The field strength may have paled in comparison to the World Cup, or even a Scando Cup event, but a win is a win and a podium a podium, especially on European snow.
A group of American skiers posted strong results over the weekend in two days of Swiss Cup racing, led by Becca Rorabuagh’s win in the 10k classic on Sunday.
Rorabaugh was also 3rd in Saturday’s 10k freestyle while Tad Elliott, fresh off his American Birkie victory placed 2nd to World Cup veteran Remo Fischer (SUI) in the same event.
Elliott, who was 38 seconds back, was 5th in Sunday’s 15k classic, a race also won by Fischer.
The US took places 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9 in that event, led by Erik Bjornsen.
“My game plan was to get out front and control the pace, go slow on herring bone sections and hammer everything else,” Bjornsen wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “You get to go hard when you want to and at sections of course you feel you are strong at and you get to go slow when you want.”
Of course this only works as long as you are in the lead, Bjornsen explained. And while he was confident that Fischer knew exactly what was going on, he gave the Swiss a strong run for the top spot.
Fischer eventually took over and made his move, but finished just 19 seconds ahead.
“Actually, I didn’t feel great before the start,” Bjornsen said. “I got a cold at the end of the U23 Championships and this cough has held on for a while. It feels like there is something in my lungs. I’ve talked to other people that got this same cold and we are all having a problem getting rid of this hack. Once the race started I raced into it and started feeling good in second and third lap.”
The small field of 15 quickly split into two groups with all five Americans in the front pack of eight.
Reese Hanneman and Peter Kling crashed at 4k, however, losing contact with the lead group and ultimately taking sixth and ninth as the field strung out.
Elliott, a stronger skater, will be racing on the second tier circuit for the rest of the season. With no more straight skate races on the World Cup schedule, and other American performing well, he will continue to gain experience with two weekends racing OPA Cups before heading back to the US for Spring Series.
“Saturday was a better day and race for me,” Elliott told FasterSkier. “I went for the win hard, and faded but Remo was skiing well and it is a goal of mine to beat that guy in a skate race. He is one of the nicest guys on the World Cup—fun to ski with him.”
Despite the travel back and forth to Europe this season, Elliott says he continues to feel strong.
Fellow American Brian Gregg, on just his third European race trip, also said he isn’t showing any ill-effects from the travel.
Gregg said he was gunning for the podium in Switzerland, and while he missed that goal with a 4th on Saturday and the 7th on Sunday, he was pleased with how he skied, with some qualifications.
“I felt good in both races, but didn’t feel like I was able to really go fast in the classic race today,” Gregg wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “My fitness feels great and I am excited for two more weeks of European racing.”
He did point out that the time gaps were larger than he was hoping for, but that he was “pretty happy” with his skate result.
“I have been saving and planning for this trip for the past two years and want to make the most of the opportunity to be racing in Europe,” Gregg added.
The next stop for the Americans is Slovenia for a set of OPA Cup distance races next weekend, and then on to Toblach, Italy for OPA Cup Finals.
Gregg said he will sit out the 30k classic in Slovenia, focusing on the 10k skate there, while being careful not to spread himself too thin.
“The 30km classic mass start sounds fun and I really enjoy the longer distances, however Jason [CXC Coach Jason Cork] and I decided that it is a lot of racing, and that I can save a lot of energy by skipping one race,” Gregg said. “It is hard for me to do that because I really love racing, but I am excited to cheer on my teammates and maybe lend a hand to Fish and Casey with waxing.”
On the women’s side, Rorabaugh was realistic about the strength of the field, noting that she and teammate Rosie Brennan had the best FIS points in Sunday’s race.
But that didn’t take away from the thrill of victory.
“At my age and level, there aren’t a whole lot of podiums up for grabs any more!” Rorabaugh told FasterSkier. “Unless you’re winning US Nationals or SuperTours, you don’t get to win very often. It’s always fun to really come out on top.”
The unknown nature of the competition also added an extra dimension.
“It was refreshing to learn their strengths at face value, without remembering their successes from earlier this year,” Rorabuagh said. “You get to know everyone pretty well in the US, so you know every race what they’re going excel at, so it was fun to learn about some new girls.”
She added that she felt great on Sunday after struggling in the warm slushy skating on Saturday. With temperatures reaching into the 50’s Rorabaugh said “It’s a little hard for an Alaskan to deal with sometimes, but I made sure to focus on hydrating before the noon skate race yesterday, and it turned out just fine. I didn’t even feel like I was overheating.”
She was also pleased how she handled the skate conditions, pointing to similar snow experienced during summer training camps on Eagle Glacier. With an early start on Sunday, the tracks fell within the opposite extreme—icy hard and fast.
Like Bjornsen and Hanneman, Rorabaugh had travelled from the U23/World Junior Championships in Turkey. She was not thrilled with her races there, but after her performance on Sunday, she is feeling confident heading into the next two weeks of European racing, especially in classic.
Brennan placed 4th in both races while Lauren Fritz was last in the eight-woman field on Saturday and 21st on Sunday.
The team drove nine hours to Slovenia today and will spend the week there training.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.