FasterSkier would like to thank the Mirror Lake Inn for providing lodging and meals in Lake Placid this weekend.
WILMINGTON, N.Y. — Over the years, the Climb to the Castle rollerski race up Whiteface Mountain has become a fixture of the annual US Ski Team (USST) Lake Placid training camp.
A challenging race that provides a good barometer of fitness, the event features excellent head-to-head competition and good-natured drama.
The question this year? What would happen with USST stalwart and the usual focal-point of the race, Kris Freeman, half a world away in New Zealand?
For two years, Freeman settled for second position behind biathlete and self-proclaimed “Jacked-Up Old Man” Duncan Douglas (albeit with Douglas on far faster skis). With Douglas out of the picture in 2009, nordic-combined skiers Taylor Fletcher and Nick Hendrickson relegated Freeman to third, also taking advantage of faster skis.
Finally, in his fourth try, Freeman skied away from USST teammate Noah Hoffman to take his first win in 2010. Last year he repeated, narrowly edging biathlete Tim Burke in a hard-fought battle.
But Freeman opted for an on-snow camp in New Zealand along with Hoffman and the Canadian National Team, and with Burke sidelined with a cold, the top step of the podium was free for the taking.
Freeman, contacted in New Zealand, went with Tad Elliott (USST) as his pick for the win, while Hoffman noted that he and Freeman would certainly be paying attention.
“First of all, Kris loves that race so he’s always talking about it,” Hoffman wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Second, there’s not a lot going on down here so we have little else to think about.”
He added that the unique nature of the race — sustained climbing for the 5-mile duration — simplifies the matter.
“You’re either good at that type of thing or not,” Hoffman wrote.
The duo were not the only ones with Climb to the Castle Fever. According to US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, the event has become a staple for the top athletes in the country.
“The Climb has become one of the focal points for us in the fall, I’d say less from an athletic perspective and more from a team excitement, winter approaching perspective,” Grover said. “Athletes start talking about it early, people get fired up, trading barbs and insults, bets are being made. So for us it’s a really fun event to participate in.”
Freeman may have missed out on the race itself, but if he was a betting man (and if there were any way to actually wager on the Climb to the Castle) he could have hit pay dirt as Elliott came through with a ten-second victory over Pat O’Brien (CGRP).
Canadian Julien Dorais was third, another eight seconds back.
After the race, O’Brien told FasterSkier that he had expected the race to play out differently in Freeman’s and Hoffman’s absence.
“They usually go out and push the pace, and I usually try to stick on them as long as possible and blow up,” O’Brien explained. “We started out more controlled which was nice. We were still moving along but it was a more sustainable pace.”
Despite finishing sixth last year, Elliott had no plans to push at the front early.
When asked of his strategy on Wednesday, Elliott said, “Follow. My tactic is follow, try to hang on.”
A sizeable pack stayed together for the first two-thirds of the climb, a novelty in the history of the race and Elliott stuck to his pre-race guns, allowing others, including biathlete Lowell Bailey (USBA), Sylvan Ellefson (SSCV/Team Homegrown), Andy Newell (USST) and Ryan Scott (SSCV/Team Homegrown) to take turns pulling.
Ellefson did a lion’s share of the work holding at the front for nearly two miles. But as the three-mile mark came around, it was Elliott who had the gas to make a move.
Right after Newell put in a hard pull and took a look around for someone to take over, Elliott dropped what he called “bike tactics” shooting by and quickly gapping the pack.
He laughingly called himself a “little jerk” for the move, but added, “it worked out for me.”
Newell and O’Brien rallied to respond and stopped the bleeding at twenty seconds. The veteran World Cup sprinter couldn’t hang however, and O’Brien was left on his own chasing Elliott.
He was able to close down, but ran out of time, though he stayed clear of Dorais.
Calling the Canadian a darkhorse is an understatement to say the least. Racing in the M1 category (30-35), Dorais had no club listed and has no FIS points profile.
A triathlete, Dorais raced at Canadian Nationals last year, placing 130th in the 15km freestyle. He proved a high level of fitness last summer when he nearly bested Canadian National Team Biathlete Marc-Andre Bedard in the grueling Spartan Beast Race in Killington, Vt. — though Bedard got the win when Dorais doubled back on the course to tackle several missed obstacles.
However, one should not expect Dorais to round out a World Championship relay team any time soon. While his performance is still impressive impressive, the 34-year-old was aided by quick rolling skis.
Ellefson, none the worse for wear after pulling early, closed on Newell and skied to fourth, a result he was “really happy about.”
The weather is always notable on Whiteface Mountain —either cold, wet and very windy, or the absence of such. After extremely high winds two years ago gave way to bluebird skies and cool fall weather last fall, today was a mix of both.
Winds stayed reasonable, and light rain and mist never became more substantial.
“Conditions were surprisingly good,” O’Brien said, and several other top finishers echoed the thought.
— Matt Voisin and Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.