By Rachel Bachman Perkins and Gavin Kentch
After a successful opening weekend of SuperTour racing in Duluth, Minnesota, athletes, coaches, and techs made the short trek down to Birkieland for three days of racing out of the Birkie Trailhead in Cable, Wisconsin. APU skiers Rosie Frankowski and Tyler Kornfield came into Friday morning as the points leaders for the early-season SuperTour races. By Sunday afternoon, the leaders were, unofficially, Alayna Sonnesyn of SMS and Zak Ketterson of Team Birkie. Both athletes will presumptively receive World Cup starts for the Tour de Ski, should they wish to accept them, though they will have to choose between racing in Europe and staying in this country for U.S. Nationals in early January as they consider their overall winter racing plans and paths to potential Olympic qualification.
Friday – Mass Start 15k Freestyle
Kicking off the second SuperTour weekend, both men and women raced a mass start 15 kilometers, which required six laps of a 2.5-kilometer course. While the elevation stats for last weekend at Grand Avenue Nordic Center were relatively benign, with 31 meters of climbing per kilometer on the Duluth 2.5 k course, that figure was a stout 40 m/km on the 2.5 k loop in Cable. While the max climb of 25 meters meant that the course, literally speaking, had no A-Climb (a climb of 30m or more, according to FIS homologation standards), the elevation profile shows a fairly constant series of climbs and descents, with one extended climb starting midway through the loop.
On the women’s side, APU’s Rosie Frankowski took charge early in the race, opening a gap 2.5k into the race, which she held with command through the finish line to take the win in 40:19.99. The gap back to second was roughly 7 seconds at the 5 k mark, 15 seconds by 10 k, and 16 seconds by the final pass through the stadium at 12.5 k, before she added another 8 seconds over the final lap.
In the first group of chasers were SMS T2’s Alayna Sonnesyn and University of Utah athlete Abigail Jarzin. This chase group was able to keep the gap to Frankowski within 20 seconds, but could not gain significant ground to regain contact.
In the final kilometers, Sonnesyn surged ahead to successfully control the race for second place (+24.3), while a second group of chasers began to reel in the first group. In the closing meters, Bridger Ski Foundation Pro Team member Mariah Bredal overtook Jarzin, powering down the final straightaway for third (+56.1). Jarzin held on for fourth, roughly six seconds behind Bredal. A not-totally-retired Erika Flowers and Lauren Jortberg, both Bredal’s teammates with BSF, rounded out the extended podium in fifth and sixth.
Frankowski has had a strong start to Period 1 of the SuperTour. She was the winner of last weekend’s distance freestyle event and had placed third in the sprint, which placed her atop the overall SuperTour standings coming into this weekend.
“The course was really great,” Frankowski wrote in a post-race email. “A base of manmade snow covered by natural snow made it just really fantastic skiing. I had never raced on these trails and they were a good mix of steep climbs, a bit of gradual climbing, and some spicy downhills.”
Commenting on her tactics, and what ended up as a predominantly solo effort, Frankowski explained how the course favored her strengths, namely climbing and grinding.
“I didn’t actually intend to go out to the front right away, but I realized I had great skis (thank you APU wax techs) and also that on the top of the big climb, I could gain a few seconds so I just tried to ski smooth in front and ski my race style confidently. It ended up paying off, although was a bit tiring since most of the second half I felt a bit like a deer getting hunted down (when in Wisconsin…haha) by Alayna who is an incredibly strong skier and finisher.
“This course was more my style than Duluth because it was more grinding and rewarded fitness. I also love that we got to try a 15k, and the same distance as the men, because that spices up our normal boring 10k all the time schedule—and I think it is valuable experience and confidence building for skiathlons on the World Cup and World Championships. If I hadn’t raced 15k races most of my collegiate career, I would have been intimidated by the distance when I raced the Seefeld World Champs 15k skiathlon in 2019, and again in the Lillehammer World Cup and Trondheim World Cup in the 2019-20 season. When you’re racing the best in the world, it is reassuring to know you have raced that distance once or twice in recent seasons so I think it is very important for our domestic circuit to mix it up.”
