World Cup Preview: USST Focuses on Tour, Consistency and Developing Rookie Talent

Audrey ManganNovember 17, 2011
Kikkan Randall on her way to first in the Drammen sprint, 2011.

With the biggest squad in recent memory, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) looks to continue building on last season’s results on the World Cup this year, starting with the salvaged opener on November 19. Mild weather put the Americans’ travel plans in limbo last week, delaying their arrival to Europe. With their planned tune-up race in Beitostølen, Norway canceled, Saturday’s race in Sjusjøen will be the first time most of the U.S. contingent puts on a bib.

But the season is long, and Saturday’s 10/15 k freestyle marks only the first shot to show the world what they’re made of. Here’s what to look out for on the USST this season.

Veterans Target Tour de Ski

Last season was a big year for the USST. Look no further than Kikkan Randall’s three World Cup podiums (two of them gold) and overall third-place sprint ranking for evidence of serious American momentum. A plot of total U.S. World Cup points over the past 10 years reads like an environmentalist’s CO2 graph (only here, the climbing curve is a reason for optimism).

Kris Freeman.

The clear focal point of the 2010-2011 season was  at World Championships in Oslo, but every three years the calendar cycles through a winter of no major championship. This year, in the absence of an Olympics or World Championships, the focus for USST veterans Randall, Andy Newell, Kris Freeman, Liz Stephen and Simi Hamilton is the Tour de Ski, the nine-event series that travels through five cities in Germany and Italy over the course of 11 days.

The Tour is only in its fifth year, and last season was a learning experience for Randall and Freeman, as it was the USST’s first time entering every stage (Newell dropped out early due to fatigue). It was also an education for the support staff, said USST Head Coach Chris Grover. On the penultimate day of racing, a mass start distance classic, team technicians missed the wax, setting Freeman and Randall back.

“If we hadn’t had that snafu on the second to last day, Kikkan and Kris would have been in the position for a top-15 finish,” he said. Randall ended up in 21st and Freeman in 28th. “Both were getting stronger towards the end…and for several athletes in the U.S., [a top-15] is not an unreachable goal this year,” Grover continued.

The U.S. isn’t the only country switching its focus to the Tour, however; expect more than 40 athletes to toe the line of each stage come early January.

As of now, all five USST athletes preparing for the Tour are planning on staying in Ramsau, Austria over Christmas in order to eliminate jet lag so close to the grueling stage race, which starts on December 29 in Oberhof, Germany.

Gaining Momentum on the World Cup

Andy Newell on his way to a season-best fifth place in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo: Kellen MacFadyen)

Apart from the Tour, veterans are looking to build on recent breakthroughs and perform at a consistently high level. The U.S. can now claim to have some of the best sprinters in the world; Randall was the third-best overall sprinter on the World Cup last year, and the year before that Newell was ranked fourth, and made it to the finals in last season’s sprint in Stockholm. Hamilton had the speed to qualify 11th at the Davos sprint.

On the distance side, Freeman seems to have dialed in his blood-sugar management and can pop top-10s when everything goes right. Noah Hoffman’s standout performances last year were two top-30s at World Championships, including a gutsy 30th in the premier event, the 50 k. The 22-year-old is focused on his final U23 Championships in Erzurum, Turkey, where he thinks he can realistically win either two of the distance races, but he’s also aiming for consistent top-30s and a few top-20s on the World Cup.

Stephen, who sat out Spring Series at the very end of last season due to foot trouble, is back to full form. Since she started wearing custom-made Rossignol boots, she said it hasn’t given her trouble. With an outstanding 16th in the 30 k in Oslo, Stephen has the toughness to perform well under pressure.

Large Rookie Class To Build Up Experience

With six rookies on the team this year joining six veterans, this is the most robust group the USST team has seen in a while. “Rookie” is a misleading term; Ida Sargent, Sadie Bjornsen, Tad Elliott and Jessie Diggins all stepped up to the plate at World Championships in Oslo, and have multiple World Cup starts under their belts.

“They responded really well to the pressures of racing at World Champs in front of thousands of people,” said Grover.

Jessie Diggins on her way to 7th at World Juniors.

Diggins’ breakthrough onto the big stage last year was impressive: at just 19 years old, she notched two top-30s at World Championships and anchored the women’s relay to a 9th place showing. Just a few weeks prior in Estonia, she was 7th in the 5 k skate at World Juniors, the best result for an American at that event in five years.

Bjornsen is coming off equally strong international performances—she, too, had two top-30s at World Championships in her first year representing the U.S. at the highest level. Sargent has already seen action this winter in Muonio, Finland with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, where she started off well with a 10th in the classic sprint.

