A top-five was all she needed to secure the overall win, but Jennie Bender (CXC) skied beyond that in Sunday’s 15 k freestyle pursuit at Green Acres, the final event of the five-race Tour de Twin Cities. The first athlete out of the gate, Bender finished third to teammate Caitlin Gregg (CXC), who won the pursuit by over a minute and a half and finished the Tour in second overall. Rosie Brennan (APU) was second on Sunday and third overall.
“I neeed to get in the top five…so it was more of a survival race,” said Bender on Sunday evening. “I wasn’t really feeling it today, but I just had to put my head down.”
Until the night before the race, Bender thought the pursuit start would be based off of the cumulative time difference from the previous four races, rather than only Saturday’s classic race.
“I thought I’d be starting behind Caitlin,” Bender explained.
Bender knew she’d be hunted down in either starting position, but with Gregg starting behind her, she knew she had her work cut out for her.
“Caitlin’s a strong skater, and she caught up,” said Bender.
Not only did Gregg catch up on the first lap, she ultimately gapped the field by over a minute and a half, and skied alone for much of the 15 k.
After making up the ground between herself and Bender and Brennan in front of her, Gregg got to work on pulling away.
“[I] just kept the hammer down so they didn’t want to try and stay with me I ended up skiing the entire race alone,” wrote Gregg in an email. “I was fortunate because I passed them on one of the steepest climbs of the course and that is where my strengths are in skating, so I took advantage of that.”
Hunting down her competitors is another of Gregg’s strengths, and after she assessed how her body felt and how everyone else was skiing, she blew the race away.
“I went hard at the start to avoid getting caught by the big group behind me (I was hoping) and soon realized that I was feeling great,” said Gregg. “So I just went with it and decided to charge hard the whole way.”
Brennan, who started eight seconds behind Bender and 15 seconds ahead of Gregg, knew she wouldn’t be able to hang onto Gregg after getting caught in the first lap.
“I didn’t stand a chance,” said Brennan. “I just tried to ski my own race, and I think that worked out well.”
The course, which overlapped Saturday’s herring bone- and double pole-heavy terrain, featured steep hills and fast flats.
“It’s hard, because you had to work the field or you’d lose a lot of seconds there if you didn’t just push all the way with your legs,” described Bender. “And the uphills were steep, so you had to keep the tempo up, and be really energetic up them.”
A perennially strong skater, Gregg held nothing back up the three steep hills on each of the five laps. She knew Bender would take the overall win, but there was still a fight to be had for second.
“The rest of us were still in contention for second through sixth, which keeps the energy high,” said Gregg.
Bender’s commanding lead in the points heading into Sunday was by design.
“I wanted to put myself in a position on Wednesday and Saturday where I wouldn’t be stressed out for today,” she said. “I knew those racers would be my better chances, and I don’t like having it all on the line [the last day], so that’s why I was pumped I was third [on Sunday].”
With three 30-point wins and 15 points from the bonus preem, Bender ended up winning the Tour by 19 points over Gregg.
The sustained stress of the week behind her, Bender now looks forward to the rest of the season. Her first stop is the City of Lakes Loppet next weekend, in Wirth Park where the Tour begain.
“Now that this week is over, I can get my thoughts together for what’s next,” she said. “I feel strong; I feel like I’m racing well.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.