In the men’s race, racing was significantly tighter. At the 12.5k checkpoint, after lapping through the stadium, there were 16 athletes within 13 seconds of one another. Heading into the woods for this final lap, it was Canadian athlete Phillipe Boucher pushing the climb with Craftsbury’s Adam Martin and Braden Becker challenging alongside, and Team Birkie’s Zak Ketterson on their tails. APU’s Tyler Kornfield, who won the opening sprint last weekend in Duluth, also maintained contact, promising an exciting sprint finish over the final kilometer.
Down the serpentine hill with just a bump over a bridge to go before the final straightaway, Boucher led the way with a small gap to Ketterson and both CGRP men, who were still tightly grouped, with Kornfield a few seconds behind. Boucher held his position into the lanes, creating enough space to stand up before the finish line, which he crossed in 35:00.61 with his fist pumping into the air in celebration.
Without this luxury, Martin, Ketterson, and Becker pushed all the way through the line, crossing in that order, evenly spaced a ski length or two behind one another. Martin’s final time left him 2.5 seconds back of Boucher in second place, with Ketterson another 0.7 seconds back in third. Becker was fourth, with Kornfield a few seconds back in fifth. Thomas O’Harra of APU was the final athlete on the six-man podium.
After contracting COVID last year, Boucher struggled to put together the races he was looking for. The 24-year-old from Quebec had been 12th in the 30k mass start free during the 2020 U23 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, but did not place in the top-30 at the senior level in the 2021 season. As he was left off the Canadian World Cup team for Period 1, these domestic race opportunities play a key role in opening doors for future racing.
“I came to race the SuperTour races to get some racing done in the best field possible, with the best distance skiers available at the moment in North America since I didn’t make it on the World Cup team this year. I targeted that 15km race as a chance of making a good result so it’s always fun when things turn out in your favor.”
Speaking to the tight spread of the men’s field, Boucher explained how the track in Cable lent itself to this style of racing.
“It was a chaotic race in the pack. The course wasn’t very selective so everyone was battling to get the best line everywhere on course. We bumped skis all race long as no inches were given. But still, very fun racing.”
Boucher explained that his lackluster season and being left off the team helped fuel the fire heading into this season.
“I have been able to keep my mind in a racing mood and I am sure it helped for the motivation during the summer days… This result for me is an assessment that I can still ski fast and win races. My confidence took a big hit last year after very disappointing World Cups racing, both on the side of the results and on the side of the quality on my skiing. And I wasn’t healthy. So seeing I have been able to get a sense of speed and wellbeing on my skis is comforting and it gives me confidence that I will be able to race well for the rest of the winter.”
Saturday – Classic Sprint
Logistical difficulties plagued the latter stages of the senior heats. The athletes in both men’s semifinals spent roughly five minutes standing at the start, warmups off and race suits on, before starting. Official results were still not available online as of 11 p.m. local time Saturday night, hours after the finals had been completed, leading to this caustic but humorous analysis of the day.
The women’s final featured the first, second, fourth, and fifth qualifiers from the morning: Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2), Lauren Jortberg (BSF), Julia (Univ. of Utah), and Alexandra Lawson (CGRP), respectively. Curiously, it also included the outliers who qualified in 17th and 18th, Erika Flowers (BSF) and Rosie Frankowski (APU). That said, it was all chalk going off the line in the final, with Jortberg first to the top of the small hill leaving the stadium, Sonnesyn immediately behind her.
Richter became tripped up on this climb, had difficulty immediately righting herself, and lost valuable seconds to the rest of the field.
Roughly twenty seconds later, Jortberg set a brisk pace up the course’s largest climb to stay well in the lead, with Sonnesyn chasing. Frankowski moved up nearly alongside Sonnesyn partway up the climb, but Sonnesyn pulled away over the top. By the time the athletes returned to view on the livestream, approaching the final downhill, it was Jortberg still in the lead, with Sonnesyn working hard behind her to create speed over the top of the hill and begin to close the gap. Frankowski followed a few seconds back, with a gap to fourth through sixth behind her.