Elliott, who recently put his mountain biking career on the back-burner and joined Colorado-based Team Homegrown, shows promise in distances racing. He won the American Birkebeiner in 2010, and had a strong start in 2011 by winning the 30 k at U.S. Nationals in Rumford, ME. His international results at World Championships distance World Cups were mediocre, but as it was his first year spending a significant amount of time in Europe, watch out for the Durango, CO native this year.

While the A-Team is contending for overall standings and will race every event on the World Cup, B-Team athletes are planning on a few more domestic starts. Elliott, Bjornsen and Sargent are already in Europe and will race Period 1, while Diggins will start off the season on the domestic circuit, joining the team in Italy directly after U.S. Nationals for the remainder of Period 2 on the World Cup before heading to U23s.

Tad Elliott (USA, bib 34) and Noah Hoffman (USA, bib 35).

Though the rookies shook things up at World Championships, Grover is focused on getting them familiar with individual courses this year. “Now, they need to build some experience on the World Cup, learning how to race the courses we ski on,” he said.

The recent sprint success of Randall and Newell took time, he explained, partly because they had to learn the venues. “It’s critical for sprinters…to learn to ski a course efficiently in order to be on a podium. It’s hard to be successful the first time you go. You’ve got to learn how to tactically ski some of these courses.”

Racing experience is only part of becoming familiar with Europe. Learning how to live efficiently and recover while living out of a suitcase takes doing, which will be an important next step for this group of young athletes.

Skyler Davis and Erik Bjornsen together make up the USST’s D-Team, and though neither have had World Cup starts yet, they’re both familiar with racing in Europe. Davis will be entering sprints only for Period 1, which includes Dusseldorf, Germany and Rogla, Slovenia.

The younger Bjornsen sibling was 14th in the sprint at World Junior Championships last season, and is looking forward to OPA Cups and qualifying for U23s. Though he hasn’t yet been offered a World Cup start, he may see sprint action if he’s racing fast enough as the winter progresses.

Budget Constraints: A Planning Challenge

The post-Period 1 schedule for the B-Team is a little less certain. Grover normally has to expect that sickness might cause race plans to shift mid-season, but this year he has the added challenge of contending with an uncertain amount of funding.

“It’s definitely a huge challenge for us, making our planning a little more difficult,” he said. “But even if we had unlimited resources, we would be putting on paper right now who is doing what World Cups in January or February. We’re talking about B-Team athletes with less experience; it’s hard to know now what sort of competition environment they’ll need to make the next step.”

The Drive For 25, the National Nordic Foundation’s (NNF) big push for widespread $25 donations on November 15, concluded Tuesday with nearly $23,000 raised in 24 hours. At last count, this brought the total amount of NNF’s dedicated cross-country support to $68,348 of its $250,000 goal. The doors for donations are always open, but some athletes still don’t know if they can afford to make it to later season starts.

Grover is optimistic. “I have a feeling if people are skiing really fast, they will find a way to get [needed] money,” he said. “That’s typically the way something like that works. When people in your community see you succeeding, they want to be part of it.”

Continental Cup Leaders Add Depth

Lars Flora in the pursuit at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo.

By virtue of being the overall SuperTour leaders from last season, APU’s Lars Flora and Holly Brooks get to start in the first five World Cup weekends with the rest of the USST. Both athletes have considerable experience on the World Cup. They know how to compete and recover in Europe, and have showed up with consistent results when it counts.

Brooks had three top-30s at World Championships, including a 25th in the 30 k. Flora is the defending U.S. 15 k champ, and had respectable results at World Championships, including two top-40s. His best World Cup result last year was a crack into the top 30 for the 15 k skate in Falun, Sweden.

SuperTour leaders throughout the coming season will also have the opportunity to race in later World Cup races, and with Hoffman, Diggins, the Bjornsens and Davis potentially dedicated to U23s for most of early February, those additional start rights could be crucial to filling out American ranks later in the season.

What to Watch For

“I try not to put predictions on individual athletes,” said Grover. “I don’t want to put them under even more pressure.”

That said, he thinks that overall his athletes stand a good chance at sprint podiums again. And Freeman, he noted, had one of his best years on the World Cup last year. Barring more waxing hiccups, Grover expects top-15s in the Tour de Ski to be a possibility for any of the five athletes planning on going.

In terms of the overall World Cup standings, Randall’s third place last year and Newell’s fourth final sprint ranking in 2010 are indicative of more good things to come. The two women ahead of Randall last year have retired, but there is always the potential for new faces to show up out of nowhere. And in the absence of a major championship, more athletes will likely put themselves in the running for the overall titles.

As always, it’s impossible to predict where anyone will be several months down the road. But we’re excited to wake up at the crack of dawn every weekend from now until March to watch Eurosport’s live stream and see what unfolds.

World Cup Schedule

Tour de Ski Schedule

USST Roster

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Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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