City sprints are fast becoming a mainstay on the World Cup circuit, but elite domestic-level skiers don’t have many opportunities to experience the excitement racing on downtown streets. The SuperTour weekend in Madison, Wis., is the only one of its kind in the U.S. with two back-to-back sprints in the shadow of the downtown capital building, and it has the added bonus of additional hype from Winter Fest, the popular Madison outdoor festival that the sprints are a part of.
“This is a fairly big event,” said Central Cross Country’s Jennie Bender. “Madison is kind of, but not technically, one of the CXC headquarters, so there’s tons of volunteers and CXC people around who were great cheering.”
A 1 k classic sprint opened the elite cross-country competition schedule on Saturday. Rosie Brennan (Alaska Pacific University) won the women’s sprint in a tight photo finish with Bender. Two local favorites landed on the podium after her: Nichole Bathe, a high school senior from Madison, took third behind Bender.
The course created on city streets from trucked-in snow was flat enough for both the women and the men’s field to double pole the entire race on skate skis — some also used skate poles. Brennan, in her first Madison SuperTour appearance, was happy with her debut city sprint experience.
“That’s why I came here, because I wanted to practice domestically for city sprints,” Brennan said.
She has her eye on the city sprints in Stockholm, Sweden, in period three of the World Cup. If she maintains her position as overall SuperTour leader Brennan will compete in them this spring. With her first run at the format in Madison under her belt, Brennan has learned a few things about skiing them well.
“It was like drag racing in the rounds,” she said. “The Craftsbury Green Racing Project was able to wax for me today, which was awesome, so I had really fast skis. I sat behind Jennie and drafted off her while she double-poled, then when we turned the corner into the finish stretch I was just barely able to overtake her.”
For Bender, Saturday marked the second year in a row she was out-lunged in a photo finish in Madison. It left her feeling frustrated, especially after qualifying in first.
“Obviously I was not too pumped,” she said. “I led the whole final and I think there’s a strong headwind on the back. I just didn’t race it very smart… When Rosie came around at the finish I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ But she raced a smart race and that’s what it comes down to.”
Bender’s bout with illness over the summer is still affecting the way she races. She says she has trouble knowing how hard to push in the qualifier since she doesn’t have same fitness base she’s used to. When Bender puts all her energy into winning the prologue, like she did on Saturday by 3.7 seconds on a fast course, she has less speed for the heats.
“I’ve been going harder in the qualifiers lately, which I’ve been working on, but because I’m doing that as I go on in the heats I might be suffering a little bit,” she said. “I’ve got to work on it.”
Though disappointed with how her own finished turned out, Bender was “super pumped” to see Bathe, her teammate and summer training partner, climb her first SuperTour podium. Bathe was pretty excited too, as she hails from Madison and knew many people in the crowd.
“I really didn’t expect to make it into the A-final, even, so it was a fun surprise for sure,” Bathe said. “Especially being my hometown and having a lot of people I knew working the event, and the spectators, it was kind of indescribable how cool it was for me.”
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In the men’s sprint, Russia’s Dmitry Ozerskiy blew the race open early in the final round only to be reeled back in at the end to win by a slim margin. Karl Nygren (CXC) took second and Reese Hanneman (APU) finished third.
“Dmitry kind of took off from the gun and led pretty much from start to finish,” Nygren said.
It was a bold move on such a flat course, which surprised the rest of the men’s field.
“I thought it would be really tactical but the guys were going really hard for the whole sprint,” Hanneman said. “People were just hammering all the straight double-pole sections… I was impressed.
“When the Russian guy took off he was moving, and Karl and I were just trying to hang on for dear life. I was going maxed out the whole time.”
The course followed a square pattern around a city block in front of the capitol building, and between each 90-degree corner Hanneman and Nygren eventually regained contact with Ozerskiy.
“I was just about able to close on him towards the end and I lunged, but got beat by a couple inches,” Nygren said. “It was a fun race, really close.”
He thought the pancake-flat course probably played to his strengths. Though the field was relatively sparse compared to other SuperTours on the calendar, Nygren was still pleased with his first podium of the season.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now, so it was nice to get second,” Nygren said. “It’s a pretty accurate reflection of how I’m feeling. A lot of people weren’t here, so it’s hard to say, but it was good.”
Hanneman was upbeat about his result. A close finish can frustrate competitors who wind up on the losing end of them, but he wouldn’t want to finish any other way.
“It was tight; they always seem to come down right at the end. To make the final when the margins are that small was good,” Hanneman said. “I also want to thank [CXC coaches] Igor Badamshin and Andy Keller for waxing my skis, they took me in this weekend.”
Close finishes are what city sprints are designed to produce in front of a downtown crowd, and in turn the spectators made the race more exciting for skiers.
“It felt a lot like Quebec — just all the people watching, the other stuff going on, and you’re right there with these pretty cool capitol buildings,” Hanneman said.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.