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SODA SPRINGS, Calif. – Lifting his fogged glasses at the finish of the men’s SuperTour Finals opening prologue, Erik Bjornsen turned to look behind him.
Soaking wet in near-freezing temperatures on Donner Summit, the Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the U.S. Ski Team (USST) member stood there, counting silently until he reached 40 seconds, he later told Sun Valley’s Mike Sinnott.
With no sign of Sinnott, who started 30 seconds behind him in the 3.3-kilometer freestyle race, Bjornsen moved on and out of the finish pen to get warm.
One day after sunny skies and 60-degree temperatures blanketed the region, some 175 competitors at Auburn Ski Club withstood a damp and windy morning on Thursday. Rain turned to wet snow for the women’s race, and that snow intensified into variable squalls throughout the men’s competition.
Fortunately, all anyone had to do was complete one 3.3 k lap, the same for both men and women, but that in itself was a challenge. Filling in as Tahoe Donner’s backup host for SuperTour Finals, Auburn organizers constructed a new hill, which some racers, like Sinnott, referred to as the “wall.”
In an all-out prologue, that kind of terrain is tough to tackle, especially at more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Add to that the issue of poor visibility with foggy or no eyewear and you’re in for an interesting race.
Bjornsen, who posted the fastest time of the day in 7:47, said he couldn’t see much of anything for the last half kilometer.
“I was really unbalanced and kind of sloppy, but coach said I looked good at the finish,” he recalled. “I heard the time a little bit after and couldn’t believe it.”
For Bjornsen, who won his first national title earlier this year at the age of 21, it was the first SuperTour win of his career and set him up nicely for the remaining four races at SuperTour Finals. With a 15 k classic mass start on Friday, Bjornsen will lead the standings by at least 14.5 seconds, the amount of time he beat Canadian runner-up Knute Johnsgaard by on Thursday.
“It’s super exciting … and pretty unexpected,” Bjornsen said. “Coming into these races, I didn’t have a lot of pressure on myself. Now I see I might be in good form so I’m pretty excited for the rest of the races, and I hope I can go for the overall podium.”
A year ago at SuperTour Finals in Craftsbury, Vt., Bjornsen tied Noah Hoffman for third in the 3.3 k freestyle prologue. Simi Hamilton of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) and USST won in 5:59.4, and Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown) was second.
Bjornsen went on to finish third overall and was 12th in the U.S. Distance Nationals 50 k.
This year, two men again tied for third, with Sinnott (SVSEF) and Mark Iverson (APU) finishing 15.7 seconds behind Bjornsen.
“Man, that kid was flying,” Sinnott said of Bjornsen. “I started right behind him and I was on the steep wall with him and then I never saw him again.”
With huge flakes swirling about the start slowing the course below, Sinnott made a mental note to copy Bjornsen’s strategy of starting easy then push up the big climb.
“After the climb, there was still a ton of work and I hammered hard after that,” Bjornsen said.
Sinnott did the same, fearing he’d lose ground on the backside into the stadium.
“That’s what I wanted to do but just didn’t have it as much as him,” Sinnott said. “Hats off, that guy skied a really strong and smart race.”
The tenth starter in the randomized A-seed of FIS points, Bjornsen was the only early racer besides Craftsbury’s Pat O’Brien (who finished fifth) to crack the top 10. Contenders who started before him, like Andy Newell (Stratton Mountain School T2/USST), Ellefson, and NCAA champions Miles Havlik and Rune Ødegård, did not make the top 20.
Havlik started first and placed 28th, Newell went out fourth and ended up 35th, Ellefson placed 24th, and Ødegård was 47th. Bjornsen was also the only man to beat Kikkan Randall, who won the women’s race in 7:57.9.
“It’s kind of hard to gauge sensations out here,” said O’Brien, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP). “Coming from sea level, everything feels really slow, a huge difference in ski speed. Right as we were heading out a big snow squall came in and was kind of like wet, heavy snow and I was skiing and didn’t have glasses or anything, kind of lost track where I was out on the course.
“I’m super happy with how things went,” he added. “It’s a great way to start out the series. … [I’ve] been feeling kind of junky the last few days but I think in a short-enough race like this, you can kind of push through it.”
Newell said he felt awful afterward, but that was normal for prologues. The conditions weren’t.
“My skis were so slow; I’m hoping the other people’s felt that slow, too,” he said. “I almost fell over on the downhills, they were so sticky. It just started snowing so hard just before the start.”
Part of the newly formed Yukon Elite Squad, Johnsgaard started in the second half of the 100-man pack and rose to second despite not feeling great, either.
“I felt really terrible actually,” the 20-year-old Whitehorse native said. “I felt slow with heavy legs. … I got a couple splits at the finish, but I didn’t really believe them because I felt so bad.”
Coming off five races at Canadian Nationals in Whistler, B.C., which wrapped up last Saturday, Johnsgaard decided to change his plane ticket on a whim and finish his season in California in an effort to boost his FIS points.
“I’m finally kind of getting to where I wanted to be all year so now I gotta make the most of it,” he said.
Iverson, 30, hadn’t raced in two months since finishing second in the Boulder Mountain Tour in early February. He suffered a muscle injury in his back in a non-skiing-related incident afterward, “doing something stupid,” Iverson explained.
He took 2 ½ weeks off completely and went on to take bronze in his first race back on Thursday.
“My only experience in prologues at altitude was two years ago at Sun Valley and I had an epic, epic, just-came-to-pieces,” Iverson said of placing 85th in the 3.5 k at 2011 SuperTour Finals. “I just tried to go out and not panic and try to ski loose and try to maintain a lightness to the glide and kick.”
It worked, as Iverson tallied another personal best this season. In January, he won his first SuperTour in Minneapolis and placed second overall in the Tour de Twin Cities.
In terms of pacing this one, Iverson kept himself in check. During training on Wednesday, he did a Level 3-4 workout around the course with his APU teammates.
“We were all just gassed at the end,” he said, making a point not to go much harder on Thursday.
While the prologue at altitude was undeniably tough, Iverson said he was enjoying his visit so far.
“It could’ve been better weather, but it’s not much worse than Eagle Glacier in the summertime some days,” he said of APU’s summer training mecca near Anchorage.
“When it’s beautiful, it’s absolutely amazing; you’re on top of a mountain in Alaska,” Bjornsen explained. “But when it’s raining, it’s way foggier and it’s way windier. You get rain like this, and it’s usually a lot softer than this. Snow doesn’t freeze … so I’ve actually gotten really good practice skiing in sloppy snow.
“You kind of have to have a lighter touch,” Bjornsen added. “I’ve just learned a lot about that the last three years. I was just such a pure sprinter, I was hammering each of my strokes. My coach said I looked really smooth today and I think that’s part of it paying off on Eagle Glacier.”
Rounding out the top 10, University of Colorado freshman Gustav Nordstom placed sixth, Brent Knight (APU) was seventh, Nils Koons (CGRP) was eighth, Brian Gregg of Central Cross Country (CXC) took ninth, and Tim Reynolds (CGRP) was 10th.
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Photos courtesy of Mark Nadell at MacBeth Graphics. Click here for his SuperTour Finals gallery.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.