No rain, no wind, a brilliant shining sun coming up over the mountains, and rapidly warming temperatures— perfect conditions for the 2011 edition of the Climb to the Castle Rollerski Race.
Kris Freeman (USST) made the most of the fine day, defending his 2010 title in impressive fashion, battling with Olympic biathlete Tim Burke for much of the race, before surging ahead with less than 500 meters to go.
Burke was a close second, with the US Ski Team’s (USST) Noah Hoffman rounding out the star-studded podium.
The Climb to the Castle has become an annual fall ritual for USST athletes and assorted other elite skiers who make their way to Lake Placid, New York as part of the National Elite Group (NEG), or with their own teams. With the fall training camp scheduled a month earlier this year, the race moved as well— a clear improvement weather-wise, and the weekend start more accessible for school and work-bound skiers.
The result was a field over 80-strong, with no lack of competition. With the US Nordic Combined Team absent due to the schedule change, the biathlon squad stepped forward to fill the gap, and the Freeman-Burke showdown was the prime event.
The question of Freeman or Burke, both serious threats on their respective World Cup circuits, has long been debated by American ski fans. Finally an answer was to be had – albeit in a meaningless training race well before peak fitness is required, or even desired.
The matchup did not disappoint, though the race was hardly a two-man show.
USST rookie Tad Elliott led out of the start, setting a strong pace early. Elliott wasn’t expecting to drop the big guns, but after a tough start in 2010 he wasn’t taking any chances.
“Last year I started in the back of the pack and Bird [Freeman] and Hoff [Hoffman] went and I missed out,” Elliott told FasterSkier after the race. “So this year I was trying to start smooth, and I figured those guys would come around me and they never really did for awhile.”
Elliott may not have been trying to drive the pace, but he succeeded in breaking up the pack. By the time Burke took over at 1.5 miles the lead group was down to five— Burke, Freeman, Hoffman, Andy Newell and Elliott.
Even with 70% of the race yet to come, and one meager 30 meter stretch of flat as the only thing remotely resembling a “rest” ahead, Burke had the pedal down.
“I knew my strength was going to be to push it for thirty minutes at a really high rate, rather than the stop go type stuff that was going on,” Burke said. “So I just went to the front and went for it.”
He started the race content to let another (in this case Elliott) lead the way, while he evaluated his competition.
Riding his trademark smooth V2, Burke felt no need to relinquish the lead after moving up, and Freeman was happy to follow the biathlete, describing the pace as “hard,” yet “comfortable enough.”
By 3.5 miles, Elliott and Newell slipped off the back— the rookie first, followed soon after by the veteran sprinter.
Elliott felt he paid a price for the several “digs” (accelerations) he put in while leading early on, building up a bit too much lactate. He switched his focus to Newell, who has made his mark on international skiing in short, high-speed events, and was happy to have skied with the leaders for well over half the race.
Up ahead, Freeman finally made a move. At mile four, he headed to front, increasing the effort in hopes of breaking Hoffman and Burke.
He was partially successful. Hoffman, runner up to Freeman last year, was not able to respond. While Freeman’s attack was the straw that broke the Hoff’s back, the 22-year-old from Vail, Colorado, described his state as “borderline anyway,” indicating that he may not have been able to hold on regardless.
Burke, however, did not give an inch, remaining glued to the back of Freeman’s skis.
Freeman’s attack amounted to a full half-mile, including the flatter stretch of the course. Unable to shake Burke, he relinquished the lead and settled in to wait for the sprint.
“That was my strategy, I was either going to try to break people across the flat section, or if I could not do it I wanted to break them over the top,” Freeman said.
His plan was nearly foiled when he lost a road tip just as Burke moved back to the front. He received a new one almost immediately, but with time needed to switch over, Burke easily could have opened an insurmountable gap with just the final pitch remaining.
But Burke slowed his pace, cruising easily until Freeman was geared up and ready to go again. Freeman described Burke as a “great sport” for waiting, but showed no mercy over the last several hundred meters, dropping the hammer, and sprinting away.
Burke knew the last 200 meters would be tough, but also that Freeman could have been suffering just as much.
“I figured that he was pretty taxed too, but I don’t have that finishing speed right now…I didn’t have anything left in the legs,” Burke said.
Freeman set a personal best in his fifth running of the event, excluding the course-modified 2008 edition. His winning time of 36:18 was 51 seconds faster than his 2007 mark.
With the weather cooperating, most skiers were significantly faster than past years. Freeman, Hoffman, Newell, and Elliott were all over two minutes better than in the 2010 wind-battered race.
Burke, despite hailing from the area, competed in his first Climb to the Castle, crossing the line 11 seconds after Freeman.
“We have always been away at a camp or something, so I have never been here for it, Burke said. “It was awesome. I think I got really lucky because it was the perfect day. I have seen pictures and video from the past and it has looked pretty nasty.”
Freeman took a different approach strategy-wise this year. Historically, he has tried to break apart the race early with a grueling pace from the get-go.
“So much of the World Cup has been coming down to the last five minutes of the race and typically when I have done this time trial I have blown the field apart, and fallen apart in the last five minutes of the race,” Freeman said of his strategy.
A majority of World Cup events are now mass start races, and the ability to finish is critical. Freeman focused on skiing “like it was a top-level race.”
Freeman, a type I diabetic, was also pleased with his blood sugar management— which has not always been the case in this race.
“I went with 25% more insulin than I did last year, and I finished in a nice controlled number so I was psyched about that,” Freeman said.
With Elliott’s figurative wheels falling off on the last switchback, Newell claimed a personal-best fourth place.
Sylvan Ellefson (Team Homegrown), racing on classic skis, overtook Elliott in the last half kilometer to finish fifth.
Ellefson chose to classic due to an injury to his posterior tibial tendon— the tendon that runs up the inside of your ankle. Intense skating aggravates the issue, so Ellefson chose to stride.
Overall, 51 men completed the race.
FasterSkier erroneously reported that Lowell Bailey started the race and dropped out. Bailey came down with the flu last week, and did not start. We apologize for the error.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.