You could see it in his face as he crossed the line, looking up at the stadium video board, an exhausted grimace breaking into a broad smile.
Noah Hoffman (USA) finally delivered a result that matched his own expectations and years of effort.
“This result has been in line to happen for a year or two,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier after Hoffman skied to a career-best 19th place finish in the 10km skate in Kuusamo, Finland.
“I am just really happy to see it today,” Whitcomb added.
Hoffman was just 38.1 seconds in back of race winner Alexander Legkov (RUS) and 10 seconds out of the top-10.
Hoffman cresting the wall.
“I was very excited to be in the top-20 today,” Hoffman wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It sets me up well for tomorrow and I’m looking forward to a hard classic race.”
Not a strong sprinter, the 23-year-old need a good race today to have any chance of finishing in the points in the overall mini-tour standings.
He accomplished just that, climbing to 24th overall after placing 96th in the sprint.
Holding that position will be a challenge with 11 skiers starting within 10 seconds, but regardless of his ultimate result, Whitcomb sees today’s performance as a big step.
“I think this certainly could just be the tip of the iceberg for Hoff [Hoffman],” Whitcomb said. “I think a lot of performance has to do with maintaining a pretty high level of confidence. You could see it in his face after this race today…Not only did the physical exertion feel good, I think actually having success on the results sheet felt really good…”
This was just the third time Hoffman cracked the top-30 in a World Cup, and one of those other results came in a weaker field in a Canadian event — the 19th today, however, was a “no-doubter” with all the top skiers present.
Despite setting a personal-best, Hoffman was not surprised.
“I have worked hard this summer and fall to improve my weaknesses and I’m glad to see my results take a step in the right direction from last season,” he said.
Hoffman climbing Kuusamo’s monster climb
Hoffman paced himself well through Kuusamo’s brutal course, which was made even more difficult by frigid temperatures. At the 3.1km checkpoint Hoffman clocked in at 20th place. By the time he skied another loop he had moved into 16th place and appeared to be holding his technique well.
Starting late, Hoffman had an advantage of knowing where he stacked up at intermediate time checks.
“Because of a very funky start list, I started near the back of the field. This made it difficult to get a good warm-up, but it gave me the advantage of good splits. I was getting lots of information on course,” he said.
He made a conscious effort not to get outside himself, even while battling for the top-10, explaining, “my focus was to stay relaxed and not build tension.”
“He took it out pretty aggressively and looked better and better and better throughout the race,” Whitcomb said describing Hoffman’s pacing.
“It didn’t look like he was able to build on his pace, at least visibly to the eye,” Whitcomb continued, noting he had yet to see any actual split times. “But it certainly didn’t look like he was fading at all and there were a lot of people blowing up in those last few k.”
At the 2011 World Championships, Hoffman finished 29th in the 15k classic and 30th in the 50k skate, both solid results. But he failed to take another step forward last year.
2013 is already a different story, and Hoffman is looking ahead.
“I am happy with this race as a place to build from for the season,” he said. “I am looking forward to all of the coming races, especially the Tour de Ski and World Championships.”
Behind Hoffman US Men Struggle
While Hoffman carried the day for the U.S. men, joining four U.S. women in the top-20 — Whitcomb thinks this could be the best distance day ever for the team — his teammates struggled to find top form.
Kris Freeman crossed in 36th position 10 seconds out of the top-30 and a minute behind winner Legkov.
For the veteran Freeman, the result was disappointing.
“I am not in good skating form. I started the season with a great classic race in Mounio [a pre-World Cup FIS event], and I have had nothing good since then.”
Last week in Gällivare in the 15k skate he was also out of the points, finishing 33rd.
He will have a shot to get back on track tomorrow in the classic pursuit.
“I plan to race just as well [as in Gällivare] in my second classic race tomorrow,” Freeman said. “If I do that I will be in the top thirty for sure.”
He currently sits in 37th in the overall mini-tour standings, but is just 10 seconds from the points.
A type I diabetic, Freeman finished the race with blood sugar “much higher than my ideal range,” but would not point to that as a reason for his sub-par performance.
“It’s impossible to gauge how much being high effects me, so I try not to dwell on it and control it better tomorrow,” Freeman said. He noted that his blood sugar levels were excellent in both Muonio and Gällivare.
The rest of the team spread out down the results list.
Tad Elliott was 69th, Simi Hamilton 82nd, Sylvan Ellefson 88th, and Andy Newell 91st out of 107 skiers.
Ellefson was clear that he wasn’t thrilled with his result. He entered the race looking to ski “a smooth, strong first lap building into it and then really hammer those hills on the last lap.”
But he said he couldn’t find his groove, and while he felt he climbed well, he was losing time elsewhere.
With a goal of cracking the points, Ellefson says his body is “is where it needs to be this time in the season but it clearly isn’t in a place to be in the Top-30 on the World Cup.”
He followed that statement with an emphatic “YET!”
“It’s really amazing how subjective my feelings are about racing are over here [on the World Cup],” Ellefson continued. “I could have had the same back race over in the states, been top-5, and been really happy with my race. Over here, I end up skiing a decent race, I felt, and then am disappointed.”
Newell, while often a member of the U.S. relay team, is known for his sprinting prowess. But he opted to remain in Finland while many sprint specialists headed for Canada to prepare for next week’s city sprints in Quebec.
“I think competing in these races is good for Quebec. The Euros see a big time change and get all freaked out,” Newell wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “For us it’s no problem to fly back to North America.”
The extra racing may not have been an issue, but the cold did take a toll.
Newell said the first 6k went well, but his body froze up and the wheels came off.
“I lost a lot of time in the last few k’s because I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. It was rough,” he said. “I couldn’t really make the skis glide once everything went numb.”
Several hours after the race, he said he still didn’t have full feeling back in his hands.
Freeman had issues as well, making the mistake of basing his clothing choice on the thermometer.
“It was only -12 Celsius but it was humid and raw,” Freeman said. “I chose not to use windstopper underwear on top and my race gloves caused my hands to freeze. Tomorrow I will wear warmer gloves, underwear and a buff. I dislike buffs but I should have had one on today.”
Despite the poor wardrobe choice, Freeman said he wasn’t “freezing” and that everyone else was cold as well.
At the end of the day, though dissatisfied with his own performance, he was happy to see Hoffman deliver a strong result and the continued success of the U.S. women.
“It is really good to see Noah get his first top-20 result and to witness the continued dominating performances from our women’s team,” he concluded.