Jortberg’s lead was down to a meter or so coming off the final downhill into the finishing straight, at which point Sonnesyn used a powerful doublepole to come around on the inside and create a small but undeniable lead on the uphill finish through the stadium. Sonnesyn crossed the line in 3:40.59 to take her first victory of this SuperTour season after three other podium finishes in second or third, with Jortberg 1.47 seconds back in second.
“Rosie Frankowski, once again, not considered a sprinter, has become one,” Chad Salmela enthused on the CXC livestream, as Frankowski crossed the finish line solidly in third (+5.31), like Sonnesyn notching her fourth podium finish in four SuperTour races this month. A few seconds behind her, Lawson beat Flowers by a few ski lengths to solidify fourth (+8.04) and fifth (+9.71). Richter, who appeared to never truly recover from her initial stumble, rounded out the extended podium in sixth (+19.40).
“The sprint today was great,” wrote Sonnesyn in a post-race email. “I knew the technical descents could be tricky but also crucial to the outcome of the races. I went out hard in the qualifier and was very happy with the outcome. In the heats, I wanted to have a really good start going into some tight corners, and then I relaxed a bit to conserve energy. This ended up working really well as I had a great draft going down the final hill during each round and was able to pull ahead at the finish.”
Having been on the podium, but not the top step, in each of the SuperTour races so far, Sonnesyn explained how she is assessing her performances as she looks to the season ahead.
“Overall, I’m really happy with the start of the season, although I’ve been searching for everything to come together on the right day. Each race has been almost perfect with just a few minor mishaps but leaving me wanting more. Today, all the pieces came together!
“It’s also been really fun to start the season back in the Midwest where I grew up. [Sonnesyn grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis.] I’ve heard a lot of people cheering my name and seen so many friends and family at the races, which makes racing feel extra special. After such a weird season last year, I’m really looking forward to doing a lot of racing this season!”
Racing in the men’s final were Zak Ketterson (Team Birkie), Antoine Briand (CAN), Bill Harmeyer (SMS T2), Daniel Streinz (NMU), Logan Deikmann (BSF), and Noel Keeffe (Univ. of Utah).
Ketterson took the lead up the opening climb, keeping his foot on the gas as the men wound into the woods and up the primary climb, which he attacked with a long and powerful stride. From there, cameras could not view the race for roughly a minute, but cheers of excitement from spectators lining the course hinted at the story as the men descended back into view.
Midwest favorite, Ketterson, had stretched out the men’s final, holding a sizable lead as he doublepoled toward the finish. He had plenty of time to stand up and wave as he slid comfortably over the finish line in 3:05.01. In Devon Kershaw’s words, “Gun to tape, annihilate.”
A few seconds behind, Briand had the advantage over Harmeyer, who was a few ski lengths behind exiting the descent. Briand ended his day in second (+3.40) while Harmeyer held off the accelerating men behind him in the final lanes to finish third (+6.32). He was followed by Streinz, Deikmann, and Keeffe, in 4th (+7.55), 5th (+9.15), and 6th (+27.89), respectively.
Though Ketterson won the distance race last weekend in Duluth, he did not advance beyond the quarterfinals in the sprints. He explained in a post-race email that he was ready to write off last weekend’s results and to capitalize on his strengths in classic skiing.
“Today was an awesome day. I came into the race with a lot of motivation to prove to myself that I can still compete at a high level in sprint races. The Duluth skate sprint was a big disappointment for me and I came into today much more focused and determined to do the job. I am really confident with my striding ability and today’s course was on very stride-heavy terrain. I was able to execute really well throughout the day and the whole experience was a lot more on point than the sprint last weekend.”
You can also find a post-race video interview with Ketterson from Pioneer Midwest here.
Sunday – Interval start 10/15 k Classic
Coming into Sunday morning’s interval-start classic race, Rosie Frankowski and Alayna Sonnesyn were separated by a single point at the top of the SuperTour standings. Frankowski had won both distance races, and been third in both sprints. Sonnesyn had a first, two second place finishes, and a third through four races. Frankowski, by FasterSkier’s unofficial math, had 102 points; Sonnesyn had 101 points. Women’s SuperTour points leader after five races has the option to go to Europe for the Tour de Ski. No pressure, athletes.
American cross-country skiing is in many ways just one small town. The athletic CVs of the two fastest domestic women this fall bear that out.
