In Tuesday’s 3.3 k prologue in Sun Valley, the top-seeded men started last. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise when Simi Hamilton finished his race with a big lead—there were 42 of the continent’s strongest skiers still to come.
The surprising thing was what happened next.
One by one, each of those 42 men came to the finish line and failed to touch Hamilton’s time. Andy Newell: 18 seconds down. Leif Zimmermann and Lars Flora: 22 seconds down. Kris Freeman, the very last starter: nine seconds down.
When the snow settled, Hamilton was left standing with a big win, in the first race of the four-stage SuperTour Finals mini-tour.
Freeman was closest, with Tad Elliott in third, another second back, but neither had a chance against the white-hot Hamilton.
“I think my effort was a top 30 on the World Cup,” Freeman said. “[Hamilton’s] effort would have been top 15. So, I think he had a great day—it was good to see.”
Hamilton’s win came on his home course—at least, ostensibly. He has been racing for Sun Valley’s Olympic Development Team (ODT) for the last two years, but with so much travel during the competition season, he had never set foot on the Lake Creek Trails in winter.
“Yesterday was actually my first day I’ve ever skied out here,” he said. “We’ve done some bounding intervals out here…so I know the topography well.”
On Tuesday, there’s no doubt that helped, because the Sun Valley staff used that topography to lay out a race course that could best be described as spicy.
A promenade loop took the athletes through some flat and rolling terrain for about a kilometer, before doubling back in a hairpin turn and heading straight up a steep climb on a trail called Hammer.
The ensuing descent spat out into a tight, righthand corner that was very tricky. It was cloudy in Sun Valley on Tuesday, and the resulting flat light made it hard to see icy patches, as well as the borders of the trail.
With the massive climb sucking the strength from skiers’ legs, the corner became legitimately treacherous, and plenty of top men had some white-knuckle moments.
“You just couldn’t see the contour of the snow, and then just with shaky, lactated-up legs—that’s what makes it the hardest,” said Drew Goldsack (AWCA/CNST), who finished fourth. “In training, it’s not bad, but when your legs can barely hold you up, it’s pretty challenging.”
Hamilton, though, is one of the quickest and smoothest skiers on the planet, and he thrives on tight turns and technical courses, according to Travis Jones, his coach at the ODT.
“It definitely puts a premium on athleticism, a course like this,” Jones said.
Hamilton has demonstrated that athleticism numerous times in sprint races, but the question heading into the prologue
was whether it would hold up for 3.3 kilometers. It certainly didn’t hurt that the snow was slick and icy—Hamilton’s winning time was less than eight minutes—but he has also been working to improve his endurance.
Hamilton does well up high, too, which helped on the Lake Creek Trails, at 6,000 feet.
“He’s from Aspen—the guy grew up at 8,000 feet,” Jones said. “He knows how to ski altitude.”
At the top of Hammer, Hamilton was more than five seconds clear of the entire field, with the exception of Elliott, who was dead even. But in his first-ever prologue, Elliott had gone out a little bit harder.
“I tried to pace it well, and then things were going so good, I was like, ‘oh, I’m going for it!’” he said.
Hamilton, on the other hand, skied a more measured pace on the first half of the course, which he said allowed him to ratchet things up on the climb.
“I was able to come into the hill section with some energy left, and not too much lactate in my legs. “I definitely came into the last 500 meters pretty spent, which I think is a good sign, but I think I paced it pretty well.”
When he crossed the line, Hamilton said he knew he’d had a good day. But there were still 40 skiers to come before he’d learn how it would stack up. The race was seeded by distance points, and Hamilton’s aren’t that strong.
Instead of standing around and chewing his nails for 20 minutes, Hamilton disappeared into the woods for his cool-down, emerging to the news that he had laid a bona-fide beating on the rest of the field.
“I knew it had gone well, and I had a pretty fast time, but I didn’t know what to expect, in terms of all those guys coming in,” he said. “It was a nice surprise coming back.”
Freeman said that his race was the best prologue out of the three he’d skied this season, but Hamilton, he said, was a notch above him on Tuesday.
Freeman acknowledged that there might have been one portion of the course that he could have skied a bit harder, but as to whether he could have found an extra 10 seconds somewhere, the answer was simple: “No.”
“I paced it pretty well—if I gave the time away anywhere, it was probably on the first flatter section,” he said. “I can’t complain—Simi was just faster today.”
Thanks to his victory, Hamilton earned 15 bonus seconds that will be subtracted from his overall mini-tour time; he’ll don the yellow bib of overall race leader in the next race, on Wednesday morning.
That event is a 15 k classic mass-start—not exactly Hamilton’s strong suit. On the other hand, he has been distance racing well over the last month—and while Tuesday’s result is no guarantee he can go the full 15 kilometers with the leaders, it certainly isn’t a bad indicator.
“I’m definitely super-psyched for it. I’m not sure how much of a sign it is for the distance races,” he said. “But I’ll come out tomorrow ready to fight.”
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.