FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — As Sweden’s Johan Olsson demonstrated at World Championships on Sunday, it takes a career’s-worth of training and preparation to become the best 50 k skier on the planet. American Noah Hoffman wants to be in that position some day, and has made progress towards that aim this week with a career-best 15th in the 15 k freestyle. In the 50 k mass-start classic he led the U.S. men and wrapped up the championships with a 27th-place finish, 4:19 behind the winning time after skiing with the lead chase group for longer than he’s been able to remain there before.
Kris Freeman was 37th (+7:37), Tad Elliott finished 40th (+10:09) and Erik Bjornsen was 52nd (+15:14) in his first 50 k classic appearance to finish off the American men’s week and a half of competition at World Championships.
Hoffman is no stranger to skiing up front, and more often than not will try to avoid the accordion effect on the back of the pack. He isn’t always able to stay with the leaders, but on Sunday he was encouraged with his ability to remain comfortably with everyone but Olsson for over half the race.
“I feel like it was a success in terms of being a step for me,” Hoffman said. “Today was a couple places better than I was in Holmenkollen two years ago and I stayed in the group longer. Obviously you want to be there at the end sometime, but the next opportunity for a championship will be an Olympics next year, so that’ll be really good.”
U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover was impressed with Hoffman’s ability to stay calm with the leaders. At the 33.3 k checkpoint he was still in 14th, ahead of Dario Cologna and Eldar Roenning and the rest of the chase group that, at that point in the race, was attempting to regain contact with Olsson.
“It was a gutsy performance by him and really fun for us to have in the mix for as long as he was,” Grover said. “[It was] really hard to keep that pace going for 50k so it was a great performance. I don’t know if he intended to be in the front as early as he was, but he does like to ski in the front where he can relax a little bit… And to his credit when he was out front he looked super relaxed. I saw him pull over twice and let other people take the lead, so I think he probably was executing his plan pretty well. It just takes a lot of years of training to get ready for a race like today.”
Hoffman’s plan was a modification of his strategy at U23 World Championships last season, where he refused to lead the 30 k skiathlon and wound up on the losing end of a sprint finish with seven other people. This time he kept an open mind and decided to react to the race as it unfolded.
“At U23s last year I was committed to not leading ever, and consequently was in a break with [Evgeniy] Belov and it didn’t last because I wouldn’t lead. And in hindsight I wished I had helped him,” Hoffman said. “And today my plan was to be flexible — if I’m feeling good and we have a gap, if I can get away that’s sweet.”
Hoffman did end up skiing in a five-man breakaway on the first lap with Jens Filbrich (GER), Anders Soedergren (SWE), Jiri Magal (CZE) and Giorgio Di Centa (ITA), but the move only lasted until the beginning of the second lap. That was where the pack swallowed them, but Hoffman stayed in the mix with the top 15 until he ran out of steam.
“I was back in the fold and feeling pretty relaxed, but then I just faded at the end,” Hoffman said. “I was trying to stop my stomach from cramping, but the energy stayed pretty good. It was a little disappointing a result maybe, but it was a good experience and I’m looking forward to another one in two weeks [in Oslo].”
A few minutes behind Hoffman, Freeman had a rougher time of it in 37th place (+7:37). The veteran’s form has not been where he would like it to be at World Championships, at that fact made itself evident in a race that was over two hours long and took place in 53 degree F temperatures. He was in 36th at the 16.6 k checkpoint and remained thereabouts until the finish, with few people around him to compete against.
“When Johan made his move on the third lap the pace dropped and oddly I couldn’t do anything,” Freeman said. “So I kind of floundered by myself for half a lap, then my teammates caught up to me and I was able to ski with them and regain my footing, and then I just picked my way to the finish with the other stragglers.”
When Freeman finished the 4×10 k relay two days ago he said it was his hardest race experience to date. After the 50 k, he had a new one to replace it.
“In retrospect, I thought [the relay] was not very good, but compared to this one it was,” Freeman said. “When you’re out there skiing by yourself you can start asking yourself, ‘Maybe a lot of the changes I made to my training this year just were not quite the right thing to do.’ I did have a very different training year. I’m going to keep battling this season but it’s getting really frustrating.”
He referenced the Craftsbury Marathon, which he won by an enormous margin this winter, as one of the last times he felt great in a race.
“Some of the casual fans will say, ‘Well he just hammered Craftsbury the whole way,’ and I did and felt great in that, but the difference is I was setting my own pace there and here it’s just — you go over the line and you’re done,” Freeman said. “Or if you’re not in shape, you go over the line and you’re done. If I’m in shape I can go over the line and come back, and I couldn’t today.”
Freeman hopes to feel good for the 15 k in Lahti, Finland, next weekend, when the regular World Cup circuit resumes.
Tad Elliott was the third American to come through the finish in 40th place, 10:09 behind the winning time. He he bonked towards the end, but maintained the place he started the first third of the race in.
“I had a good start and had really good skis, but I kind of just got gapped a little bit there in the second lap,” Elliott said. “I felt good, I was skiing around guys I normally don’t ski around…and then some guys started getting gapped and I wasn’t able to close it.”
Overall, he considers the result his best classic distance race to date. After producing an extremely hard effort in the 4×10 k relay on Saturday, he was completely wiped the day before the 50 k.
“I was really hurting, I didn’t do anything yesterday,” Elliott said. “I went for one walk and I was in bed all day because I was hurting. That was the deepest I’ve ever gone, was in that relay.”
Bjornsen, whose 50 k appearance was only the second time he’s ever raced the distance and his first skiing it in the classic technique, did not consider placing 52nd a success.
“I was skiing pretty good through 30 k and then just kind of struggled from there, and struggling mentally, too,” he said. “I think it could be something I’m better at in the future but today was not really good for me. It was fun; I really enjoyed the last 5 k with people cheering for me. I just decided to stop racing and just enjoy it. I wasn’t going anywhere so there was no point in trying.”
The 50 k was not his best race, but Bjornsen thinks of it as a valuable learning experience as he wrapped up his first World Championships.
“I’m honored to have been picked to be on the team,” he said. “The results weren’t my best, but I think it’s good to experience this and I hope I can be one of those top guys in the future for the U.S., and this’ll definitely help.”
With the final event of the championships over with, Grover was satisfied with the way things ended for the U.S.
“It’s nice for us to start with four guys and have them be in the mix for a bit, and have a lot of them fighting for a top 40 and to finish a race that a lot of strong skiers didn’t finish,” he said. “So it’s a nice way to end the championship.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.