DAVOS, Switzerland — A sunny Sunday morning in Davos held an exhilarating bout of freestyle sprints for the World Cup racers and fans alike.
For the U.S. men, Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell both glided through the qualifiers with times ranking 10th and 21st, respectively.
Hamilton suffered a broken pole about halfway through his quarterfinal, which forced him to call it a day as he finished sixth and ended up in 26th overall. Newell’s run also ended in the quarterfinals, where he finished fifth for 23rd overall, which bumped him up to seventh in the overall Sprint World Cup standings.
Despite the results not going as they would have liked, both Americans reported feeling confident with their fitness and preparation going forward.
The sprint day began at 8:30 Sunday morning, without much daylight.
“You have to get down here in the pitch black for the first hour of skiing,” U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb said at the venue. “You see who remembered their headlamp and who didn’t. [We] had some near misses on the test track, but it makes for an adventurous day.”
From this race, some athletes joked that they took away a goal of improving their “morning person” technique. Needless to say, the sun and its accompanying warmth came through, and were quite welcomed by the racers.
The course warmed up, too, possibly becoming a little faster, but not necessarily easier for the skiers.
“The field tires as the day goes on and you just have to operate knowing that,” Whitcomb explained. “You feel lousy and so do your competitors. It really grinds you up.”
After 15- and 30-kilometer distance races on Saturday, Sunday held a 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint, composed of two laps. It featured a long flat into gentle uphill straightaway out of the stadium start, followed by a hairpin turn into the one big climb of the course.
The racers then flew down the other side of the hill into a fairly technical turn around to the wider section of the course, running through the stadium. Along with many other racers, Newell spoke to the importance of this stretch where “everyone tries to pin it through the stadium on the second lap to try to get into a good position on the hill before the corner.”
Passing on this course was especially difficult, so it turned out that the jostling in this wide, straight section tended to be crucial to any changes in position.
The day started with a time-trial qualifier, and those athletes with the top-30 times advanced to the quarterfinals. One athlete starting every 15 seconds, there were 95 men vying for 30 spots to continue on to the next round. While Hamilton and Newell advanced, the third U.S. man in the race, Erik Bjornsen did not in 68th (finishing 9.06 seconds behind qualifying winner Sergey Ustiugov of Russia).
Neither did any of the Canadians; Len Valjas missed 30th by four-hundredths of a second in 31st (+4.64). Alex Harvey placed 54th (+7.39), Jess Cockney was 62nd (+8.27) and Continental Cup leader Michael Somppi 85th (+15.36).
“I skied well enough to move on. I was actually surprised I got knocked out,” Valjas said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “I was only .04 from moving on. There is no reason for people to panic. I felt great, I skied great. It is just unfortunate because I was that close to getting more World Cup points.”
“The field is so deep right now,” he added. “There is just no margin for error. The learning is I need to ski more aggressive now in the qualifiers. You just can’t take any chances or anything for granted anymore. Even if I think I had a great qualifier, when I’m coming down the finishing stretch I have to throw down everything I have, and lunge across the line because you just never know.”
If he could do it again, the 27-year-old Valjas said he would have approached the final curve more slowly to prevent from exiting it too wide.
“We have another shot next week and I know we will be better as a team,” Valjas said.
Hamilton Picks 1st Quarterfinal
After the qualifier, the top-30 athletes took turns selecting their heats for the quarterfinals. The picking order started with 11th place, going down to first, and then 12th up through 30th. The brackets in the midst of forming were displayed on a screen, and in sequence, each racer walked up and selected their desired heat by pressing one of five big red buttons. This is a new aspect of the sprint system permanently implemented this season.
Playing the popular tactic, Hamilton picked the first heat. He explained he wanted to maximize his recovery time between the first quarterfinal and first semifinal, should he advance. One of the risks in that is that he chose an empty heat that was known to be a popular choice.
“I think it was a little bit of bad luck that I had Ustiugov and [Norway’s Sondre Turvoll] Fossli and Roman [Shaad of Switzerland] all in my heat, who are really strong sprinters,” Hamilton said afterward. “… It is an interesting way to be doing things now. It is kind of fun, it makes it a little more of a thinking game.”
