BOZEMAN, Mont. — A certain excitement hung in the air at Bohart Ranch on Thursday morning. Perhaps it was because this was the first true sprint of the season. Maybe the field was happy to finally contest the event that was cancelled last weekend. Sprinting in its true, head-to-head format was also a long time returning to the beginning of the SuperTour calendar. Expectations were most certainly piqued with several World Cup qualifying spots up for the taking.
When it was all said and done — the qualifying, the heats, the nervous skiing around between races — Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Reid Pletcher came out on top, just edging out Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST) and Ryan Scott (SSCV Team HomeGrown). Alex Howe (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) finished a close fourth, Skyler Davis (SMS T2/USST) took fifth and Torin Koos (BSF/Rossignol) straggled in sixth.
Pletcher flew under the radar throughout the morning, qualifying in fifth and never once winning a quarterfinal or semifinal. Even in the final round he followed the leader and tucked in behind Scott, who had dominated each of his earlier heats and did the same in the early stages of the final. Pletcher hadn’t even expected to make the last round, and at that point was simply skiing to hang on.
“I was hoping for a top twelve,” he said. “I mean, I have a decent history in sprinting, but I haven’t done heats in years because of college racing [for Colorado University].
“I’ll take this one, for sure. [The Quebec World Cup] would be amazing. All my goals are coming through, so I feel pretty good about this. I needed a good result to show me I was on track.”
Earlier that morning, Pletcher finished second to Scott in his quarterfinal just ahead of Sam Naney (Methow Olympic Development/Madshus). In the semifinals he scraped through in third thanks in part to crashes that took out Rune Odegaard (Colorado University) and Pat O’Brien (Craftsbury Green Racing Project). All day long, Scott and Bjornsen made it look easy and Pletcher seemed to require more of an effort to survive each round. Or perhaps that’s just his style of skiing.
“I was thinking for the final, I’m not going to have the energy for it, I’m just going to try to hold on.” Pletcher said.
He managed leave the double pole zone in second, but Scott quickly gapped the field and there was no drafting him. But before long he and Davis, who ended up in fifth, worked together and caught back up in time to catch a pull down the final hill.
“I had the advantage on the downhill, and there was a strong headwind into the finish,” Pletcher said. “It just worked out. I had a little draft and did a little slingshot move coming into the finish. It went better than planned. It was phenomenal.”
The difference between the top three was slim, but the win was definitive enough for Bjornsen to look sideways in the last stretch to see Pletcher with his arms already raised in celebration.
A new International Ski Federation (FIS) rule gets rid of the penalty for changing finish lanes and Bjornsen made the most of it, first choosing the line behind Pletcher and then traveling left in front of Scott’s. In the end, though, Pletcher simply had too much momentum.
“I’m always going for the win, but second is awesome so I’m pretty happy about that,” Bjornsen said. The USST D-Team member dug his way out from the back of the pack early on to first pass Koos, then Davis, then Scott.
“I took it slow, so I felt I had quite a bit of energy left, and got past this big kid [pointing to Davis] on the flat section before the finish. Ryan was kind of dying, so I got past him. I was happy; it was fun.”
Scott, who won the qualifying round and breezed through each of his heats without needing to exert much energy in the finish, said that he may have ultimately underestimated the men who lined up next to him in the final.
“I had a lot of confidence coming out of last week,” Scott said. “My goal was obviously to win today; I just didn’t quite play it right in the final.”
After skiing so easily through the rounds, Scott set out to immediately put distance between himself and the field in the last one.
“I sized up the guys I was against and thought my best bet was to try to break [them], because I know they’re real quick in the finish,” Scott said. “I thought perhaps if I could string them out, and I’ve been feeling good, then I could maybe break them. The other heats I never had to finish very hard because I was able to break the group earlier, but not so much in the final. I underestimated the speed of the group a bit.”
Not appearing too put out, Scott concluded that he’d simply take Thursday’s performance as fuel for the next race, a classic sprint on Saturday.
In fourth place, the domination of the SuperTour rookies continued with Alex Howe (Craftsbury Green Racing Project). The University of Vermont alum qualified in sixth and next won his quarterfinal, beating Pletcher. In the final he got boxed out and stuck at the very back of the pack, but bided his time and slowly moved up. Howe’s expectations earlier that morning had simply been to advance.
“I really just wanted to be able to qualify and ski more than once,” Howe said. “So I was really happy.”
Davis, in fifth, gave his result a “six out of ten.” He skied in second or third for most of the race but built up lactic acid in his legs so that, by the end, he was running on steam and upper body strength.
“I came up into the finish and my legs were just gone,” he said. “It did anything to try to stay with these guys.”
Koos, once unbeatable in any given sprint, has been battling illness recently and finished the final behind the field with his arms on his knees and his head down. The image is perhaps emblematic of a changing of the guard that seems to be taking place on the domestic circuit — the top five male sprinters on Thursday were all 24 years old and under.
“I’m definitely excited to see younger guys skiing fast and coming through now,” Scott said. “I think it definitely bodes well.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.