Lars Flora’s 2011 European campaign didn’t go the way he wanted, but at least it went out with a bang.
After some disappointing races at the World Championships in Oslo, and at the World Cup Final in Falun, Sweden, Flora finally put it together on Sunday, just in time for his last start before heading back to the U.S.
In the 15 k handicap start in Falun, Flora was 30th, less than two minutes behind Norway’s Finn Hagen Krogh, who won the race. In nine international-level races in Europe, it was the first time Flora had finished better than 39th—and he did so convincingly.
“I was hoping to consistently ski, all the time, like I did on Sunday,” he said in an interview this week. “There [were] only a few times—really that race, and maybe the 15 k at Worlds. I was pretty disappointed with the whole period. Overall, I was excited, looking at how the whole year went…but at the same time, of course, to be at the back of the pack in a World Cup field—you spend a little time there, and you just don’t want to be there. It takes the fun out of it.”
Even after a modest campaign at World Championships, Flora was still entitled to free entry to the last two weekends of World Cup racing, thanks to his lead in the overall standings of the SuperTour. (The top-ranked skier on the SuperTour, at various points in the season, can get reimbursed for lodging and transportation for the next batch of World Cup races.)
But the same, discouraging story ended up unfolding for Flora, 33, who has long struggled with his health. He said that he had been fighting a deep sinus infection since getting to Europe in January, and after Oslo, he caught a cold, forcing him to sit out the next two World Cup competitions, in Lahti, Finland.
The next week, in the World Cup Final, he’d had a slow start. In the opening classic sprint in Stockholm, he was 46th of 51 starters, far from making the heats, and things didn’t go much better in the next two races, a prologue and a 20 k pursuit.
After three of four stages, Flora was sitting 45th out of the 49 athletes remaining in the mini-tour. On the start list for Sunday’s handicap start, he was listed as nearly nine minutes behind the leader, Norway’s Petter Northug.
“I came into it a little run down, the whole race week, so I wasn’t expecting too much,” he said. “And the first three races were really, really rough.”
But fortunately for Flora, all the athletes more than five minutes down on Northug started at the same time, in one big wave. So instead of heading out all by himself, at the very back of the pack, Flora got to ski alongside 19 others, including a good chunk of the Norwegian sprint team—at least for a little while.
“It broke up really quick,” he said. “There were a few guys in that pack that skied into the top 20.”
Flora ended up finishing 30th on the day, a half-second down on his teammate Kris Freeman, and 1:51 behind Krogh. (The gaps were larger at the finish, though, because both Freeman and Krogh got a head start.) At the line, Flora just lost out to Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal, a World Cup sprint winner earlier this year, but he did get the better of Brandsdal’s equally speedy teammate, John Kristian Dahl.
The race was a good one, Flora said, but still not enough to take the sting out of a disappointing trip.
“If I was 22 years old, I’d be psyched,” he said. “But I’m getting pretty old, so I’m like, ‘man, I kind of blew it again.’”
On Tuesday, Flora was in Salt Lake City; he’ll be in Idaho this weekend for the SuperTour Finals, and the national championship in the 50 k classic—which could be his last races as a professional.
He said that he loves racing and the associated lifestyle, but paying for it, since the demise of the Subaru Factory Team, has been a challenge.
“It’s just been harder and harder, with finances, so that’s kind of the limiting factor right now,” Flora said. “I think I just need to give myself a little time to figure it all out.”
He said that he’ll likely make the decision after some time with family, and a little off time, on the beach. Which, he added, “will not be the beach—it will more likely be the mountains of Alaska.”
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.