SUN VALLEY, Idaho – It was a family affair at the first competition of the 2015 SuperTour Finals on the trails of Galena Lodge, with siblings Sadie and Erik Bjornsen claiming victories in the 10- and 15-kilometer classic individual starts. The wins seemed like destiny, as the two were both the 23rd starters of their respective races with each winning by roughly a minute over their competition.
The women’s 10 k featured a hard-packed course that made for fast times and often unforgiving downhills. Although organizers moved the start of the race back by an hour, the women still experienced what at times felt like pure ice.
Starting in the middle of the A-seed, Bjornsen began her race with the fastest first lap and continued her dominance until the 10 k’s finish, where she crossed the line with a time of 27:53.7. She was followed by Alaska Pacific University teammate Chelsea Holmes, who trailed by 1:021. In third was U.S. Ski Team/Burke Mountain Academy’s Liz Stephen, who placed 1:26.8 behind Bjornsen.
In fourth and fifth were University of Utah skier Veronika Mayerhofer (+1:43.1) and Stratton Mountain School’s Katherine Ogden (+2:07.9), who was also the top junior in Saturday’s race.
Bjornsen’s strategy was to charge out of the gate and sustain top speed through the two-lap race while maintaining control of her energy. She explained that the top of the course, which features rolling terrain, was her strongest section and set her apart from the other women. “I really enjoy double-pole and I was just working that section so much harder than everyone else,” she said.
Bjornsen hasn’t spent much time at altitude in the 2015 season with the exception of World Cup races and training camps in Davos, Switzerland. Although Saturday’s race was situated at 7,290 feet, the 25-year-old said she tried to forget about the high elevation.
“It’s funny because I rarely race at altitude, mostly Davos, and I’ve never had success in Davos,” she explained. “Today I was trying to just tell myself that altitude is not a thing because everyone is coming here from sea level so I felt we were all on even ground.”
The APU skier said her experiences on the World Cup aided her quest for victory. She explained that throughout the 2015 season she has lost kick in the second half of every classic race, which taught her to find ways to make little to no kick work in a race like Saturday’s.
“This year on the world Cup I believe I lost kick on the second half of every race. I’m trying to figure out if it’s a technique thing or a waxing thing, so today I was just trying so hard to find a way to make it work,” she said. “It was actually good training to figure out a way to make your kick work when it’s not ideal. In these icy conditions, there’s no way to keep kick for 10 or 15 k.”
Bjornsen said that she was happy to return to the U.S. and compete in a fun end-of-season event. At the same time she said that domestic races like SuperTour Finals often make her more nervous than the World Cup.
“A lot of the younger girls on my team asked me if I get nervous, and I have to say that I get way more nervous for racing in the U.S. than in the World Cup,” she said. “In the U.S. you come back to win. Granted I always try to win on the World Cup, but coming here you know that if you have a good race winning is an option.”
In second place Holmes was pleased with her result, saying it gave her a boost of confidence as her season comes to an end. The APU skier explained that she normally preforms better on hilly courses but used her teammate as motivation to ski smooth and relaxed.
“Gradual isn’t always my thing,” she said. “Honestly I tried to picture myself skiing behind Sadie because she’s a good classic skier. I wanted to ski relaxed and focused and not crush myself in the first kilometer.”
Holmes said that the icy course was manageable but highlighted some of her tactical and technique weaknesses. “I definitely know what I have to work on in the summer,” she said with a laugh.
Like Holmes, Stephen is stronger on strenuous courses that require ample climbing. She entered Saturday’s race looking to ski at a pace well suited for the altitude.
“The altitude is definitely a harsh reality right now but hopefully by the end of the week it will start to feel normal. It’s definitely a different pace. You have to remember that you’re at 7,200 feet and there’s less oxygen and you got to go a little slower,” she said.
The 10th ranked woman in the 2015 World Cup said that she was pleased with her effort and happy to be racing on U.S. soil. She explained that SuperTour Finals are a way for her to return to the roots of the sport and not worry about the stresses of the season.
“I definitely have a ‘spring series’ type mindset and I think it’s really healthy, for me anyway, to end the season how I got into the sport – just really enjoying it all and spending time with friends,” she said.
“You spend the entire year taking care of your body and resting, and I’m over it,” she added with a smile. “I just like to come out see people, have fun, and enjoy the sun. That’s what I went out to do today. It feels good to race because you love to race.”
Several women sat out Saturday’s 10 k, including APU’s Rosie Brennan and SMST’s Sophie Caldwell, both of whom are recovering from illness. Caitlin Gregg did not start the 10 k due to a concussion from a rogue feed that hit her head in the Holmenkollen 30 k earlier this year.
