Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen’s skiing in Lahti, Finland, this weekend kept the U.S. Ski Team in a relatively good mood at the first World Cup that followed World Championships, but for the men there ended up being not much to write home about. Newell was 27th in the classic sprint on Saturday as the only one to make the heats, and on Sunday Kris Freeman was the sole team member to reach the top-30 with a 25th-place finish.
It was the best result Freeman has had since December, but it wasn’t a result that, on it’s own merit, generated much enthusiasm from the athlete himself.
“I have not been finishing races well this season so I went out conservatively,” Freeman said of his 15 k. “I moved up throughout the race, which is way better than moving backwards. It was nice to feel better today but the result doesn’t excite me a lot.”
In the freestyle sprint, Newell’s 27th was a straight disappointment for the American. Even at World Championships, where he was plagued by wax difficulties, Newell finished better — he hadn’t placed as low as 27th since the season-opener in Kuusamo, Finalnd, and at least there Simi Hamilton was able to join him in the heats.
“I don’t have a lot to say,” Newell wrote in an email on Saturday. “I felt good and I think it could have been a lot better result but I just [couldn’t] get it done in the quarterfinal.”
He attributed the result in part misjudged strategy; he left the gate slowly thinking the heat would shape up to allow him through at a later point. But as it turned out, few athletes who left the stadium at the back were able to recover from it on Lahti’s short, windy sprint course.
“Previewing the course I thought there was going to be a lot more drafting and a lot more slingshots going on, but it turned out to be a very hard course to pass on,” he said. “Looking back I should have been much more aggressive to move up early on in the heat.”
There are still two sprints to go for Newell to redeem himself; one in Drammen, Norway, on Wednesday and one in Stockholm, Sweden, at World Cup finals, which he is safely qualified for. With more fuel for the fire now, Newell says he is “really motivated to make the finals in the next two sprints and finish the season strong.”
Behind Newell and outside the top-30 cutoff, Hamilton was 58th in the qualifying round, three seconds out of the heats. It was his first race back since being sick at World Championships, and he described the race as a “tough day” all around. In the week following his illness Hamilton has struggled to physically and mentally regain race form for the last few weekends of the season.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me,” Hamilton said. “I feel like I lost a lot of momentum after getting sick in Val di Fiemme, and to be totally honest, it’s been hard for me to rally mentally after that break in momentum.”
At this point, the 26-year-old says he’s working to stay inspired as the season winds down and to learn from the setback as he begins thinking about the Olympic year ahead.
“I was for sure hoping for a lot more from today, but at this point, I’m trying to think positive and carry some motivation into the training season,” Hamilton said. “I have some big goals for this summer and next season, and I’m looking forward to tackling those. I haven’t written this year off, but it hasn’t been the greatest season, and I just have to keep reminding myself that the work I am putting in will pay off as long as I am patient.”
With the start rights FIS awards to continental cup leaders in Period 4, the U.S. had four men in the sprint on Saturday. Torin Koos was 73rd and Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess finished 81st, which the latter described “went about as poorly as a race can go.”
“Not really sure why… Just really struggled,” Blackhorse-von Jess said. “Basically stopped partway through to see if I’d lost a basket after I missed three pole plants in a row… Just weird. Still trying to get my head around why it all went so sideways. Clearly not stoked about it, but I’m trying to figure out if it was just weird or if there’s something I can do between now and Drammen to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Athletes can be dissatisfied with a result for a variety of reasons, but Blackhorse-von Jess felt the sting most acutely given the rarity of the opportunity to compete on the World Cup.
“I get one more chance to show that the domestic skiers can hang with the best at the world level,” he said. “It pretty much sucks when we get a sweet opportunity to show where we fit in on the world scene and fail to even put together a race effort comparable to what got us here in the first place.”
On the whole, the American men’s results were comparable in the 15 k individual classic the next day: one top-30, a 40th, and a bunch in the 60s and lower. Freeman’s 25th was an improvement over his recent skiing, and in fact is his best individual result since taking 10th in Canmore, but in the scheme of the performances he expects of himself when he wears a bib he considered it a top-30 of little consequence.
His pre-race plan dictated that he ski a pace he could sustain in order to avoid digging himself into a Val di Fiemme-sized hole.
“My game plan was to find a pace I could sustain for 15k and not deviate from it,” Freeman said. “It didn’t set me up to win the race but it put me in decent positioning.”
Though he struggled with blood sugar difficulties earlier in the week, Freeman says he was able to resolve them in time for the race and feel good on Sunday morning.
Noah Hoffman was the second American in the 15 k classic in 40th place with a time of 36:48.2. He struggled with kick at a few crucial places, which had a noticeable effect on his ability to climb Lahti’s challenging hills, but was happy to have felt physically recovered from World Championships.
“The result wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but I felt like my energy was good,” Hoffman said.
As in Val di Fiemme, he set out to catch a ride with strong skiers that started behind him on Sunday, namely Daniel Richardsson (SWE) and Eldar Roenning (NOR) —“each who had the potential to win this race.”
Hoffman was partly successful in following the plan. When Richardsson came by him before the 6 k mark on one of the hills, the American found his skis to be slick and wasn’t able keep pace with the Swede. Hoffman had more success when Roenning came by and skied with him for the rest of the race, but “Richardsson was the ride I needed to take to get a result I would have been psyched with, and I was unable to do that,” Hoffman said.
With his 40th-place result on Sunday, Hoffman is on the bubble to qualify for World Cup finals. There are two races to go in Norway, just one of them a distance event, and he is currently the 50th person on the overall ranking list. The precarious position doesn’t worry him, he says, particularly since World Cup finals was a reach goal at the beginning of the season and whether he makes it or not won’t take away from the ones he’s been able to achieve this winter.
It will change his strategy in Holmenkollen, however.
“Holmenkollen has the most preems of any race all year, six preems, plus it’s a 50 k race which is probably one of my better races at the moment. So I believe I can make it,” Hoffman said. “I’ll probably be chasing some preems in that 50 k, that’s the easiest way to get points — one preem equals a 16th-place World Cup finish… So to achieve my goals it’s going to come down to the wire.”
After Hoffman, Newell was 61st in the Lahti 15 k, Koos finished 67th and Tad Elliott was 77th.
The World Cup moves to Drammen on Wednesday for a city sprint and to Holmenkollen over the weekend for the 50 k freestyle.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.