(Note: This article has been updated to include Annika Taylor, originally from Truckee, Calif., who competed at U23 World Championships for Great Britain. Comments from Ben Saxton also follow.)
For most skiers, skiathlons are somewhat of a rarity, something you might compete a couple times, or even the first time, in your career.
When you’re under 23, chances are you’ve had even less experience with the half-classic-half freestyle distance format — which makes it all the more fun.
France and Norway perhaps had the best time of anyone on Saturday at U23 World Championships, with Adrien Backscheider and Damien Tarantola of France going 1-2 in the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, and Martine Ek Hagen and Ragnhild Haga placing first and second in the women’s 15 k.
The best part about Saturday’s men’s race was that Backscheider and Tarantola pushed each other to the line, with Backscheider getting the 0.1-second edge for his first U23 title in 1:24:27.9. Norway’s Daniel Stock rounded out the podium in third, 6.4 seconds after Backscheider.
“Today we proved that France has a great team and really good equipment,” Backscheider, 21, told FIS on Saturday. “I am satisfied with my performance throughout the competition and I had very good skis. We have been training a lot for these championships and we showed what we are capable of. In addition to these two medals, we have to add the one won in the cross-country sprint. I think that bringing home these three medals for cross-country skiing is really amazing.”
Tarantola said that silver was “simply amazing, both for me and the whole French team. The weather conditions were pretty bad and the race got harder and harder due to the rain. Nevertheless, I never gave up and I did my best … I’m really proud of our achievements.”
According to a press release, the men’s 15/15 k proved to be tactical, with Armenian Sergey Mikayelyan attacking on the final climb of the penultimate of 12 laps. Seven skiers went with him: Russia’s Kiril Vichuzhanin, Norway’s Martin Loewstroem Nyenget, Sindre Bjørnestad Skar, Mathias Rundgreen, Tarantola, Backscheider, and Stock.
On the second climb of the last lap, the group dwindled to five when Nyenget attacked and Vichuzhanin, Tarantola, Backscheider, and Stock followed. Right before the last hill, Nyenget lost his balance and fell as Backscheider made a move. Vichuzhanin stuck with the leaders over the top but crashed on the downhill into the stadium. Norway ended up taking third through sixth with Stock, Rundgreen, Skar, and Nyenget, respectively.
In the women’s 7.5/7.5 k, the 22-year-old Hagen led for much of the first half of the race, holding off attacks from Italy’s Francesca Baudin and Debora Agreiter, who looked to have superior skis on the wet tracks.
All together heading into the skate portion, Hagen picked up the pace and Haga, Austria’s Teresa Stadlober and Agreiter initially kept her in sight. Hagen went on to ski the remaining 7.5 k on her own, winning by 22.4 seconds in 44:37.5.
“I’m so glad for the gold medal, of course, it means so much for me,” Hagen said to FIS about her second-straight win at this year’s U23 championships, and her third total. “These competitions are much harder than what you may think, and on top of that, the rain didn’t stop falling today, making the snow wet and heavy. These weather conditions didn’t help us today and made the race even tougher. Today’s a very special day for our team, Ragnhild won the silver medal and I’m really happy for her, too.”
“I understood I wouldn’t be able to catch up to first place even though I was hoping for the gold for more than one lap, but Martine was very strong,” Haga said. “I dedicate this silver medal to my family. We hoped for the double victory, it turned out really well and it is great fun to be on the podium with another Norwegian.”
Stadlober placed third, 42.2 seconds after Hagen,and Agreiter was another 13.1 seconds back in third.
Patterson Repeats in 18th for U.S.
In his second race of his first U23 championships, University of Vermont (UVM) senior Scott Patterson placed 18th — again. He notched 18th two days earlier in the 15 k classic individual start.
Rosie Frankowski, a senior at Northern Michigan University, finished 26th in the women’s race for a career best at her first U23’s after placing 38th in the 10 k classic on Jan. 30.
Annie Pokorny (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) finished 31st for her second-best result in her second U23’s after she placed 29th in two events last year.