Erik Bjornsen Achieves the Family Goal
By the time the men’s 15 k began, the warming temperatures had changed the nature of the course. Instead of hard-packed ice, the 5 k loop developed into a wet track that sucked speed from competitors’ skis.
Despite the deteriorating conditions Erik Bjornsen skied his way to a time of 40:32.6. In similar fashion to his sister, the APU skier bested field of 80 by an astounding 58.5 seconds. In second was teammate Lex Treinen, while University of Colorado’s Mads Ek Strøm crossed the line in third, 1:02.4 behind Bjornsen.
In fourth and fifth were Sun Valley teammates Ben Lustgarten (+1:16.0) and Miles Havlick (+1:31.1). SMST2’s Ben Saxton (+1:44.1) finished sixth, while 2015 World Championships skiers Noah Hoffman (+1:55.8) and Kris Freeman (+2:01.0) finished seventh and eighth.
Bjornsen entered Saturday’s race with extra motivation after witnessing his sister’s win. According to the 23-year-old it has been a mutual goal to win high-caliber domestic races on the same day. They have come close in the past – at the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Championships they finished in the top two positions of their respective races twice – but never reached the coveted double-win.
“Both mine and Sadie’s goal for a while has been to win on the same day in a big race, a national caliber race,” Bjornsen said in a post-race interview. “I was nervous before the race, but as soon as she came in and grabbed the win the pressure was on for sure.”
Before he could accomplish the feat, Bjornsen had to make a decision. Given the conditions and the course’s rolling terrain some competitors chose to use skate skis and double-pole the entire course. According to the APU skier, it was a decision he almost made but in the end he chose minimal kick.
“I was really close to using skate skis but tried to go with the classic skis with very little wax and it was just enough to be able to work that long steady section and stay pretty relaxed and try not to push it too hard,” he said of his choice, adding that the minimal kick allowed him to gain a lot of time on the flat section at the top of the course.
Bjornsen said that his win in the 15 k classic demonstrated a diverse approach to previous SuperTour Finals. He explained this was especially true in 2014 season, where he struggled to find motivation after a long World Cup season.
“Last year after the World Cup season I got a little unmotivated so I decided I wanted to change that this year and try to finish these races strong. I’ve been trying to stay pretty focused the last week and come in here pretty hungry,” he said. “It seemed like it worked. I’m really happy with that result, there are a lot of strong guys out there.”
Almost a minute behind Bjornsen was Treinen who, unlike his APU teammate, decided to race on skate skis. “I double-poled the whole course and I think that was the right call for me today,” he said. “It was faster for me at least to double pole the whole uphill, and I think that was a huge key.”
Treinen has seen a breakthrough year in which he placed second in the 30 k at U.S. Nationals, was the first American in the Birkebeiner, and completed a successful stint on the OPA Cup circuit in Europe. He explained that his recent experiences in Europe helped him decide to double-pole Saturday’s course.
“I just got back from the OPA Finals trip and there are some real hills there, much steeper and more intense than these hills here. Those guys double-pole up that stuff and win their races so it was huge to get that experience there,” he said.
According to the 24-year-old, his finish in Saturday’s race was possibly the best of the season – which not only gives Treinen confidence, but also removes an pressure for the remainder of the Finals.
“This is maybe my best result I’ve ever had,” the Alaskan said. “I’ve had some decent results but to have a second place it takes a lot of pressure off but it makes it a lot more relaxed for me. Spring Series are always relaxed; it’s a fun time.”
Rounding out the podium, Strøm said that he struggled through much of his race due to the altitude and lack of training in the week prior to the Finals. Last Friday the Norwegian skied to second in the NCAA Championships 20 k classic and returned to Boulder, Colo. with a large amount of schoolwork and little time to complete it. Friday’s pre-race ski was his first since competing in Lake Placid.
The Colorado sophomore started one bib ahead of Bjornsen and skied with the APU athlete for much of the first lap. After that, however, Strøm lost valuable time on the subsequent laps and lost an additional 30 seconds.
“That was probably the toughest race I’ve ever done in like forever… at the 5 k I felt completely done, like ‘I can’t finish this race,’” Strøm said in a post-race interview. “When I heard I was fighting for podium I just tried to finish strong, as strong as I could.”
With the focus of his season – NCAA Championships – behind him, Strøm said that the races in Sun Valley are a chance to see how he measures up against America’s best.
“Skiing against Noah Hoffman, Kris Freeman, Erik Bjornsen, they’re all the best skiers in the U.S. It’s really cool because you can really see how good you are compared to those guys,” he said.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.