With a handful of gel packets stapled to his bib, American Noah Hoffman would have blended in better at the American Birkebeiner than into Sunday’s 50 k freestyle at the 2011 World Ski Championships. But make no mistake: the way he was skiing was still world-class.
Hoffman made it more than 30 kilometers rubbing shoulders with the World Cup podium’s usual suspects—Petter Northug (NOR), Lukas Bauer (CZE), and Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS)—before finally succumbing to the pace after a broken pole.
Battling cramps, Hoffman still managed to hold on for 30th, leading an American contingent that also included Lars Flora in 39th, Tad Elliott in 40th, and Billy Demong in 51st.
“I feel like there’s a lot more there, for some time in the future,” Hoffman said. “Those guys aren’t that much faster.”
After a decent start, Hoffman actually made a couple of appearances at the very front of the race in the early laps. He said he was just skiing through, and found himself up there.
He may have absorbed a few gusts of wind, but he never actually pulled the group himself, and he said that he “certainly wasn’t going to lead.” And, in a mass start race, according to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, the front is the best place to be, thanks to an accordion effect that leaves those at the tail end of the group chasing hard over the top of every climb.
“It is so much easier in a group of 50 men,” Grover said, “to ski at the front of a pack like that, than to be at the back.”
As for those gels?
“He just knew he needed to get a lot of energy in the race, and there weren’t so many feed stations that were available for these guys. He did a good job of feeding,” Grover said. “He has a hard time during a race getting enough food on board and holding it down—I think it was a smart strategy.”
After surviving four trips around the tough 8.3-kilometer loop used by the men, Hoffman finally came off on his fifth trip up the grinding Styggedalen climb. On the previous lap, he’d broken a pole and had to ski another big hill with just one, which he said was “the start of me getting dropped.”
In the closing stages of the race, Hoffman was battling cramps. (They hobbled him so much after the finish that he was limping badly, and had removed a boot to massage one of his legs.) But he held on, passing Aivar Rehemaa (EST), Tim Tscharnke (GER), and a blown-up Curdin Perl (SUI) over the last 10 kilometers, while just one man passed him.
“He hung in there for a long time, and even when he finally started hitting the wall, he didn’t die—he fell back for a while, and then he regrouped,” Grover said.
The result was Hoffman’s second top-30 of the championships—he was 29th in the 15 k classic on Tuesday.
Elliott, meanwhile, fell off the pace early, before moving up to a group that included Flora. The two battled for the rest of the race, with the veteran Flora ultimately getting the edge, by three seconds.
Both those men were far off the lead, but each mentioned the Oslo crowds, which were again pegged at around 100,000. Flora said that it was so loud, “you can’t even hear yourself breathe—and that’s a good thing.”
Elliott, meanwhile, recounted a moment when he was trying to get a split from Matt Whitcomb, one of the U.S. coaches.
“I just see his mouth moving, and I can’t hear anything,” he said.
Like the Canadians, the U.S. team will now travel on to Lahti, Finland, for World Cup races next weekend. Its men’s squad will be Andy Newell, Kris Freeman, and Flora—the current Continental Cup leader from the U.S.—with Morgan Arritola, Liz Stephen, Kikkan Randall, and Holly Brooks make up the women’s contingent. (Brooks is Flora’s counterpart, as the Continental Cup leader.)
Hoffman will travel to domestic-level European races, while Elliott is returning home to Colorado to train in advance of SuperTour Finals in Idaho.
As for the championships in Oslo, Grover said that he felt the team “missed some opportunities, with our veterans, in particular.”
Randall crashed out of her best event, the freestyle sprint—a race in which she was one of two gold-medal favorites—while Freeman hadn’t quite rounded back into shape after an illness set him back.
On the other hand, Grover said, a number of the developing skiers on the U.S. squad had strong races: 10 of 14 team members cracked the top 30.
“Among those were some of those younger athletes who we debated…as far as, ‘should we name them to a World Championships team? Are they ready for that level of stress, that level of competition?’” he said. “Skiers like Noah, and Sadie [Bjornsen] and Jessie [Diggins]…As a nation, we’ve been hoping to get going. We know we can’t rely on Kris Freeman, Kikkan, and Andy Newell forever.”
Grover acknowledged that a top 30 at World Championships doesn’t mean quite the same as it does in a normal World Cup, where stronger athletes like Norway and Sweden get more start slots. But on the other hand, he said, places were harder to come by in Oslo, since most athletes were peaking there.
“Yes, if you go to a classic World Cup in Norway, then a top 30 can really mean something,” Grover said. “But…I think given the fitness of the group, these results are legit.”
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.