The US men’s team bounced back from a rough day in the 30k on Saturday for a solid performance in the 4x10km relay in Nové Město, Czech Republic.
While finishing 12th out of 15 teams may not seem worth celebrating, especially on the heels of a fifth place result by the women’s squad, given the experience of the team, and the competition they matched up with, the day was better than the numbers demonstrated.
Kris Freeman, the day after placing a disappointing 33rd, opened for the team, skiing his entire 10k leg with the lead pack, and tagged to Noah Hoffman in third place.
“I had a good day,” Freeman told FasterSkier. “My skis were running faster today which allowed for better recovery and better utilization of my double pole.”
He said that the pace at the front felt “controlled” until Norwegian Eldar Roenning attacked with two kilometers left. Freeman explained that while he was not in good position to respond on the climb, he was able to close back up on the flats.
Hoffman took over for the second leg, and while he is generally thought of as a better skater, he told FasterSkier that is no longer the case.
He described his race as “a little better than yesterday,” but not “quite where I expect myself to be.”
He dropped just under a minute to the leaders after skiing with the pack for the first two laps.
“It was a hard race today,” he said. “When I got tagged with the leaders after Kris’s great scramble leg, I just wanted to stay relaxed and try to hold on.”
With the classic racing done for the day, Tad Elliott took over with the team in 12th place just down on Finland and France, and ahead of Russia II.
Over the next 5k Elliott, after catching the teams ahead, closed 40 seconds on the leaders. When a hard charging Alexander Legkov (RUS) came by, Elliott locked on, but as the pace increased at the front, he finally began losing time.
While Legkov continued ahead, Elliott drifted back eventually losing the ground he had gained, though his time was just 36.8 seconds down on the fastest man on the third leg, Legkov, and on par with the likes of Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA) and Anders Soedergren (SWE).
“I had a really good day today,” Elliott said. “I was really nervous going into my leg because Kris came in third after his, and Noah, when I went to the start, was in second at that point and I was like, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be hard.’”
Elliott said he pushed hard out of the gate to catch Matti Heikkinen (FIN) and France’s Maurice Manificat, a goal he accomplished within 1.5k.
Heikkinen won gold at last year’s World Championships in the 15k, and Manificat is one of the top distance skaters on the circuit. Elliott bested the former, and while he eventually lost the later, he was very pleased with the day.
“I knew that would be the plan when I came over here, just to save it for the relay and skip the 30 k classic, so I was really excited for it and ready to go,” Elliott said.
Simi Hamilton was ready for the anchor leg and hung with Finland and the Czech Republic for the first 5k, before fading.
“I felt really good on the first two laps, but I think yesterday’s fatigue really got to me on the last two laps and I wasn’t able hang on to the charging Finnish and Czech teams behind me,” Hamilton told FasterSkier.
The sprinter had raced the 30k a day earlier, and is looking at distance races as a good opportunity to “get better at skiing more efficiently while maintaining high speeds.”
While he dropped back, Hamilton still felt the day was “pretty good.”
US Ski Team head coach Chris Grover was also pleased with the men, and sees improvement.
“Gutsy performances out of all four of them,” Grover said. “We’re not quite in a place with the men that we are with the women in terms of putting together four skiers that can compete with the lead teams, but it’s getting closer, so that felt pretty good.”
Elliott was fired up about the team effort saying “we were talking about it even before this weekend came up, we were talking about how we all wanted to do well in the relay…the relay is a goal of ours, so I think we’re just a little ways off.”
Hoffman was cautiously optimistic, adding “As a team I think we still have some work to do to put four good legs together, and be in podium position, but there were some great highlights [today].”
Grover was particularly happy about the performance in wake of the disappointment of Saturday’s 30k.
“To bounce back from that [Saturday’s race] I think really demonstrates not only the potential of the athletes, but really the mental toughness and resilience of the crew,” Grover said.
Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.