In a paparazzi-like post about Martin Fourcade, a French website featured nearly two dozen photos of the French biathlete rollerskiing on a recent autumn morning. One photo wasn’t much different from the next, except for the eight with Erik Bjornsen.
It wasn’t his French look-alike; he wasn’t photoshopped in there. Bjornsen, a 24-year-old U.S. Nordic Ski Team member, recently returned from several weeks in France, training near Grenoble with Fourcade — a two-time Olympic gold medalist, six-time world champion, and his girlfriend’s friend.
“I’ve gotten to know him the last few years,” Bjornsen explained.
The photos were from an interval session they did on the track in Villard-de-Lans, where Bjornsen mostly trained during his stay. He’s been returning to France to visit his girlfriend, former French biathlete Marine Dusser, for the last three summers.
“There’s quite a few top athletes that are based out of that area, so I’ve gotten to know the crew around there pretty well,” Bjornsen said on the phone last week, a few days after joining the U.S. Ski Team for its annual fall camp in Park City, Utah.
In France, he has worked out with top French cross-country skiers like Robin Duvillard and Maurice Manificat, and this year, Bjornsen spent a good deal of time with Fourcade, 27, and his older brother Simon, 31, also an individual World Championships medalist. The two biathletes visited Villard-de-Lans between training camps, during which time Bjornsen joined them for a few interval sessions.
“You know, Martin’s going to be doing some nordic racing this year so he has been [working on] his classic skiing as well, so we got out for a lot of easy distance skis together,” Bjornsen said.
Instead of tagging along and trying to hang with the French national-team members during their workouts, Bjornsen explained he was more conscious about sticking to his own training plan this year.
“I’ve had kind of a tricky summer with a couple of injuries and surgery in July on [my right] hand so I’m kind of in a different spot,” he said. “I’m really trying to work on trying to build my aerobic base since I kind of missed a couple of months this summer. It worked out that Martin was pretty into changing his plan a little bit so he could match it up with mine, which is really sweet of him. We ended up doing [Level 3] workouts together and then for easy distance, it’s pretty easy to match up those workouts.”
FasterSkier: How did you injure your hand and when did you have surgery on it?
Erik Bjornsen: Last fall I had a ski crash with [my Alaska Pacific University teammate] Scott Patterson. I tore part of my tendon in the hand, and it was quite painful throughout the season. … I had a bunch of scar tissue built up and it kind of looked like I had like another knuckle on the top of my hand. It was just this big bump that [hurt] every time I was poling. The second glacier camp in July, I had been working on it throughout the spring and trying to naturally recover it and it just it wasn’t working so [APU coach Erik] Flora and I decided to make the call and get the surgery done. I had surgery in mid-July. I wasn’t able to rollerski really much for a month and a half. I actually had a little bit of a knee injury going on at the same time, so I had kind of a tough couple months of training and spent quite a bit of time in the pool swimming, doing some alternative exercises.
FS: What happened to your knee?
EB: I hammered one of my knees against a rock when I was running, like a week before the surgery. I took a couple of weeks to get better, but then after surgery I was supposed to keep my hand elevated. I was starting to get back into running, but running with one of my arms elevated. I think it just kind of threw off my body. It put a lot of torque on my left side of my body and especially on the knee. It stiffened up, especially my left hip, and that took a month to get over. It was just a lot of stretching and massage work. So I was able to get over that, but I mean, I haven’t really been feeling healthy for more than like a month now.
FS: Ouch. Back to your hand: what kind of surgery did you need?
EB: They went in and the tendon was actually looking like it was in pretty good shape so they didn’t do much work on that, but there was a big buildup of scar tissue and that seemed to be throwing off the the gliding of the tendon. It hurt when I was putting pressure on it with the strap, but after skiing like an hour, an hour and a half, it actually started getting like more painful. So they went in and mostly just took out the scar tissue.
FS: Are you pain-free now? Where are you at with your recovery and how are you feeling?
