FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — The timing was right for Erik Bjornsen in the first race of his second FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on Saturday.
For the first time this season, the 23-year-old U.S. Ski Team member cracked the top 30 in a distance race and he did so after skiing in the top 30 for most of the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon.
After starting the mass start in bib 47 of 63, Bjornsen made his way up to 34th, 9.2 seconds from the lead, within the first 1.5 k of the opening 15 k classic leg. Meanwhile, his U.S. teammate Matt Gelso, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, hung with the group in 31st, 8.1 seconds behind.
“I have been working on my classic technique and just trying to stay really relaxed,” Bjornsen recalled.
After the women rounded two similar courses for the 15 k skiathlon earlier Saturday afternoon, the men were left with mostly chewed-up conditions in temperatures around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Race officials salted two hills on the men’s 5 k freestyle course, according to Gelso, who said, “Those were awesome and the rest, the main hill on Mördarbacken, was so deep and soft and smushy…”
Bjornsen and Gelso skied near each other for the first lap, with Bjornsen in 35th at 3.3 k, 10.5 seconds behind the leaders, and Gelso just 0.7 seconds back in 38th.
By the end of the first lap, Bjornsen was up to 28th, 7.7 seconds out of first, while the second U.S. man at the time, Kris Freeman (Freebird) lapped through the stadium in 42nd, 13 seconds back. Gelso was 0.8 seconds behind Freeman in 44th, and U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Noah Hoffman lost contact with the lead group to complete his first of six laps in 54th, 43.7 seconds from first.
From that point, Bjornsen continued to the lead the U.S., skiing in 27th at 15 k, 14.1 seconds back, and 24th after the ski change at 15 k. At that point, he was 43.7 seconds behind race leader Alex Harvey of Canada.
“For the first couple of laps, it was really good, I was having solid kick,” Bjornsen said of the first half of the race. “Last lap I was starting to slip, but I knew I had some really fast skis so really just trying to work up the tops of the hills. I was really happy with the classical leg.”
He completed his first skate lap in 25th, 1:04.4 behind, and hung in 29th (+1:37.1) with 5 k to go.
“I got a split with, like, two laps to go and I was like 28th or 29th,” Bjornsen recalled. “I was starting to cramp and I was trying to hold on for dear life. I mean, I was pretty happy with the last few kilometers. I was able to pick off a couple more spots. It was awesome.”
He ended up 28th, 2:54.0 behind Russian winner Maxim Vylegzhanin after posting the 25th-fastest classic leg, 25th-ranked skate leg and 20th-fastest transition time.
Bjornsen said the key was trying to hold onto the group then passing them when he felt good in the final kilometers. In doing so, he overtook some competitors he hadn’t seen earlier in the race.
“I felt like I was always with people trying to hold on, knowing that those guys in front of me were probably dying just as bad as I was,” he said. “I am pretty confident with my finishes and I knew if I could just hold onto those guys for those the first two laps of skating, I would be able to makes something happen the last lap and I was able to.”
He finished 0.3 seconds behind Germany’s Jonas Dobler in 27th, 0.5 seconds behind Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in 26th and a second behind Japan’s Akira Lenting in 25th.
“I was right behind a few more spots,” Bjornsen said. “It would have been nice to have a little bit more in the tank, but I was happy with it.”
Behind him, Freeman reached the ski change in 49th, 2:52.6 back from the lead, Hoffman came through 53 seconds later in 51st (+3:45.7), and Gelso nearly another minute back in 52nd (+4:43.0).
Hoffman went on to post the 39th-ranked skate leg to finish 44th (+7:09.1) in his first classic race of the season, after he broke his fibula in the 15 k classic World Cup opener in November in Kuusamo, Finland. Last week at the World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, Hoffman was 38th in the 15 k freestyle.
“Not what I was hoping for,” Hoffman said after Saturday’s skiathlon. “The classic leg was really challenging from the gun. So early on it was so bad, and I’m not sure why.
“I was definitely trying to ski a race where I could move up in the skate leg but that whole thing kind of went out the window when I found myself being dropped from a 60-person group in the classic leg,” he continued. “At that point, you have to do everything you can to hold on.”
In a blog post on Saturday evening, Hoffman wrote that his “energy and technique felt okay, I was just slow. The race was brutally hard; I felt like I’d been hit by a truck afterwards.”
He told FasterSkier his goal coming into the race — just his second race of the season after spending more than two months healing, rehabbing and recovering — was to get into the points with a top 30.
“That didn’t happen today. I think I can still do that in the coming races, but I need to refocus,” Hoffman said. “There’s two more good races [the 15 k skate and 50 k classic mass start] coming up for me plus the relay will be really fun, and then a couple of World Cups after World Champs. I’m just hoping to build. Today was not what I was looking for, but there’s lots more possibilities.”
Freeman finished 48th (+7:57.1). Up until two days ago, he explained he wasn’t sure he was going to race after catching a cold at his last races, the SuperTour mini tour, in Craftsbury, Vt.
“I felt flat and it showed,” he said. “I’m not happy with it. I blew up spectacularly at eight kilometers when I lost the group and then I regrouped around 20 k, which is a good thing, and I was able to come back and actually race again, but it was obviously unimpressive.”
Freeman reflected that he may have opted for too much kick while testing his skis.
“I could run up a wall, but they weren’t running very fast, and I just kept losing a little bit on the downhill and I wasn’t strong enough to overcome it,” he said. “To stay with the pack today, I was going to need an advantage in skis and I think a slight disadvantage just killed me, but it was totally my fault — I went back for more.”
The last time up the infamous Mördarbacken hill, Hoffman caught Freeman with just a couple kilometers to go.
“He was at a different level going up that so I think he is going to have a good race in the 15 k [next week],” Freeman said. “I am hoping that this blew the snot out of me and I will be back for the 15 k.”
In his first-ever World Championships race, Gelso, 26, finished 54th (+11:26.4), and explained after he felt “pretty awful” during it.
“I was struggling with the classic. I was OK the first lap and then I just started blowing up and I don’t know why,” he said. “I was hoping to be with the pack in the classic and see what happened in the skate, but that didn’t happen for a number of reasons.”
Gelso added that the skiathlon had been his focus race while in Falun.
“I just didn’t have it today, that is for sure,” he said.
At the same time, Gelso observed that the racing scene in Falun, with more than 44,000 spectators on Saturday, was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before.
“I thought this was just going to be like a World Cup, but just a little bit bigger,” he said. “Like Hoff and I talked about, it’s more like a mini Olympics than a big World Cup. There’s lot going on, there’s a lot of people, there’s a ton of effort that goes into this. It’s a pretty serious event.”
Commenting on the team’s overall performance on Saturday, USST Head Coach Chris Grover called it, “a solid day; great for some just okay for others.” In the women’s race, Liz Stephen led the team in 11th.
In the men’s race, Grover observed that Bjornsen had “really fantastic skis, which you could see on the downhills. He was gliding super well and maybe dropped a couple places during the classic leg on the ups and then he would just grab them right back on the downs,” he said.
“He and his coach, Erik Flora, have just managed to find the form when it counts,” Grover added. “Here is another championship just like last year where he has just started off in excellent form so that is pretty exciting.”
On Sunday, two of U.S. sprint veterans — Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton — will race the two-man freestyle team sprint in that order. At the last skate team sprint in Otepää, Estonia, they missed qualifying because of a crash and placed 19th. At last year’s Sochi Olympics, Hamilton teamed up with Bjornsen to finish sixth in the classic team sprint.
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.