FasterSkier’s American Birkebeiner coverage is made possible through the generous support of New Moon Ski & Bike in Hayward, Wisconsin. While you are at the Birkie be sure to visit New Moon Ski & Bike for all your local expertise.
Among the final major races in the ski world in 2020, the Slumberland American Birkebeiner pulled off an event with all the festivities for which the storied event is known. It was pure Birkie fever, with little concern for what other communicable diseases might be circulating at the time. A large snowstorm moved through the Northwoods of WI, followed by a bitter cold snap which let up just in time for a sunny day with mild temperatures on race day, setting up fresh, firm, and fast conditions that saw course records fall.
Flash forward through two years of pandemic and a non-traditional Birkie week format, and the weather gods delivered yet another pristine weekend for racing as the Birkie made its return, with all the Main Street revelry one could ask for.
This year’s Birkie also served as the final SuperTour of the season on American soil, with only Canadian Nationals which will be held in conjunction with SuperTour finals remaining on the calendar in late March. With several athletes who had been just behind the Olympic team cutoff appearing on the start list, along with a handful who declined World Cup starts in Lahti to race the Birkie and a few top international racers in the mix, the front lines of the elite wave were stacked. This set the stage for close racing and exciting final sprints on Main Street that kept the sound of the cheering crowds lining the finish at full volume.
The women’s race was decided in the home stretch as Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2) took her third Birkie win in 2:22:52 ahead of Caitlin Patterson (CGRP) in second (+2.0), and Rosie Frankowski (APU) third (+9.0). Also racing for APU, Jessica Yeaton was the fourth woman to the line in Hayward (+27.0), with a retired-but-not-slow Sadie Maubet Bjornsen racing on the mountainFlow Eco Wax team taking fifth (+1:05.0).
Patterson had flown to the Midwest after spending three weeks in China as a member of the Olympic Team, however, she did not earn any starts there, calling it “#chinatrainingcamp” in a heartfelt social media post. Yeaton had also recently flown to the U.S. from Beijing after representing Australia at her second Olympic Games. Yeaton raced in five of the six events (Australia did not have enough women for a relay), with her top finish taking place in the opening 15 k skiathlon, where she finished 31st.
After winning the 2019 Birkie, Sonnesyn returned in 2021 for the unique opportunity to race both a skate and classic event in the same weekend. With pandemic restrictions in place, these races started and ended at the Birkie trailhead in Cable. Sonnesyn won the 45 k skate Birkie on Saturday, just four seconds ahead of Frankowski, then the two traded positions as Frankowski won the 45 k classic on Sunday, with Sonnesyn nearly a minute back in second.
“It feels so good to be here on such a beautiful day,” said in the livestream interview from the finish. “Last year, finishing back at the start was a really great time too, but there’s nothing like finishing on Main Street and hearing that blast of cheering as you come off the bridge.”
A Midwestern native for whom the Birkie has long been a family affair, Sonnesyn said each Birkie win has been special for her. While other women pushed the pace at the front, Sonnesyn had never been the first through the checkpoints. Commenting on her tactics in the post-race interview, she explained that this strategy played to her strengths.
“There are some spectacular distance racers in the field today, and I recognized that going into it and knew that they were going to push the pace and keep it hard through the entire race. I trusted my sprinting, I’ve been training a lot with Jessie Diggins lately and I’ve learned a lot from her, so I knew that I had an extra gear that I could use at the finish as long as I conserved [energy] throughout the race… There were moments where I didn’t think I was going to close those gaps, [and] I crashed with 4 k to go, so that was a little bit dramatic of me, but overall, I just knew that they were going to fight hard and that I would need to fight too.”
The men’s race saw an even tighter margin decide the winner. A threesome of David Norris (APU), Adam Martin (CGRP) and Gerard Agnellet of La Clusaz, FRA headed over the lake together, with a few chasers following at a distance, still in view of the cameras.
While Craftsbury’s Martin led over the bridge, it was Norris (APU) who looked to be the strongest in the final drag race up Main Street. Norris moved to the front and steadily gained ground on Martin, while Agnellet began a late surge from the back of the group.
In the closing meters, Agnellet accelerated to move alongside Norris’ right side, matching his pace just before the line where Norris threw his boot to keep his advantage. A photo finish decided that Agnellet had nipped Norris at the line – 50 kilometers of tactical racing decided by just centimeters of distance.
This is Norris’ third appearance at the Birkie. The 31-year-old won his first Birkie in 2016, then was fifth and second American behind Kyle Bratrud in 2018. Today’s result earns Norris $4,500 in prize money, plus a $2,500 bonus for being the top American male. Equal payout for the top male and female saw Sonnesyn earn $7,500 for the win plus the $2,500 bonus, perhaps easing the sting for both athletes who were just beyond the ranking needed for 2022 Olympic team selection.)
Just behind the excitement at the front, Adam Martin (CGRP) took third today (+2.0), while Ian Torchia (SMS T2) was fourth after a short gap (+15.0). Craftsbury’s Akeo Maifeld-Carucci, a 2019 Birkie winner, rounded out the top five men, +18.0 behind Agnellet.
Torchia would announce on Instagram the following day that the Birkie had been his final race as a professional skier.
“Thank you very much,” Agnellet said through a translator at the finish. “I just loved the course here. It was fantastic and I’ve been very impressed with all the people I’ve met and all the encouragement I’ve received along the way. It’s been just a beautiful day here and I’m so excited to be on this great course, and to be representing France and to be the top man on the podium today.”
Agnellet was also asked about his strategy, in particular whether he had confidence that he could win in the final sprint and boot slide the line.
“My plan was to stay in contact with the front of the pack, and David Norris was looking so strong today. At a certain point I was thinking, ‘David has this and I’m racing for second place.’ But as the race went on, I was feeling stronger and stronger, and was happy to have come around David at the end.”
In the 55 k classic, Delaney FitzPatrick clocked the fastest time in the women’s race with 3:23:39, while Hayward native Josie Nelson was second (+5:26) and Molly Watkins of Duluth, MN was third (+8:10). For the men, Team Birkie coach Leo Hipp took the win in 2:51:57, while Chris Brunham of Stowe, VT crossed second (+20.0). Even Wetzel of Waukesha, WI rounded out the men’s classic podium in third (+2:24).
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646