Leif Zimmermann (BSF/Madshus) made it three in a row by winning the 15-kilometer freestyle race in West Yellowstone, Montana.
The 28-year-old from Bozeman, Montana weathered an intense snow squall and a strong challenge by Sylvan Ellefson (Team Homegrown) to earn a 23 second victory on the three lap course.
Ellefson claimed second, closely followed by Wednesday’s Sprint Showdown winner Mike Sinnott (SVSEF). Sinnott barely edged out teammate Matt Gelso for the final podium spot, claiming third by .2 seconds.
Zimmerman has now won the last three 15k SuperTour races in on the Rendezvous Trail system, and four of the last five. Even more impressively, the 2006 Olympian has finished on the podium in six of the previous eight distance races at the venue.
And while Zimmermann is no slouch elsewhere, finishing fourth in the 30km National Championship event in Rumford, Maine and eighth in the SuperTour Finals in Sun Valley, Idaho, last year, he clearly has a special relationship with November racing in West Yellowstone.
“Honestly I don’t have an answer,” he told FasterSkier after the race. “I have skied here since I was 13. It is basically home course.”
Bozeman is just two hours north, so West Yellowstone is right in his backyard by western standards, but plenty of other skiers race at home, with nowhere near the success.
Zimmermann also thrives at the high elevation in West , saying “Altitude, I love altitude.” So a factor that most other skiers see as a detriment plays to Zimmermann’s strengths.
He also points to the fact that early season events are always a bit of a “wild-card.” Skiers are in different places training-wise, and nobody really knows how fast anyone else will be going.
Zimmermann started first in the A-Seed (the twenty fastest skiers), a spot that could have been a disadvantage—all his splits would be back splits (information from earlier points on the course).
But the veteran was unfazed, skiing relaxed and smooth with a strong efficient V1 on the big climbs, not panicking when his body didn’t immediately respond.
Coming off a Wednesday sprint in which he felt “awful” Zimmermann was sluggish out of the gate.
“Honestly when I started to day I felt better but I really didn’t think this was a good year for me,” Zimmermann said.
“I was really pleased with how I felt once I started cruising out there, really consistent,” he continued. “I think I paced really well the whole way through.”
The West Yellowstone 5k course is quite challenging, with long gradual stretches broken up by two large climbs. And that loop was skied three times.
The crux is the now renowned “Telemark Hill,” prominently featured as the final climb in the sprint events.
Graeme Killick (AWCA), the Canadian skier who finished sixth described it as a “tough one, especially at the end of a lap,” also comparing the 200 meter stretch to “climbing an alpine slope,” what with a sidehill in places, and the steep wall just before the crest.
On its own the hill might not be considered overly intimidating, but there is very little rest on the loop, and once you factor in the first major ascent—a longer, but more moderate pitch—you end up with a course that is unforgiving.
“Not much rest, just a lot of work,” Killiack said.
Zimmermann pointed to the importance of taking a measured approach to the 15k endeavor, with the altitude and the added complication of a snow squall that blew in just as the last A-seed skier hit the tracks, but actually ignored his own advice.
“I was feeling a little flat and sluggish, so I was going as hard as I could out of the start. But for me that is to try to pick it up, get some blood pumping and try to get over that first wave of lactic acid and just get into a good rhythm,” Zimmermann said.
He found his stride, and was able to stay strong on the climbs, actually finding them easier than the flatter sections.
“The hills out there are really fun to ski, really nice grade, just a really fun powerful V1, and for me that is what I like,” Zimmermann said.
His closest challenger Ellefson was still within 12 seconds with six kilometers to go, but appeared to be straining a bit more the second time up Telemark Hill. He stayed strong but was unable to stop the bleeding.
The native of Vail, Colorado termed his race as “good,” especially for the first distance race of the season.
“[It] definitely makes you remember what it is like,” he said of the effort.
He told FasterSkier that he executed his race plan well. The goal was “to stay big and strong for the first half of the race, and then see what I could do for the rest.”
Staying with a consistent theme, he found the loop plenty challenging.
“There was not a lot of recovery on that course. It was a full workout the whole time,” Ellefson said.
Sinnott, just 3.4 second behind Ellefson and that miniscule .2 ahead of Gelso. also pointed to the lack of rest.
“I don’t think people give it enough credit for how though it is,” Sinnott said of the course. “There’s not a lot of rest and it’s at altitude.”
He wanted to start “smooth” and increase his speed as the race progressed, and “ski the hills strong, but not too hard…it’s easy to blow up over the top.”
The 4-5 inches of overnight snow never materialized, but the weather was damp and blustery. As the race got underway, the sun peaked through the clouds while simultaneously light snow began to fall.
Twenty minutes later a full on blizzard was underway.
“The wind was just gusting and howling at one point,” Zimmermann said. “It was swirling all around me. I could hardly even see the track.”
As quickly as it started, the snow stopped, leaving no more than an inch on course. With all of the top skiers already on-track, no one was impacted negatively relative to the rest of the field.
Sinnott described the snow as “fun,” while Ellefson went with “nuts.”
Matt Leibsch (Team Strong Heart), who finished 6th, just 4.1 seconds in back of Killick pointed out that while the snow didn’t make for any unfair edge, it made a challenging course tougher.
“It went from liquidy quick to having to work pretty hard there,” Leibsch said after the race.
Gelso seemed unperturbed by missing out on the podium by such a small margin. Normally a slow starter, he was happy to be skiing well in November.
“I think it was a solid effort for sure,” he said.
The Canadian Killick doesn’t face off with many of the top domestic Americans very often. He was philosophical about the day, looking at the first distance race as a stepping-stone to bigger things.
Training out of Canmore, he usually performs better at altitude, but like Gelso is traditionally a slow starter.
“For this year, my major goal is U23 Championships. So I’m getting ready for those races and hopefully a top-10 or a top-5,” Killick said.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 10km classic event—on the same 5k loop. Despite all his success, Zimmermann will be gunning for his first double victory in West.
But like most skiers here, he is focused on the bigger picture.
“I am pleased with where I am now,” Zimmermann said. “I would like to feel a little better and a little snappier, but I’ll continue to train through toward Nationals [in January] and the middle of the year rather than peak in November.”
His main goal is to stay strong and consistent over the course of the whole season.
Whatever happens, however, he has already extended is impressive West Yellowstone streak.
And just like home cooking, there is nothing like home snow, at least not for Zimmermann. “Home course is always sweet,” he concluded.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.