From the start, the U.S. men appeared ready to roll with the best of their World Cup competition at the 4×10 k relays in Sjusjøen, Norway, on Sunday. It wasn’t looks so much as action.
Andy Newell jumped out to a first quick lap on the 2.5-k loop, working outside the icy track to position himself in fifth. As he found out, he wasn’t the only one working hard — most of the men he was up against in the first classic leg had to do the same.
“There wasn’t a whole lot you could do as far as getting kick on the uphills,” Newell said. “A lot of people had to run outside the track, which was fine. … It made for a scrappy race, for sure. The first leg is always fun in that way.”
Newell’s teammates had similar races — and fun for that matter — chasing the lead pack and at times gaining significant ground.
For most of the U.S. Ski Team relay members, their 11th place result (+58.8 after Norway as the winner) indicated they each had better individual races than in Saturday’s 15 k freestyle, where Kris Freeman led them in 55th place. As a team, they were certainly making headway.
“In the last year or two, we’ve started focusing more on relays,” Newell said. “That’s something that we want to prioritize as a team … because it’s such a huge event and there’s so much pride involved.”
To make a podium run in future Olympics or World Championships, the U.S. men and women decided to field relays and practice in the World Cup. It didn’t matter if they were tired or gearing up for other races, they’d show up and race, Newell said.
Fortunately for the Americans, they were in the mood to go hard Sunday. Newell came within about two seconds of the frontrunners, but a minor tactical error may have cost him some time. When he tagged off to Freeman, Newell was about 15 seconds behind the leading pack of six.
“That time was basically lost all in that last kilometer,” Newell said. “In the first leg there’s a lot of hammering and you have to be in a good position … and I was in a good position, but maybe got caught off-guard a little bit coming into the stadium.”
For Newell and Freeman, which stayed at home on the East Coast before traveling to Europe, they had not had as many opportunities to get on snow as some others, like teammates Tad Elliott and Simi Hamilton, who hail from out West. The relay gave everyone another chance to test their fitness and racing mindset.
Especially for Freeman and Elliott, the second and third legs, they had to be especially tactful to catch the leaders. Freeman came close, within about 4 seconds of the leader, to lower the team to ninth place during his classic leg. He struggled to keep the position, in part because of the especially tricky conditions for classic, and finished about 30.8 seconds back.
“The tracks became kind of unskiable for most people,” Freeman said. “There was only a few people that had kick to stay in the track because it was getting colder as we raced. … I actually wasted a little energy trying to stay in the track too much, and in the end was just running on the outside.”
“I caught the lead group, but I had to work really hard to do it,” he added. “When the lead group made their move, I just didn’t have the energy to stay with them at the very end of the race.”
Tagging off to Elliott 20 seconds sooner would’ve made a difference, considering how well Elliott skied the team’s opening skate leg, Freeman said. Clocking a split of 22:53.6, the U.S. Ski Team newcomer was faster than Norway’s prized anchor, Petter Northug — the man who dusted off his forearms on Sunday before sealing Norway’s relay victory.
In an email, Elliott pointed out Northug was in a completely different race as the fourth leg. Jockeying at the start with a few race leaders, the Norwegian felt out his competition before turning it on.
Elliott wrote he could joke about the bragging rights of besting Northug, but was more pleased with his ability to stay with two competitive racers: Romo Fischer (SUI) and Morten Eilifsen (NOR III). On Saturday, Fischer was sixth in the 15 k.
“I am new and a bit, well, dumb,” Elliott wrote. “I didn’t know who I was skiing with. They are both awesome skiers. So that was cool to learn who they were after the race.”
After initially catching them and closing the gap to 21 seconds behind the leaders, Elliott said he ultimately paid for his all-out effort on the hills when Fischer and Eilifsen dropped him in the last kilometer. After advancing to seventh, Elliott moved to ninth and tagged off to Hamilton about 53 seconds back.
The Americans’ last chance, Hamilton worked to hold his own in his first World Cup race of the season, but Russian II anchor Ilia Chernousov eventually overtook him as did Norway II’s Emil Hegle Svendsen.
Regarding the 11th-place showing, Hamilton said he was pleased, especially after missing an opportunity to race Saturday. Because of an oversight, he was the fifth U.S. man entered in the individual race — which was one too many. He sat out and focused on Sunday’s race.
“I was fairly anxious going in to the day,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “First races are always like that, and being the anchor leg in a World Cup relay doesn’t help much to calm the nerves.”
While he was “fairly psyched” about his performance, he added there was always room for improvement.
“The race showed that we’re making some really good improvements as a nation in these types of races,” Hamilton wrote. “All of the U.S. guys were extremely fired up, and the camaraderie between the four of us both before and after the race was incredibly positive.
“The day really showed us that with continued hard work and more experience in these races, we can and should be entering the finish lanes along side the Norwegians and Swedes in the future.”
U.S. head coach Chris Grover said he initially felt the team should have modest expectations for the first weekend on the World Cup circuit, and several of his athletes exceeded that. Aside from Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen, who met career bests on Saturday, he pointed to some recent achievements on the men’s side.
“Andy had one of the better 15 k skates of his career, not typically his strongest event, and then a great relay leg today,” Grover said after watching the men’s relay from Park City, Utah. “It was really exciting to see Tad get going today and Kris skied a little bit more competitively as well. I think in the next week or two we’re going to see some outstanding performances.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.