EB: I’ve been feeling great for the last month. Pretty much the last month I’ve been completely healthy and I’m ready to get some good training in. It was good timing to go to France and kind of have a little refresher after doing quite a bit of training on my own since July. I spent a lot of time in the pool, and then spent a fair amount of time doing some no-pole rollerskiing skate skiing, and those were kind of the two main exercises I was doing. So it’s been nice to kind of get back into some double poling using poles and starting to run some more. I’m starting to feel good again.
FS: This Park City camp is mostly focused on intensity training, right?
EB: This first week is building in some steady distance training. The last portion of the camp, we’ll have a mini tour so that’s kind of the focus of the camp, trying to get ready for that mini tour and trying to have three good intensity days [at the end].
FS: How are you feeling on Day 2 of camp, now that you’re working out with your teammates again?
EB: I don’t feel like I have a good sense of where I’m at compared to the [other] guys [on my team] right now, but as far as the last month I’m definitely starting to build my confidence back up a little bit. It was kind of a tough last part of the summer with all the injuries. I did a ton of training on my own and a lot of different training. So it can be a very interesting season to see how it all works out. I used to do quite a bit of swimming when I was younger … I was getting into swimming again, sometimes, like, a couple miles a day. I think I’m a pretty decent swimmer so I was lucky to have that background in the sport so that I was able to still use it for pretty good training.
It’s been interesting to get back into the skiing, and I feel like I’ve been moving a little bit differently. I don’t know if it’s better — I hope it’s better — it’s definitely, mentally, a different training schedule than I am used to. And I haven’t done a lot of the intervals. I’m starting to feel like maybe I didn’t lose as much as I was originally thinking, but it’s always so hard to tell on rollerskis. You never really know until the first couple of races or first couple of time trials, but I’m definitely starting to get a bit more confidence back, feeling like I’m in a decent place. I wouldn’t be surprised if I gradually build into the season this year. We’ll see.
When I was in France, I raced the French rollerski nationals [in September in Bastia, Corsica]. It was a good opportunity to jump in with all the best World Cup guys. Everybody was there from the French team. After Norway and maybe Sweden, I would say they are the strongest team. I had some decent races there. I kind of got my butt kicked, but there’s some strong guys. I was decently satisfied with the way I was skiing. It’s always a little tricky when you jump in … they have matched roller skis there; skis I’ve never been on. It was pretty epic.
[Bjornsen said he finished seventh or eighth in the sprint, narrowly missing the final. In the prologue the next day, he estimated he finished in the top 20.]
FS: You mentioned focusing on sprints again this year. Without a World Championships to peak for, what kind of larger goals or events are you setting your sights on?
EB: I’ve been working out the schedule. I feel like there is actually a decent amount of classic skiing this year, which I’m pretty excited about. I think I’ll also try to finish the Tour de Ski this year, so that will be one of my focuses, and then for sure the Canadian [World Cup] races, especially Canmore. It’s pretty close to my home in Washington. I think a lot of my family will be up there and friends, and so I am hoping I’ll be in good shape for those races. I’ll be doing the same as last year, pretty much all the starts the coaches will give me. Just trying to gain experience on the World Cup, get closer to the podium, but I think, it’s not going to happen in a couple years. I mean hopefully I can, overall, just take one step closer.
FS: A lot of people might wonder what Martin and Simon Fourcade are really like. How would you describe their personalities?
EB: They are actually really good friends with my girlfriend’s family so I’ve known them for a few years now. They are pretty close. They were over for Christmas dinner last year. I feel like I’m starting to know them pretty well. I really enjoy spending time with them. They are both great guys, but they are also very different personalities between the two of them. They are super fun to hang with.
It’s crazy — Martin is one of the most famous guys in France. We were skiing one day together and he was telling me he was going to Paris, and then I saw him on television. It’s crazy to see how famous he is. He’s just a normal guy and really nice. He has a kid now. I met her. I know his wife so I spent some time with [them] outside of training. I think they are both pretty laid back … they seem like regular guys. They are the same kind of people as Simi [Hamilton] and Andy [Newell] or any of the guys back here, down to earth and laid back.
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.