VERNON, British Columbia — After five years on the NorAm Cup circuit, all Kevin Sandau needed was a little verification. Seeded first and the last to start in the men’s 15 k classic individual start on Sunday at Sovereign Lake, that meant something.
The 23-year-old, who recently returned from several weeks of racing in World Cup and FIS races, had never started last in a Continental Cup race before. He had also never won one.
“It was a pretty exciting way to start a race,” Sandau said after winning the first NorAm distance race on the schedule. “You just have to worry about the guys in front and no one’s going to be behind trying to catch you. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
With the simple task of looking ahead, the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) skier kept his mind sharp with World Cup imagery. As he attacked the hilly course, which started on an incline and rose about 50 meters (164 feet) for the first 1 ½ kilometers, he thought about how the world’s best racers skied.
“They look smooth and in control. They don’t freak out and run up hills,” Sandau said. “So it’s interesting to watch them race and notice what they do tactically.”
He concentrated on skiing smooth and saving energy. That way, when he needed it most in the second and third loops, he was able to ski comfortably.
The tactic worked as he closed in on Brent McMurtry (CNEPH), who finished second, 19.2 seconds off Sandau’s winning time of 41:32.8.
“It’s nice to get back to Canada and get on the podium,” Sandau said, after flying back from Europe two weeks ago.
McMurtry made the podium again on the second day of the NorAm opening weekend, after being the runner-up in the classic sprints.
While he had hoped for a victory, McMurtry said he was “reasonably happy” considering he felt strange warming up. He guessed his lightheadedness stemmed from too much coffee, but he felt fine by race time.
“I feel good these days, and I’m recovering well,” he said. “Looking forward to hopefully getting a win next weekend.”
Karl Nygren (CXC) made a good weekend even better, placing third on Sunday. He notched a career-best fifth in Saturday’s sprint.
While hilly courses weren’t usually his specialty, Nygren said he was happy to stay smooth and keep it together. Some changes to his summer training, such as more intervals, likely helped, he said.
“It’s a really good way to start the season off,” he said. “I’m racing progressively better, so that’s nice.”
Nygren and some of his Central Cross Country teammates next travel to Rossland, British Columbia, for the second set of NorAm races on Dec. 17-18.
Just outside the podium on Sunday, Matt Gelso (SVSEF) placed fourth for the fifth time in the last six races. He was fourth in every distance race — by a combined nine seconds out of third — and fifth in a sprint.
On one hand, Gelso was pleased with his consistency, but on the other, he wanted to get in the top three.
“What goes around comes around so at some point I know I’ll be on the plus side of those two-second gaps,” Gelso said. “It’s still fairly early in the season, but I can definitely go up, which is a good feeling.”
Leif Zimmerman (Bridger SF) followed Gelso in fifth. He said the longer distance played to his strength — or weakness — of taking a little while to get going in a race.
“I don’t necessarily try to do that, but it’s just kind of the way my body works,” Zimmerman said. “So as long as I don’t lose too much in the first lap, then the second and third usually feel really good in a race like this.”
A strong third lap gave him the edge over competitors like Brian Gregg (CXC), who finished seventh. Sylvan Ellefson (Team Homegrown) was sixth.
“I started right behind Leif,” Gregg said. “He finished super strong. I was maybe 10 seconds down to him, catching him, and then he just took off that last lap. That last lap was hard.”
Despite the course’s challenges, rising as high as 1,700 meters (5,577 feet), Gregg appreciated the terrain.
“I think a lot of the other courses we’ve skied this year have been pretty flat,” he said. “It’s nice to ski a course that’s really hard and sort of tests your engine as well. I felt really good today.”
Frederic Touchette (CNEPH) was eighth in his first December races in two years after injury caused him to miss the beginning of last season.
“The start of the season is a bit hard,” Touchette said. “I need to get in a rhythm for some races, but it should be better in January or February.”
Reese Hanneman pulled off his second top-10 performance of the weekend, placing ninth in the 15 k. Like Saturday’s sprint, where he was seventh, he focused on transitions.
“The hills were so big, there’s so much continuous striding, I just wanted to try to save my legs a little bit,” Hanneman said. “I just wanted to get top 10. I thought it would be pretty reasonable and it would be still by far my best result here.”
Hanneman had not previously cracked the top 40 in a NorAm distance race. David Greer (CNEPH) was 10th.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.