WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — The 2015/2016 season for the U.S. SuperTour, the highest level of domestic nordic racing in the country, kicks off Friday with a 1.3-kilometer skate sprint at the Rendezvous Ski Trails in West Yellowstone, Mont.
Originally scheduled for a 9 a.m. start, the organizers recently decided to start the sprint qualifier at 11 a.m. due to predicted sub-zero temps. While changes in start time can sometimes throw a wrench in to waxing and ski preparation plans, that’s unlikely to be the case tomorrow, as the snow conditions in West have been consistent, even as temperatures rise throughout the day.
Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team coach Colin Rodgers had a simple-enough solution: “Wear your wind briefs!” he advised.
The start list includes 104 women and 154 men, including nearly all of the big names on the domestic race circuit. Much of the field is made up of the usual talents from U.S. elite programs such as the SVSEF Gold Team, Alaska Pacific University, Central Cross Country (CXC) Team, Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team, Craftsbury Green Racing Project, Bridger Ski Foundation Elite Team, Sugar Bowl Elite Team, Team Gregg, Ski Club Vail, Gear West, and Bend Endurance Academy.
There are always nerves and a bit of uncertainty, even among the stars of the elite scene before these first races of the season. Athletes have spent the summer working on their weaknesses and tweaking their plans, but until they put a bib on in West Yellowstone — where the SuperTour circuit starts each year — the result of all that hard work is an unknown.
Jennie Bender of the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) Elite Team, a two-time sprint national champion and SuperTour podium regular, is excited.
“This summer has been the first in quite some time that’s felt consistent and uninterrupted, so I am pumped for the season and to travel with my stellar BSF crew,” said Bender, 27.
Alaska Pacific University (APU) standout and the overall SuperTour leader two seasons ago, Reese Hanneman is looking for some redemption on the trails, but keeping the pressure low. He told FasterSkier that he’s “feeling pretty good, but after last season and so many bad races, I’m just looking forward to getting out there and feeling fast again and rippin!”
2014 Olympian Brian Gregg, of Team Gregg, is also feeling prepared, while also curious.
“I’m excited to see how everyone’s summer training stacks up,” Gregg said.
In addition to these athletes, many of whom compete on the SuperTour circuit throughout the four-month-long season, there are three distinct groups of SuperTour outsiders in West Yellowstone looking to mix things up. They are:
The Canadians: Some years, there is a strong Canadian presence here in West Yellowstone, and this is certainly shaping up to be one of those years. With nine elite Canadians from various national training centers on Friday’s start list, including women’s top-seed Dahria Beatty of the Alberta World Cup Academy and three of the top-five ranked men, the Canadians will certainly be vying for spots in the A-finals.
The Collegiates: The NCAA schedule is, for the most part, totally separate from the SuperTour schedule. Generally, these two groups of elite skiers meet up for head-to-head competition only once or twice per year. West Yellowstone is one of those meetings.
As Montana State Head Coach Matt Johnson points out, “Our athletes aren’t focused on sprinting, and they aren’t focused on peaking this early,” as there is no sprint format in NCAA racing, and NCAA Championships aren’t until March.
But, he adds, “a lot of our skiers are good sprinters and in great shape right now, and are excited to get out there and see what they can do.” College skiers tend to be a mix of elite European racers in the U.S. skiing on scholarship at the large NCAA Division 1 schools (Utah, Colorado, Denver, Vermont, New Mexico, Montana, etc.) and many of the best young Americans, pursuing their ski careers in tandem with their education. With at least 50 college skiers on Friday’s start list, expect to see some student-athletes in the A-final.
The Juniors: Every year, at least one fast junior begins to establish their name on the national cross-country scene with a great race in West Yellowstone. It happens most often in the sprint, as shorter races tend to favor younger racers, and it tends to happen more frequently in the women’s field, simply because junior girls are generally more physically on-par with their elite competition than junior boys, who often reach their peak in their early 20’s. With high-ranking juniors form a large number of programs in the mix, and with about half of the field made up of young racers looking to make their mark, expect to see a few juniors mixing it up in the top 10 or 15, especially on the women’s side.
FasterSkier will be reporting live from the SuperTour opening races Friday (with the freestyle sprint) and Saturday (10/15 k freestyle) in West Yellowstone. Follow us on Twitter for updates.