Frankowski attended Southwest High School, in, well, southwest Minneapolis. Sonnesyn attended Wayzata High School, a 20-minute drive away in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth. The two athletes are five years apart in age, so they would not have raced head to head as juniors, but they would have trod roughly the same path along the local JOQ circuit. Both women pursued college skiing, at NMU for Frankowski and Vermont for Sonnesyn, where both were on the cross country running team as well as the ski team; both later moved to pro teams, APU and SMS, respectively. Both represented the U.S. at U23 World Championships.
Last season, they raced head to head at the American Birkebeiner, where Sonnesyn won the skate race (Frankowski was second) and Frankowski won the classic race (Sonnesyn was second). The season before that, they were both on the World Cup at the same time, where Frankowski finished 43rd overall in the Ski Tour 2020, and Sonnesyn 48th. Whoever came out ahead on Sunday, it was going to be a familiar face.
After 10 kilometers of classic racing on a hilly course, the answer was: Sonnesyn. Starting relatively late in the seeded field, with bib no. 35, the SMS athlete was over four seconds ahead of Frankowski (bib no. 11) after the first of three 3.3-kilometer laps, and never looked back. Her lead was up to roughly seven seconds after two laps.
A few bibs ahead of Sonnesyn, APU skier Becca Rorabaugh, in bib no. 29, was having a strong race. After a relatively slow start (13.2 seconds back of Sonnesyn through lap 1), Rorabaugh skied the fastest second and third laps in the field to move up to second overall by the finish.
Sonnesyn’s time for the hilly 10 k course was 30:17.66. Rorabaugh was 8.18 seconds back, and Frankowski 11.71 back. Sonnesyn and Frankowski both reached the podium in all five opening SuperTour races. Rorabaugh’s podium finish on Sunday bookended her win in the skate sprint in Duluth last Saturday.
“I was pretty tired going into the third day of racing this weekend so I knew it was going to be a tough race,” wrote Sonnesyn in a post-race email. “The course had a lot of punchy hills and technical corners so I knew that skiing the transitions well would make up a lot of time. I did my best to go out hard but continue to ski strong and smooth so I could take advantage of all those transitions. Super fun weekend!”
The rest of the extended podium – SuperTour prize money goes six-deep – was Alexandra Lawson (CGRP, +37.77) in fourth, Margaret Freed (CGRP, +41.97) in fifth, and Mariah Bredal (BSF, +1:07.87) in sixth.
In the men’s race, the Zak Ketterson Show continued. After, by his own admission, a somewhat lackluster start in the Duluth sprint, Ketterson was first in the Duluth skate race last weekend, third here on Friday in the 15 k skate, and first on Saturday in the classic sprint. Sunday saw him fall to “only” second, behind Adam Martin of Craftsbury, but Ketterson’s string of solid races was more than enough to secure his spot as the unofficial men’s SuperTour leader after Period 1.
Adam Martin (CGRP) set the fastest time after four 3.75 km laps, crossing the line in 36:48.26. Martin started in Bib 39, chasing the splits of Ketterson who wore Bib 11. At the halfway mark, Martin had gained 18 seconds on Ketterson, which he nearly doubled by the finish.
“I love individual classic races, so I’ve been looking forward to this race,” Martin wrote to FasterSkier after the race. “The conditions were perfect, I had great skis, and I like the new Cable courses. I tried to attack the first lap right from the start, because I often lose the most time in the first few kilometers.”
As he looks back on the opening weekends of racing, and forward to the season ahead, Martin continued, “Finishing period 1 of the SuperTour, it feels great to find a good skiing and racing feeling, and it’s awesome to be back racing head to head with other skiers in the US.”
Ketterson’s splits held up for second place (+35.05), with Friday’s distance winner, Phillipe Boucher (CAN) in third (+38.19). They were followed by Johnny Hagenbuch (Sun Valley, +54.61) in fourth, Braden Becker (CGRP, +1:05.64) in fifth, and Sam Hendry (Canada/University of Utah, +1:17.97) in sixth.
The next national-level races in this country are 2022 U.S. Cross Country Championships, held at Soldier Hollow from January 2–7.