FasterSkier’s coverage of SuperTour Finals and U.S. Distance Nationals is brought to you by the generous support of Concept2, the leading manufacturer of indoor rowers, racing oars, and the SkiErg.
TRUCKEE, Calif. — When skiers think of northern California, they think of the sun, deep snowpack, forested trails, and long, ridge-line ski routes. Unusual weather led to smaller snow banks than usual this April, but the hundreds of athletes and coaches in town for the 2013 SuperTour Finals and U.S. Distance Nationals will nonetheless be getting their racing’s worth starting on Thursday.
Truckee’s reputation for spring skiing precedes it. This year it’s drawn skiers to the race series from as far away as Sweden, Switzerland and Norway.
“Four girls from Sweden decided to come here to race, like an adventure,” said Hanna Falk, a Swede with a handful World Cup starts this season. “We’re really happy to be here. This is the first time in the U.S. for me, ever.”
“We heard that this venue was one of the best in the U.S., so we wanted to come,” added fellow Lisa Larsen, a member of Sweden’s 2013 World Championship squad. “We talked with Kikkan [Randall] and Jessie [Diggins] and they said, ‘You must come to California!’ So we decided late to come.”
The foreigners add an extra level of excitement and competition to this edition of SuperTour Finals. In addition to the Europeans, a handful of Canadians are on the start lists, as is the regular domestic field, and handful of dedicated college and junior skiers, most of the US Ski Team back from the World Cup and a few biathletes.
“This is a nice opportunity to ski and have fun and be in the sun,” said Annelies Cook of the U.S. Biathlon team and Maine Winter Sports Center. “And I don’t get to classic race ever. Last year was the last time I classic skied and I loved it, so it was just kind of fun to see what happened. I never go hard but I still love it.”
For the athletes, the plethora of SuperTour points up for grabs in each race make the stakes high for skiers currently in contention for the lead. But most everyone is looking forward to five relatively laid-back races in between catching up with friends and enjoying California. Some were perhaps hoping for a bit more snow on the backcountry trails, though — like the course at Tahoe Donner Cross Country, where three races were supposed to take place this week, the usually snow-abundant routes along the mountain ridges are pretty bare this year.
“I was hoping to take people on some of the sweet trails they have here up high,” said Truckee native Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation).
“But this is nice,” he added, indicating the snow around him at the Auburn Ski Club, where Thursday’s prologue will take place. “It’s nice being in Truckee, I like the trails here, I like the setup, I like the spring corn wet skiing.”
Precipitation is in the forecast this week, but the warmth and blue skies on Wednesday before the first race contributed to a relaxed atmosphere in the stadium.
“It’s hard to get worked up at this point in the season,” said Alaska Pacific University’s Rosie Brennan, who currently leads the women’s SuperTour. “With double SuperTour points, there’s quite a bit riding on [these races]… but at this point in the season everyone’s just tired. Racing in the West is my favorite thing, so I just enjoy it.”
Brennan primarily wants to keep her spot on the list in order to get back to Europe for World Cups next fall.
“I just want to make it through all the races and keep the SuperTour lead,” she said. “So I don’t really care which race goes well as long as a couple of them do!”
The first step towards that goal is the first race of the series on Thursday, a 3.3 k prologue. Though it’s short, there are just as many points awarded for winning it as there are in the longer events. The course on tap is being described as deceptively challenging. There is nothing illusory about the steepness of the focal point, an A-climb that was built in the last few days specifically for this race, but before and after it there are rolling transitions that will force skiers to stay on their toes where they might not expect it.
“I’ve never raced this course,” Gelso said. “The climb is new — they put that in a few days ago and this is the third iteration of it. It’s pretty serious. It’s long and steep at the top. You can’t blow it out otherwise you could really not have a good race.”
The venue sits just over 7,000 feet above sea level, which is good news for athletes who are used to the height at not so good for the unacclimated.
“I’m excited,” said Sylvan Ellefson of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown. “I haven’t race here since JOs in 2005, and back then the hills certainly seemed a lot bigger than they do now. The A-climb that they just put in is serious and it’s tough and I think it’ll definitely weed out the boys from the men. … All the hay’s in the barn, so whatever hay is there will hopefully be enough to finish up the season.”
There are a few notable absences in both the men’s and women’s fields this week. Noah Hoffman (SSCV/USST) just had surgery on his shoulder and is recovering at home in Colorado. Last year’s prologue winner, Simi Hamilton (SVSEF/USST), is having tonsil and sinus surgery next week and decided to skip the series. Holly Brooks (APU/USST) went home to rest after a tiring season in order to be ready for the national team’s first training camp in May.
The rest of the SuperTour regulars and USST members are in Truckee, however, and are ready to race.
On the women’s side, the hilly prologue course should be right up Kikkan Randall’s alley. The World Champion and two-time World Cup sprint champion improved her prologue skiing at the end of this season and Thursday’s contest will most certainly be hers to lose.
“I’m feeling pretty psyched,” Randall said. “It is so great to be back in the USA and good to be skiing in the sun and to see everybody.”
As for the course?
“It’s going to be fun,” she said. “It’s deceptively hard. You’ve got the big climb but still a lot of skiing after that and not a lot of rest. And being at altitude, it’s going to be a good challenge.”
Randall’s teammate was of the same mind.
“It’s going to make us work,” said Sadie Bjornsen. “It has a lot of hills which at least keeps you awake and working, but there’s also mysterious places where you forget to work, like at the top of the hill where it keeps climbing but at a gradual rate.”
When it comes time to put on a race bib on Thursday, athletes will ultimately be doing all they always do — going out to see what they’re capable of.
“It’s fun to go into a race series and not have any specific goals, but more just see what we can do with what we have,” Bjornsen said. “If you do well then it’s super exciting, of course. But you know, it’s more fun to see what we can make of it.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.