Noah Hoffman had plenty to overcome in today’s World Cup 15 k classic race in Szklarska Poreba, Poland.
First, there was the thing that bothered everyone: the snow, which was variable and caused plenty of problems for racers and wax techs on every team.
“I’m not sure that any team really feels like they truly nailed the wax or ski preparation,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said in an interview. “Variable conditions throughout the course, snowing at night, some dry sections, lots of glazing. Very moist, moist snow. The klister seems to ice, and the hairies seem to not quite kick enough, and it was a challenging day.”
At least that was a challenge for the whole field, though. Hoffman also had to deal with depleted energy stores after getting hit by two different stomach bugs in the last few weeks.
“I felt good but not great out there today,” Hoffman told FasterSkier after placing 31st, his second-best classic performance on the World Cup.
His effort led the U.S. team, which was missing Kris Freeman due to the same stomach ailment. None of the three starters were thrilled with their performances, but they weren’t despondent, either – it was simply a run of the mill day in touch conditions.
Hoffman, Andy Newell, and Sylvan Ellefson had different experiences with their klister cover. While Hoffman said that he thought his skis were “among the best out there,” Newell’s boards slowed him down significantly and contributed to his 50th-place finish.
“My skis were working great on the first lap, then a little bit sticky on the second, and then a lot sticky on the third,” Newell told FasterSkir. “I think what happened was just that our cover wore off a little bit, and made it so the klister started picking up more snow in the uphill. After I iced badly on the big climb on the last lap, I lost about 45 seconds in the last few kilometers.”
Ellefson had the same experience.
“At the bottom of the course my skis were slick and at the top were icing a bit,” he said. “It was foggy and sat right around the 0º Celsius mark all day. On the second lap my skis iced pretty well, immediately after I finally cleared the ice.”
Hoffman, however, at least wasn’t held back by his skis.
“My skis had great kick and were fast other than a couple times when they iced a small amount,” he said. “The techs did a great job on a tricky day.”
Hoffman was in 20th place at the three-kilometer mark, before gradually fading out of the World Cup points.
“I was pleased with my race, but I’m looking to take another step in the coming weeks,” he said. “I have had several results at this level of racing in the 25 to 35 place range. I think I can do better before the season is out.”
Whitcomb explained that Hoffman had been aiming for the top 20, but was impressed that given his recent health issues he had been “in the mix” at a top international competition.
“He looked great, and really made the skis work in challenging conditions,” the coach said. “I can only imagine what it would have been like had his health been about him for the last couple of weeks.”
Hoffman said he was looking forward to Under-23 World Championships, where he’ll be headed next; the same race will be held there on Thursday, and he had confidence after today’s effort.
Whitcomb had confidence, too.
“Nobody works harder on technique than Hoffman, and it’s paying off in a big way,” the coach said of his athlete. “His technique progress and his fitness are coming together right now, and it’s making big things happen.”
Like Hoffman, Newell had bigger goals for the 15 k, saying that his “goal for any distance race is to be in the points.” Outside of the wax issues, he wasn’t sure if he had started out too skiing too hard.
“I tried to not go out super fast because there was a massive climb out there, but at the same time put myself in a position fight for a top 30,” Newell said. “I was something like 29th first lap, 37th second, and then fell back a lot in the last few kilometers. I don’t know if I should start more conservatively or not, but that’s just how I am I guess… I went out today skiing on pace for points it just didn’t work out in the end.”
Newell ended up catching Ellefson, who started a minute ahead of him, and the two skied together for the later part of the race. Ellefson, however, was able to speed up in the last loop, while Newell slowed down; he finished 56th, only 23 seconds slower than Newell.
“I felt the best I have on the trip so far, so it was a super good race for me going into the fourth period,” said Ellefson, who as the continental cup leader has only been racing on the World Cup for the last several weeks.
Aside from the wax issues, he said that he was still getting used to the courses and the level of competition in Europe.
“My experience racing over here has shown me much more difficult courses than I am used to in the U.S.,” he said. “To do an A-climb followed by a slight uphill and then another A-climb is nothing you come across too often in the U.S.”
For instance, Ellefson and Hoffman had several comparable results at this year’s U.S. National Championships; in the 15 k skate there, which is traditionally Hoffman’s stronger discipline, Ellefson placed third and Hoffman fourth after Hoffman misjudged his pacing. Ellefson was only just over two minutes behind Hoffman when he dominated the 30 k classic race, a fairly similar margin to the one separating them in the 15 k on Sunday.
Skis obviously make a difference, but so too, Ellefson implied, does experience on this circuit, where Hoffman has been racing for two seasons now.
“Obviously results are not exactly where I want them, but the experience over on this circuit is invaluable,” Ellefson said of his racing so far. “To just be surrounded by such a different degree of competition has been extremely important to my development as a skier. I wish I could have had this exposure to international racing at a much younger age sometimes.”
Another thing U.S. skiers don’t get exposed to? Rabid fans at ski races. The enthusiasm of the spectators was something new for Ellefson, and he loved every minute of it.
“The crowds here are insane,” he said. “Pretty much everywhere there was a crowd today there was someone yelling my name, ‘SYL-VAN, SYL-VAN, SYL-VAN, SYL-VAN, SYL-VAN!!!’ Amazing.”
From here, Ellefson and Newell will travel to Davos with Freeman and train for the final period of World Cup competion. Whitcomb said that he expected good performances to come from Freeman, whose decision not to race today came after taking the long view on the season.
“A couple days ago it was looking like he was getting back on his feet,” Whitcomb said. “This was more of a conservative move, to try to save what has started to turn into a positive season. We wanted to make sure we didn’t burn a race before it was the right time.”
While Freeman will be looking forward to racing at all, Ellefson has one big thing on his radar screen: Oslo.
“I’m super psyched to be racing the Holmenkollen in Oslo,” he said. “Can’t wait for that.”