The 2015 American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., was spared the most frigid weather gripping the Eastern U.S., as temperatures hovered around 15 degrees Fahrenheit when Saturday’s 51-kilometer freestyle elite race began. And despite three to four inches of new snow, even the sun made an appearance during the race.
In was in these conditions that American Holly Brooks, of Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska, won her second Birkie, claiming victory in a time of 2:34:33.
However, she first had to ward off Aurelie Dabudyk of France, who stuck with Brooks until she began her final push on the flats of Lake Hayward, a few kilometers from the finish.
Brooks came into the race second overall in the FIS Marathon Cup, but reclaimed the lead after Saturday’s win.
The 32 year old told FasterSkier that the top four women were together for most of the race. At “B*itch Hill” – a steep climb about 40 k into the race – she said she heard a second snow machine behind her.
“I looked over my shoulder and there was the sea of men who had caught us,” she explained. “I knew it was a now-or-never moment.”
As the leading men passed the first four women, Brooks decided to make her move. She tagged onto the group of men and managed to break from the group.
However, she was surprised to find Dabudyk was able to hang behind her.
“I did not want to leave it to the finish sprint and therefore pushed as hard as I could on Lake Hayward. I did not dare to look back before the finish line to be sure not to lose any seconds,” she explained to the press. “I didn’t want to be ‘that skier’ who looked back and lost the sprint because you miss a crucial pole plant or something.”
As usual, she said Main Street in Hayward was incredibly loud and festive.
“It would have been fun to grab a flag and celebrate a bit but ensuring the win and reclaiming the red bib was more important!” she said. “I am really happy that I could win the Birkie again today!”
Dabudyk went on to finish second, 28.1 seconds behind Brooks. Tatiana Mannima of Estonia was nearly two minutes back in third (+1:59.9), barely holding off German Anja Gruber, who placed fourth (+2:02.1).
Mannima has won the last two FIS Marathon Cup races, while Gruber is coming off three podium finishes earlier this month in SuperTour races in Craftsbury, Vt.
Dabudyk said to the press that she wanted to stay with Brooks until the finish, though down the stretch Brooks had too much power for her.
“But I am really happy with my second place,” she added.
Mannima said that she pushed hard from the start to see which skiers could hold onto her speed. She was able to stay in the lead group until Brooks and Dabudyk finally took off with 10 k to go.
“At Lake Hayward, I was trying to stay behind Gruber, as it was pretty windy on the lake. I hoped to pass her before the finish line, which I did,” she explained, adding that she is happy to just be on the podium.
American Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) ended up fifth (+9:31), after winning the SuperTour 20 k classic mass start in Craftsbury late last month.
Bonaldi wins second Birkie in exciting fashion
The men’s race offered a more dramatic finish, as Italian Segio Bonaldi outsprinted three Frenchmen to win by less than a second.
Bonaldi, Birkie winner in 2013, finished in 2:12:21.1. He passed France’s Christopher Perrillat-Collomb in the final 100 meters to win by just 0.5 seconds. Benoit Chauvet and Mathias Wibault were also in the lead group, and Chauvet finished in third (+1.7) while Wibault faded to fourth (+5.0).
Chauvet told the press that he tried to break out of the lead group of 20 at the first climb, but no one was willing to break with him. However, the racers slowly began to spread apart at about the 35 k point, and Chauvet was able to work with Perrillat-Collomb.
“At this point all were thinking about winning the race,” he said.
Chauvet explained that his tactics failed him, however, and that Bonaldi was smarter and stayed behind the others until the final stretch. Chauvet said he probably made his final sprint too early, as he tried to be first coming off the new bridge that drops the skiers into downtown Hayward and the final straightaway to the finish.
“I did not feel so well until 15 k before the finish,” Bonaldi said. “My skis were also not very good so I tried to stay behind and to wait for the finish sprint. I kept energy for that.”
The 36 year old added that he really wanted to win this year, especially after finishing third last year, but was not sure he would have a clear shot at victory until 100 meters before the finish line.
“I am very happy!” he said.
“I am little bit disappointed to be third as I wanted to win. I have to come back for the victory next year,” Chauvet said.
The top American, Lex Treinen (APU), finished nearly 20 seconds after Wibault in fifth and was 24.5 seconds from the win. Last year, he placed 10th in the Birkie. American Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) finished in eighth (+1:51.4).
FIS Marathon Cup leader Petr Novak of the Czech Republic came through in 11th (+5:51.4).
“I had the worst skis of my life. I lost so much on the downhills. It was a mental fight for me all the way through and right until the end!” Novak said in a statement to the press. Despite his rough day, he still retains the lead in the overall FIS Marathon Cup standings.
American Matt Liebsch (XC United/Team Strong Heart), 2009 Birkie winner, finished 10th (+3:10.8), while 2012 Birkie winner Tad Elliott (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Elite) took 16th (+10:29.5).
Naryshkina, Mork take classic titles
In the 55 k classic race, Natalia Naryshkina of Russia and the CXC Team took the women’s win in 3:19:20.2, while Norway’s Ole Christian Mork won the men’s race in 2:54:22.1.
Naryshkina beat runner-up Josie Nelson of Medicine Lake, Minn., by 3:44.9, and Kelly Sillicorn of Winona, Minn., by 3:50.9. Isabel Caldwell, younger sister of U.S. Ski Team member Sophie Caldwell, placed fourth (+6:14.8).
Mork, of Oslo, outlasted four-time U.S. Olympian Torin Koos by 8.8 seconds and Thomas Seidel, of Salt Lake City, in third by 14.7 seconds.
— Vince Rosetta contributed reporting