“I really wanted to keep my cool and ski a nice, relaxed race,” Pokorny wrote in an email. “I knew that the pace would be hot off the start, so I wanted to be warmed up, but also wanted to conserve as much energy as I could through all 15 k’s.”
By the time she got to the venue, Pokorny explained it had already started raining. That turned to downpour for the women’s race, but the tracks held up throughout their three classic laps.
Pokorny did her best to stay in the main pack out of the start. “The accordion factor was pretty serious through the end of our first lap and I had trouble skiing in the lanes, so I dropped pretty far off the top 30 and started working my way up from there,” she wrote.
“When I came through the transition, I was fighting for 35th place. The minute I stepped onto them, I knew I had amazing skis, and was able to work the transitions to my advantage all around the course. When I caught girls, it was mostly on the flats after uphills, where my skis allowed me to carry speed over the top.”
Heading into the last lap with a top-30 within reach, Pokorny explained she improved from 32nd to 30th at the top of the course before getting passed on the last climb into the stadium.
“I knew that I still had a chance so I pushed as hard as I could down the finishing stretch, no-pole skiing and chanting ‘Jessie, Jessie, Jessie’ hoping to channel my teammate [Jessie Diggins],” she wrote. “I got close to the 30th place spot, but she just edged me out at the finish. It was really exciting for me, and even though I didn’t make the top 30, I was proud of how I skied.”
While she felt short of her goals, Pokorny focused on the fact that she was having fun.
“This championship has been a blast. The Olympic year has changed the competition, there’s no avoiding its influence, and being a part of these races has been challenging and exciting.”
Another American in the top 35, Ben Lustgarten, a Middlebury College senior, finished 34th in the men’s race. In the preceding 15 k classic, he placed 30th. His goal was to beat that.
After getting off to a strong start, Lustgarten explained in an email he tried to ski relaxed in a good position at the back of the lead pack while avoiding tangles and broken poles.
“The pace was fast but I was expecting that, I’m glad I could hang on for the whole classic portion,” he wrote. “The skate leg turned out pretty miserably and I lost a lot there. I crashed early on really hard and hit my head (turned out to be a minor concussion) which made me a bit dizzy. I was also pretty tired and losing that much momentum was not ideal. Then I broke a pole going up a hill and by that point I just wanted to finish the race, I knew I could not make up any ground and I was pretty beat physically and emotionally.”
He finished and that’s what mattered most to him.
“I am not super happy with my result today due to the fall and breaking a pole, but I am very happy with my classic portion of today’s race,” he wrote on Saturday. “The world championships experience has been amazing! I was not racing at my full potential this week but I had some good parts of races and it is an excellent learning experience. The trip itself has been extremely fun and very valuable as a whole to understand how travel and racing in Europe really feels like.”
Annika Taylor, a junior captain at the University of New Hampshire, raced for Great Britain, where her dad was born and she technically has citizenship. According to Far West junior trip coordinator Mark Nadell, she contacted the British team’s nordic coach and inquired about racing for them.
Before competing at her first world championships for Great Britain, Taylor raced at Swiss nationals and tallied two top 10’s. On Saturday, she was 35th — her first top-40 in Val di Fiemme.
“My goal was to ski in the top 25 and hang on for dear life. That didn’t happen at all today,” Rose, 22, wrote in an email. “I had a pretty good start and made my way into the top 15, I think. That only lasted for about 1k and then I am not sure what happened. I was off the back and skiing with Annie Pokorny and Elizabeth Guiney.”
She and Guiney, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, stayed together for the rest of the classic leg, and Guiney ultimately finished 14.6 behind Rose in 41st.
“For the skate, I had a much better race,” Rose wrote. “I felt like I could actually ski and made up a lot of time on the girls in front of me. I was going pretty hard on the last lap trying to catch the 2 or 3 girls in front of me. I was in a sprint at the finish and lost to a foot throw with Olivia [Bouffard-Nesbitt] on the Canadian team!”
