The thing about relays is anything can happen. And when you’ve got a guy like Andy Newell (riding a season-best distance result) scrambling for your team, that’s always a good start.
The first leg of the American team in Sunday’s 4 x 7.5 k relay, with fellow US Ski Team members Noah Hoffman, Tad Elliott and Simi Hamilton behind him, Newell (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) took his 28th place in Saturday’s 15-kilometer classic mass start in La Clusaz, France, and ran with it. Sure, he was a sprinter, but he could handle 7.5 k, too.
After skiing comfortably in eighth for the first of three laps, Newell pushed toward the front of the 14-team pack on the second lap and held his own in fourth. At the exchange, he sent Hoffman off on the second classic leg just 2.6 seconds behind the leaders, Kazakhstan, Russia and Norway, respectively.
From there, it seemed the Americans were on track to make history. Hoffman surged into second within the first kilometer of his leg and stayed there, directly behind Swiss leader Dario Cologna, for the next two laps. About a kilometer into his third and last time around, Hoffman found himself in a precarious position: in the middle of the pack as the tracks narrowed to two. He collided with a couple others and stood up to find himself 10 seconds back.
No problem, he thought, as he trailed the chase pack about 23 seconds back from the lead in eighth.
“My shoulder was fine; my poles were fine at that point,” Hoffman said. “And I was skiing pretty well.”
Then, for some reason he couldn’t explain, Hoffman drove his knee through his pole on the second-to-last hill. He went down again and slipped 50 seconds back from the lead, tagging off to Elliott in ninth.
Elliott couldn’t make up the deficit and fell back to 11th (+2:27.8) by the final exchange. In his first 7.5 k, Hamilton as the anchor tried to pick off a few places, hanging with Italy and France and ending up 10th , 3:02.6 minutes behind Norway in first. (Finland was disqualified after Matti Heikkinen was caught skating on the second leg.)
At the end of the day, Hoffman blamed himself, but his teammates largely remained positive.
“Hoff skied great up until the last lap,” Newell said. “If everyone has a good day, we can definitely have a good relay team so it’s just a question of keeping people on their feet. I know Tad thought he didn’t race his best today. I think Simi skied pretty well. It was a sweet day, it was so sunny and warm … it was like sun bathing out there.”
At least someone thought so. “This by far has been the best my distance racing has ever felt,” Newell added. “It makes distance racing a lot more fun, you know, because you can hang with the leaders. My goal was to kind of relax a little bit on the first lap and not do any work and try to bring it in pretty close to the lead.”
He did that, leaving his teammates and coaches impressed. In the second relay of the season, the U.S. men climbed five spots higher from 15th (albeit in a smaller field than the 23-team relay in Gallivare, Sweden.)
US Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said their improvement, with Hamilton in place of Kris Freeman, was a great sign.
“For the men, the relays are a marker that we’ve set on our goals,” Whitcomb said. “We saw Andy scramble his, for sure, best-ever scramble leg, his best-ever back-to-back days of distance skiing. He’s in great shape. We feel awesome about that.
“Noah skied really well up until two-thirds of the way through his race,” he added. “Sometimes when it starts to crumble, it crumbles quickly. He was bummed, but the positive of it all was that he was skiing awesome.”
Hoffman joked that once he learns to stay on his feet, he should be good to go. Unfortunately, his frequency of crashes (with one taking him out of Saturday’s 15 k and dislocating his problematic shoulder) was becoming old news, he said. But the shoulder wasn’t a factor.
“I’ve raced on it the day after a dislocation several times so I knew it wasn’t going to be an issue once I got warmed up and ready to go,” he said. “I’m going to ski through the rest of the season and get it repaired at the end of the year.
“I’m glad that I felt better today, but second relay in a row where I’ve kind of taken the team out of it and that’s not good,” Hoffman said, referring to the Gallivare relay, where the Americans went eighth after Newell’s scramble leg to 15th.
Looking ahead, Hoffman was excited about what the team could accomplish at World Championships in just over a month.
“If Kris anchored that team and he skis up to the level that he’s able to, we got a chance at a medal in that relay,” Hoffman said. “It’s an outside shot, everyone’s got to ski super well but I’m very impressed and excited with the way Newell’s skiing.”
In an email, Elliott wrote that he was still feeling “off” after some travel delays hindered his recovery before La Clusaz. Sunday was better than Saturday, he explained, but he was looking forward to getting some training time over the next week in nearby Le Saisies, France.
“I am really looking forward to having Kris and Erik Bjornsen around so that we can have a solid six guys and use the best for our relay team,” Elliott added. “I hope to be in it.”
Hamilton was satisfied with his performance after being sick with the flu for much of the last week. For the first five kilometers of the last leg, he skied with Ivan Perrillat Boiteux, who anchored France to ninth place, 12.7 seconds ahead of the U.S.
“From 5 to 7.5 km I was just a little heavy on the climbs and couldn’t hang,” Hamilton wrote. “With that said, I thought that I skied the course well and pushed my body to where I wanted it to be at this point in the game. I haven’t skied a relay since Nove Mesto last year, and I’ve never raced 7.5 km in my life before, so there were for sure quite a few unknowns going into the day, but I am happy with how it turned out.
“It is always tight in any men’s WC relay and I think that today showed us all that if each of us can improve by even 5% we will be able to ski in podium contention,” he added. “The men here (Newell, Hoff, Tad, and myself) have a very good dynamic going and we are extremely psyched to be heading into a training block in Les Saisies before Sochi. There is a lot of season left and we’re looking forward to performing well, both individually and collectively, in the months ahead.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.