ROSSLAND, British Columbia — It’s not that Kevin Sandau’s not a team player. He just puts the pedal down when he feels like it.
One of four Alberta World Cup Academy skiers seeded in the top eight of Sunday’s NorAm 15 k freestyle mass start, Sandau pushed the pace early as he tried to break free of the 73-man field.
It didn’t exactly work at first, but the man in the green leader’s jersey kept on.
At the end of the first 3.75 k lap, Sandau sat in first with teammate Graeme Killick close behind. Three others remained on their heels, AWCA teammates Pate Neumann and Jesse Cockney, along with Brent McMurtry of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre.
On the second of four laps, the contenders were much the same, except Cockney led and Sandau was second. Neumann sat in third, leading most outsiders to believe the academy racers were trying to monopolize the podium.
That’s always the goal, but it’s more of a byproduct of their individual efforts, according to AWCA head coach Chris Jeffries.
“They’re teammates, but they put a bib on and they’re not teammates anymore,” Jeffries said. “They’re going to work together and help each other out, but they’re competitors as well.”
In Sandau’s opinion, there weren’t a whole lot of team tactics going on. It was simply a fast-paced race that never let up, and his teammates found a way to hang on.
“The further it went, it looked like it was going to come down to the sprint,” Sandau said. “Going into the race, I just had my own personal plan. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to ski my own race and I knew last week I had my speed to do anything.”
Last weekend, Sandau won his first NorAm race in the 15 k classic individual start. He went on to place third in Saturday’s 1.6 k freestyle sprint in Rossland, and continued his podium run with the mass-start victory. He pulled of Sunday’s win with a slingshot move on the final downhill, where he passed and beat McMurtry to the finish by 0.6 seconds.
Killick finished one second later in third place, and Neumann was fourth for his best result of the season. In all, the AWCA ended up with nine podiums on the weekend (including first through fifth place), five of which came from the men.
While Jeffries said he was pleased with the team’s overall performance in Rossland, he wasn’t surprised with Sandau.
“He’s trained so much in the last four or five years, and time just pays off,” Jeffries said. “He’s not really known as a sprinter, but I was telling him (Sunday), ‘If you’re strong, you’re strong.’ ”
Cockney, who fell behind on the third lap, said he knew what Sandau was capable of after training with him for four years.
“I know what he’s like when he’s in good shape and he doesn’t want to ski around people,” Cockney said. “(This) was one of those days he wanted to make sure he was far and away. He put down some really hard pace on the second lap and he’s strong, he’s really strong right now. It’s good to see.”
After winning Saturday’s freestyle sprint, Cockney was in the running for sixth place on Sunday, but missed the finish and took the lap lane instead.
“I was already thinking how I wanted to ski the finish sprint and I kind of blanked,” said Cockney, who ended up 10th.
According to technical delegate Ken Hewitt, Cockney received a verbal warning for his mistake, but wasn’t penalized for skipping the turn since he went back and retraced his steps.
The second-place finisher of the day, McMurtry was nearly as disappointed with his result.
“What can I say? Second again is good, but it’s pretty frustrating at the same time,” McMurtry said.
For the fourth consecutive race, he placed second. In the two distance races, McMurtry had been the runner-up to Sandau, and he lost the first NorAm race of the season to Mike Sinnott (SVSEF) in a classic sprint last weekend.
On Sunday, McMurtry said Sandau beat him on a working downhill. Earlier in the last lap, McMurtry moved ahead on a long climb on the back half of the course. He hoped that would give him enough of a margin to seal the victory.
“I wanted to win and anything other than that, I wouldn’t have really been happy,” he said. “But that’s the way it goes. You can’t win them all, but you can finish second in them all.”
Killick said he was surprised with his podium performance after feeling tired warming up. The pace set by Sandau was hard, he said, but he hung on.
“(Sandau) was really putting the hurt on every chance he got,” Killick said. “Coming into the stadium, (Sandau and McMurtry) had a bit of a gap on me, but I was able to close it in along that stretch out there and sort of fight for it at the line.”
The third AWCA skier in the top four, Neumann said he focused specifically on this weekend’s mass start after sitting out the 15 k classic race at Sovereign Lake.
“I wanted to be on the podium,” Neumann said. “It’s close, but I didn’t quite have the legs at the end of the sprint.”
Neumann finished about six seconds behind Killick (+8.9 back from Sandau). Leif Zimmermann of the Bridger Ski Foundation came through in fifth about nine seconds later. He had been at the back of the lead group for most of the race.
“I was pleased,” Zimmermann said. “I’ve been feeling really flat here and just kind of the legs (are) feeling a little sapped. But skating 15 k is probably my strongest race so I can always fall back on that, and feel with the skating, climbing, it was a good course for me.”
At one point when the pace slowed on the second lap, Zimmermann worked with the others and moved to the front. When it came to the hills, however, he found he couldn’t go as hard as he wanted to.
“(But) it was fun to ski with these guys,” he said.
Frederic Touchette (CNEPH) edged Mike Somppi (NDC) at the line for sixth place, David Greer (CNEPH) was eighth and Steffan Lloyd (Nakkertok) finished ninth.
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.