Jennie Bender wasn’t sure what the noise was, but she remembered it from watching the men’s race before the women’s 5 k classic mass start at Green Acres Park in Lake Elmo, Minn., on Saturday.
As far as she knew, the horn meant go. And so, in the fourth of five stages at the Tour de Twin Cities SuperTour event, Bender reacted. The multi-stage leader from Central Cross Country (CXC) skied to a commanding lead, nearly 16 seconds ahead of her closest competitor in Rosie Brennan of Alaska Pacific University (APU) on the first of two laps.
Despite Brennan’s push to close on the second loop, Bender won her third race in the Tour, this time by 8.12 seconds over Brennan in 14:44.8. Bender’s CXC teammate, Caitlin Gregg was third (+22.13).
Motivated from the start, Bender said in a phone interview she knew the importance of winning Saturday’s stage before the final 10 k freestyle pursuit on Sunday. Every bit of the race – classic, 5 k, mass start – suited her, especially compared to Sunday’s skate race, she said. Her goal remained the overall title, and Bender also wanted to win on Saturday.
It helped that she was particularly in tune from the get-go. After the starter gave the one-minute warning, Bender said there was a long silence. Positioned in the front row, she saw him raise a horn, which made a “different-sounding” noise, she said.
“Everyone jolted forward, but stopped,” Bender said. “I knew that was the noise so I kind of booked it and then I realized that everyone else was a few paces behind me so I decided to go for it.”
With a sizeable lead to her advantage, Bender continued to push the pace – sprinting the first lap and trying to hold on throughout the second. On the second loop, she heard Brennan was closing in, first by 15 seconds, then 10 seconds. In the end, Bender was happy to stay ahead.
“It was a hard effort, but that was what I needed to do today,” said Bender, who aimed to place at least in the top 5 on Sunday and win the Tour. “I’m tired, but I definitely won’t relax until tomorrow’s over.”
In the culminating pursuit, Brennan will start 8 seconds behind Bender. While pleased with the strong second half of her race on Saturday, Brennan said she was a little off from the start.
“I wasn’t warmed up very well, so I was taken by surprise at the start,” Brennan said. “I also had less-than-ideal kick so it took me a little while to relax and react to what was happening. Jennie took off and I kind of gathered myself … and then things went a lot better.”
With one wax tech for five APU racers, Brennan said she found herself running around before the start, trying to pick the best skis. Once the course closed, she likely grabbed the wrong pair, she said.
“Fortunately, the course had very little to no striding … so I was able to keep moving regardless,” Brennan said.
Third throughout the race, Gregg was satisfied with her result, especially considering the fast pace Bender and Brennan set initially.
“I got kind of caught off-guard at the start … and Jennie just took off like a rocket,” Gregg said. “Rosie was a little bit behind her, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these girls are going so fast.’ ”
Free from tangles near the start, Gregg said there was a sudden charge for the preem later on the first lap, and she missed the bonus. By the larger hill on the second lap, she distanced herself from the chase group.
“It seemed like, after about 4 k, I kind of hit my groove, and I was really feeling good,” Gregg said. “Unfortunately, it was about 3 ½ k too late.”
Slated to start 23 seconds behind Bender on Sunday, Gregg was especially excited about the pursuit. The 31-year-old said she had not done a true pursuit, with classic one day followed a skate race the next, since high school.
A few hours after Saturday’s races, Gregg was still on the go, running around in a park in Saint Paul, Minn. She participated in the annual Saint Paul Winter Carnival treasure hunt with her husky, Lahti, and used her husband’s (Brian’s) cell phone for Internet capabilities. While Gregg was only out for about 30 minutes, the idea was to follow clues toward a medallion.
“It’s pretty cool because it gets people out into the park in the wintertime,” she said of the geocaching-like game. “People are pretty serious, though. I’m definitely not.”
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.