ASPEN, Colo. — The third time was the charm for Leif Zimmermann (BSF) at the Owl Creek Chase on Sunday. He had finished third in Aspen twice before, but for the 2012 edition he claimed the top spot in the 21 k mass start freestyle by 37.9 seconds over Matt Gelso (SVSEF). Pat O’Brien (CGRP) outsprinted Josh Smullin (Rossignol/SSCV) for third (+1:15.6).
After what Zimmermann said was a disappointing week at U.S. Nationals in January, he felt his legs were back in the shape they needed to be in for the rolling, hilly course that went from from Snowmass to Aspen.
“I felt like the legs came around, and feeling that at altitude is a good thing, otherwise it’s hard to race here,” said Zimmermann.
He focused on where he knew his strengths to be on the uphills. At around 6 k, he put distance between himself and the rest of the front men’s group.
“We took a feed and [Zimmermann] didn’t—he had a water bottle,” said Gelso.
At around 10 k Gelso said he reeled Zimmermann back in, but struggled to maintain contact.
“I yo-yoed with him a little…then at 5 k to the finish, he really pushed into the top of the course,” said Gelso.
Zimmermann skied as if the four skiers chasing him would be breathing down his neck at any moment.
“Usually [a four-man chase] is enough to catch back on,” he said. “But there was enough climbing—I was really trying to stay smooth and pull away if I could, and I knew that was more my strength than the flats.”
Zimmermann had planned to take off on the second big climb of the final 5 k, and with a gap on the men skiing behind him already, he decided to go for it.
“It was a little bit of a gamble; Gelso caught up almost on the flats, but then we hit the hills. I think he had worked so hard to catch me, once I took off for the second time I was able to hold that.”
At that point, Gelso knew second place was pretty decided—he wasn’t going to catch Zimmermann from as far behind as he was, and also figured that third and fourth place weren’t going to bridge the gap to him. From that point, it was just a matter of surviving through the snow squall to the finish, which began swirling around the racers in the final leg of course.
“It got so slow and windy and cold—it was kind of brutal,” said Gelso.
Behind him, the chase group fought to catch back up.
“Leif and and Gelso were definitely in their own class—they pushed really hard and got away,” said O’Brien. “Nils [Koons] and I worked together for a little while, but it was tough to tell if we were closing the gap or not. Then at 5 k to go it started snowing, which made things tricky.”
As the finish line approached, the third spot on the podium came down to O’Brien and Smullin.
“I was pretty sure I could take third. It got a little tactical in the last couple kilometers, but I had a little bit more than Josh,” said O’Brien.
He edged Smullin in the finish chute by half a second.
“I actually felt really good climbing out there—a lot of V1,” he said. “The skis felt great.”
Behind Smullin, Koons (Rossignol) took fifth (+1:37.4) and Lars Flora (APU)—a day after completing a five hour-plus ski mountaineering race in Vail—finished sixth (+2:08.4).
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.