
Hailing from the ski mecca of Falun, Graefnings notched her second consecutive SuperTour podium. She edged out Strandberg in Friday’s 10km freestyle, much to the good-natured chagrin of the elder Swede.
After the race, Graefnings said that she has been enjoying her time in the US.
“College skiing is special, something you can do once in your life,” she said—though she doesn’t see graduation as the end of her elite career.
“I am going to go back to Sweden and try to make the A-team. But right now I am here, and it is super fun,” she said.
The 22-year-old Hajkova placed second in the classic sprint and sixth in the freestyle version, before sitting out Friday’s distance race.
With only six days on snow under her belt, she was pleased with Saturday’s effort.
“I felt good, and we had great skis. It is just the beginning—and I think everybody will be better later in the season,” she said.
Hajkova, who raced in the 2009 Tour de Ski, edged Friday’s freestyle winner, Kate Fitzgerald (APU), by four seconds.
With Brooks in second, Fitzgerald in fifth, and Morgan Smyth, Sadie Bjornsen and Becca Rorabaugh ranking sixth through eighth, respectively, APU had the top five American women in the race.
The Continental Cup circuit now moves to Canada for two weekends of NorAm races. Brooks and the rest of the APU squad head north to SilverStar Resort in a few days, while Strandberg is on her way to Sweden.
“Sweden has a lot of good skiers right now…and it is a tough crowd to race against,” Strandberg said. But she added, she enjoys the challenge, which makes it more fun if she’s skiing fast.
“When you race well in Sweden, people notice—there is so much more media coverage,” she said.
This is Strandberg’s final season of focused elite ski racing, and she has no specific goals.
“I am taking it as it comes. This season is like a bonus season for me. If I am not enjoying it, I am not going to suffer it out,” she explained. “But so far so good!”
The surprising Fitzgerald entered this season with just a single top-10 result, and no top-5’s, in nearly 30 SuperTour, NorAm, and U.S. and Canadian Nationals starts. She will leave West Yellowstone with a win, a third, and two fifths, moving her into the upper echelon of the U.S. women’s field.
But on Saturday, it was the veteran Strandberg standing on the top step of the podium.
“I am stoked,” she said, before engaging in some well-earned Swedish patriotism. “And, you know what, we’re dominating on all continents right now!”
–Nat Herz contributed reporting.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.