Coming off 25th- and 17th-place finishes at U23 World Championships last Wednesday and Thursday in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Erik Bjornsen tried to set himself up for success in this weekend’s World Cup in nearby Toblach.
That meant setting realistic goals for the 15-kilometer classic individual start on Saturday. The youngest man on the U.S. Ski Team, Bjornsen, 22, told himself he’d be happy with a top-45 result. His previous best in a distance World Cup was 36th in last season’s 15 k classic mass start in Canmore, Alberta. Two weeks ago, he placed 40th in the same event at the World Cup in Szklarska Poreba, Poland.
“After I skied a 15 kilometer in Val di Fiemme two days before, that was fresh in my head,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier on Sunday. “Some of the things that went wrong there were I didn’t go out hard enough.”
He made a note to tackle Saturday’s race differently. If he went out harder, he figured there was a chance he could “catch a ride from someone fast.”
“I didn’t know it was going to be someone on the podium,” Bjornsen explained.
No one wants to get caught in an individual start, but it’s also part of the game when you start behind top-seeded racers. And when the person who catches you is an Olympic and world champion from Sweden — like Marcus Hellner — it’s not such a bad thing.
Hellner started 33rd and caught Bjornsen in bib 57 within the first kilometer. Instead of letting him go, Bjornsen resolved to stay on the 29-year-old veteran, and skied the next nine kilometers in wet snow and grueling mixed precipitation with Hellner. That put Bjornsen in the top 10 for some of his splits midway through the race. His time at 7.1 k ranked 17th and he was up to 15th by 11.5 k.
“Usually, I save some energy for the finish, but I gave it everything in my second lap,” Bjornsen said. “Third lap it was just hanging on for dear life. Coaches were giving me splits I was in the top 20 and it was so unreal. … My legs were killing me in every corner, every downhill, I was like, ‘Don’t lose it, don’t lose it!’ ”
Bjornsen ended up 18th for the first top 20 of his World Cup career. He was 1:17.9 minutes back from Russian winner Alexander Legkov, and 1:03 behind Hellner, who took third. For the Swede, it was his first individual podium in over a year. For Bjornsen, the personal best meant everything in the final distance race before his first Olympics.
“Could not have been better,” Bjornsen said. “Timing and skis and good feelings, everything kind of came together.”
His parents were also in town after watching him compete at U23’s, and able to watch his sister, Sadie, finish 17th in her first race back since December 22.
The top American, Bjornsen was also the only man from the U.S. in the top 40. Noah Hoffman placed 41st, Kris Freeman was 64th, and Brian Gregg was 69th of 79 finishers.
Alex Harvey led the way for Canada in fifth, Devon Kershaw placed 39th, Graeme Killick was 40th in his first World Cup of the season. Jess Cockney placed 51st for his best result in the event, and Ivan Babikov was 62nd.
“I’m pretty happy with where the team is right now,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said. “There were some other guys that had a good race, like Killick and Cockney were both solid for one of their handful of world cup starts that they’ve had in their career. Devon and Ivan struggled a little bit with skis, but felt good physically. I know the camp we did was really good so I’m pretty hopeful for some good results coming up.”
Hoffman looked to be struggling with kick and slipped and fell at one point. He said the race was “a little rough” and “not quite what I was looking for.”
“Classic skiing’s just been a little tough for me this year, but I’m looking to pick it up a little bit,” Hoffman said.
Killick, who finished 2 seconds ahead of Hoffman and 0.6 seconds back from Kershaw, said he started out a little slow and had to make up time on the final laps.
“I think it was OK for the first World Cup here and just after some altitude training,” he said of the Canadian team’s pre-Olympic camp in Seiser Alm, Italy, where the Americans also trained over the last week.
On the flip side, Cockney said he started out “very hard,” putting him in the top 30 for five or six kilometers.
“It’s always hard to figure out the pacing for a different field than you’re used to back home, but I felt good for most of the day, overall pretty happy,” Cockney said.
Like Killick, his teammate on the Canadian Senior Development Team and Alberta World Cup Academy, Cockney said their skis were great. He chose a stiff pair of klister skis and Killick went with the same.
“Skis were rockin’,” Cockney said.
Babikov said the race was hard and racked it up to “a little bit of everything.”
“Coming off the altitude and big camp, maybe that was the factor,” he said. “We’ll see, I still have a week to recover.”
Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) also described his race as “a little rough … but it was good to go hard,” he added. “Erik Bjornsen had a great day so that’s really cool.”
In international news, Andrew Musgrave and the rest of the British World Cup team almost didn’t make it to Saturday’s distance races after getting snowed in at Misurina 20 kilometers away.
“It was a bit of a stress,” Musgrave told FasterSkier after placing 59th. “It snowed a meter and a half, and we were snowed in, [as did] the Slovenians and the Finnish sprint team. We spent ages to get out all our cars and vans and stuff.
“We eventually managed to get down, but instead of driving 20 minutes down the normal road, there was an avalanche over it and we had to drive 2 1/2 hours around to get here,” Musgrave continued. “And then we didn’t have accommodation here so now we’ve got four of us stuffed in a tiny room. But at least we got to race, can’t complain.”
— Gerry Furseth contributed on-site reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.