Bouffard-Nesbitt (Rocky Mountain Racers) led the Canadians in 37th, beating Rose by 0.1 seconds. She wrote that she felt strongest in the classic leg, but had “just enough juice at the end” to outsprint Rose.
“I absolutely love any opportunity I am given to race mass starts because it gives me the chance to ski with the pack and test myself head to head with the other skiers,” Bouffard-Nesbitt wrote. “I like to try to just hang on to the lead pack as long as I can because as that’s as fun as racing gets for me … The price to pay for that race tactic is that you fatigue really quickly, and in my case I just slowed down from that point on and struggled to stay with the girls that were passing me. I lost a lot of positions, but I don’t regret going out too fast because it’s very rare that we get the opportunity to race with the best in the world, and I think it’s really valuable to ski up there with them.”
Also for Canada, Cendrine Browne of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre placed 39th.
“Today my goal was to do the top 20, but I had no luck at the start,” Browne wrote. “After the first 500 meters, I was part of a tangle up. A girl stepped on my ski and pole and I fell on her. Then, the hole pack went by me by the time we got untangled. I was far from the rest of the pack.
“At first, I thought I could catch up, but it was impossible,” she continued. “On top of that, my classic skis weren’t that great. I didn’t have much grip compared to the other skiers. For a moment, I thought: what is the most embarrassing between quitting or being last at World’s … My answer to myself was: I’ve never quit a race and I won’t start doing that today. So I fought, alone, trying to catch girls in front of me.”
Disappointed with her result, Browne, a 20-year-old member of Canada’s Senior Development Team, explained she’s proud of placing 31st in the 10 k classic — a discipline that isn’t usually her best.
“I find it kind of sad that there are no relays for U-23… Relays were so fun when I was in the junior category!” she added.
Guiney wrote that she didn’t have many expectations for her first international skiathlon. “I was hoping for a top 30 if everything went well,” she wrote.
“The pace off the gun was incredibly fast. I actually got an outside track with not many girls in front of me so the first hill went well, but after that people started to pull away,” Guiney continued. “After the classic leg I was pretty much by myself, not really in danger of being caught but also pretty far from the people in front of me. So that was a little tough, just convincing myself to keep up the pace and keep pushing.”
Overall, she explained her U23 experience has been great.
“It’s funny coming to Italy because you expect sunshine and great tracks, but we’ve had some of the most challenging weather conditions I’ve raced in all year during our races. I felt a lot more prepared than last year, but the level of competition here is so high that I keep realizing how much farther I have to go and how much work I have to do to reach the top.”
Patrick Stewart-Jones (Alberta World Cup Academy) led the Canadian men in 41st, and American Ben Saxton (SMS) finished 14.3 seconds later in 42nd.
“I basically just missed out on the lead pack at the end of the classic race, which was frustrating,” Saxton wrote in an email on Sunday. “However I was in a good group for the skate leg, when I took a tumble coming down from Brink hill. I took the inside line and due to the conditions, my entire ski went under the snow and I got whipped into the ground. I was ok, but from that point on I was in kind of a no mans land, trying to bridge the gap back to my group and to other skiers.
“The American team had a killer week, and it’s hard not to be feeling the positivity from Jessie’s podium, Paddy [Caldwell’s] top 10 [in the Junior skiathlon], and the numerous top 30’s we’ve accrued over the week,” Saxton added. “On a personal note I’m definitely not satisfied with how my racing went this week. It was a big step up from the Junior level, and I think the results reflected that, but it’s huge motivation for me moving forward. I’m ready to get back out and ski with these guys next year.”
Four North American men were lapped: Knute Johnsgaard (Yukon Elite Squad) in 48th, Tyler Kornfield (Alaska Pacific University) in 49th, Sebastien Townsend (AWCA) in 52nd, and Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay) in 53rd.
The skiathlon concluded the U23 championships, with junior races continuing with 5/10 k classic individual starts on Sunday and relays on Monday.