After the strategy in picking the heat comes the racing strategy, which is frequently shaped around the opponents in that heat. Hamilton anticipated that Ustiugov and Fossli “would probably push the pace a little bit,” he said. “I also felt like this morning in the qualifier, I still had some really good pop at the top of the climb on my second lap. Those guys are really fast starters, so I knew that if I could kind of settle in behind them and ski really relaxed and smooth until I got to the climb the second time, then I could hopefully be able to push up and over that and either move into first or second on that climb.”
There were two climbs on the course — one for each lap. Hamilton’s plan was going well in the quarterfinal until he broke a pole about halfway through while coming around the corner into the lap lane.
Hamilton took the corner wide after the big downhill because of “personal preference,” he said. Afterward, he had to shift right to make the turn, and his right pole was clipped in the process. “It happens in tight sprints like this,” he said.
In the moments after, Hamilton slipped into last place, sixth in the heat, while skiing to the sidelines to get a replacement. He was just starting his second lap.
In the end, he finished sixth, 7.31 seconds behind the winner of his quarterfinal, Ustiugov. Schaad placed second (+0.74), and Fossli was third (+1.12). Fossli ultimately advanced all the way to the final, where the Norwegian placed third (behind Italy’s Federico Pellegrino and France’s Baptiste Gros, respectively).
Also in Hamilton’s heat, Lucas Chanavat of France placed fourth (+1.33), and Sweden’s Simon Persson was fifth (+1.86).
Despite his pole trouble, Hamilton remained positive after his race.
“I am psyched. I feel like my fitness is good right now, it is great for this time of year,” he said. “It is still early December – we have a lot of sprints left this year.”
Newell Goes for Last (Quarterfinal)
Newell raced in the fifth quarterfinal. After qualifying with in 21st, 3.84 seconds behind Ustiugov, Newell selected the last quarterfinal heat.
“I had a good look at the heats before I could pick,” he explained. “I chose the fifth [heat] because it looked like a good heat with people I thought I could beat, but it ended up being a really fast, tough heat.”
On the first lap coming into the technical, downhill turn where Hamilton broke a pole, the group shifted and Newell lost a couple spots.
“I kind of stood up a little bit; I went a bit conservative because I didn’t want to crash,” Newell said. “I ended up losing a position or two – I didn’t want to go too far inside because it was icy.”
Then came the best opportunity for passing back: the wide stadium flat.
“I thought I could get into a good position, but I pushed the flat hard and maybe didn’t have quite enough on the uphill,” he recalled. “I should have been able to pick off a skier or two on the uphill, which I wasn’t able to do, so that was a bummer.”
Norway’s Håvard Solås Taugbøl won their quarterfinal in 2:20, just seven-hundredths of a second slower than Hamilton’s heat. Taugbøl beat Germany’s Sebastian Eisenlauer by 0.18 seconds for the win, Andrew Young of Great Britain advanced in third (+0.3), and Norway’s Anders Gløersen nipped Newell in a photo finish for fourth (+1.35) by 0.04 seconds.
Newell took fifth in his heat for 23rd overall. After his quarterfinal, he mentioned that he had been feeling the effects of altitude around 5,000 feet above sea level in Davos.
“My fitness is pretty good; I know that I can have strong finishes,” Newell said. “I didn’t have a super strong finish today but I know it will be there. It definitely is there. Hopefully next week.”
The World Cup continues in Toblach, Italy, next weekend with another freestyle sprint on Saturday and 10/15 k classic individual starts on Sunday, Dec. 20.
Hamilton said he’s also in shape for better results.
“I felt really good on the climb both times,” Hamilton observed. “In the past [at Davos] I think I have been able to V2 the climb the first [lap] and then felt like I was pretty flooded the second time up, but today I knew that my fitness is at a spot right now where it hasn’t been at this time of year before.… I think my body is in a good place right now.”
With a total of six U.S. skiers in the heats (four women and two men), Whitcomb said they’re leaving Davos with confidence.
“Simi unfortunately broke a pole but he was skiing great, fast qualification. That’s a good sign he’s in form,” Whitcomb said. “Fans at home can expect big things in Toblach next week. Andy will be back together, he’s been feeling a bit off all day today, but I’m not worried, he’s in great shape.”
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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.