While their compatriots were gutting it out in the World Cup Finals prologue in Falun, a handful of U.S. athletes were contesting the same format at OPA Cup Finals in Toblach, Italy. Friday’s 2.5/3.3 k freestyle event was the first in a series of three races in Italy.
Holly Brooks (USA) turned in the top performance for the U.S., coming in second place to Slovenia’s Alenk Cebasek, who won by one second.
Brooks has gone from the World Cup to the Tour de Ski to the American Birkie and back to the World Cup this season, but this was the first OPA cup of her life — she wasn’t sure what to expect beforehand.
“There are definitely girls racing here that I’ve been racing with on the World Cup, [but] I wasn’t sure how the results would play out in a prologue,” said Brooks in an email.
She also finished eighth in the 42 k Engadin marathon in Switzerland last weekend, but Brooks said she felt completely recovered in time for the start of the OPA Finals. During the Engadin, she’d gotten stuck behind some of the male competitors and lost contact with the lead pack, which held her back, but made the effort an easier one to rebound from.
“It was a bummer for the marathon but perhaps a blessing in disguise for OPA,” said Brooks.
Racing in Toblach is a return to familiar Tour de Ski territory for Brooks, but this time around the conditions are quite different. Though she said the organizers have done an “impressive” job with the snow available, the conditions are less than ideal.
“The snow is thin here and I think the only reason we’re skiing is because the venue is in a valley, with much of the race course in the shade for much of the day,” Brooks described. “The snow is extremely dirty and around 10:30/11 am, standing water appears on the track.”
Now that she knows what to expect from her competition, Brooks is aiming for a podium finish on Saturday and Sunday.
“I’d also love to take the overall win for the three day mini-tour but I certainly have some hard work ahead!” she wrote.
Brooks led a sizeable American contingent on Friday; six other U.S. women contested the prologue.
Chelsea Holmes finished 17th, 21.3 seconds behind Cebasek’s winning time. Becca Rorabaugh was 21st (+26.6), Nicole DeYoung took 22nd (+28.1), Rosie Brennan finished 28th (+32.7), Lauren Fritz was 32nd (+39.1) and Morgan Arritola was 34th (+42.8).
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On the men’s side, Tad Elliott led the U.S. men’s squad with a 13th place finish, 13.7 seconds behind Italy’s Pietro Piller Cottrer.
A 3.3 k is not quite a sprint, but neither is it ideally suited to a distance specialist. Elliott nonetheless took the prologue as a learning experience. His primary goals for Friday were to have a “solid” race and to “beat the HOFF,” referring to teammate Noah Hoffman, who finished 21st.
Mission accomplished for Friday, but in anticipation of the 10 k classic on Saturday, Elliott added: “[Hoffman] is on fire. He is going to crush it tomorrow.”
There were less than 40 competitors in the women’s race, but the men’s was another story. Eighty six men skied on Friday, and Elliott characterized it as a “stacked” field.
“It is awesome to ski with these guys,” said Elliott.
The course was a fast one, but as the temperature warmed for the later-starting men’s race, the snow was slower. “I was so blown out and tired, I could barely tuck,” said Elliott.
The U.S. had seven men in all compete in the prologue. Behind Elliott and Hoffman, Erik Bjornsen finished 32nd (+23.3), Matt Gelso was 43rd (+27.0), Brian Gregg tied for 47th (+30.0), Reese Hanneman was 52nd (+32.9) and Peter Kling was 76th (+53.7).
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.