Comp USA: XC Ski Distance Championships
by Lex Treinen
The third annual Mixed Team Relay kicked off the U.S. Cross Country Ski Distance Championships at Craftsbury Nordic on March 24-26. As in the previous two years, the dominant teams looked to be SMS T2 and APUNSC, both of which fielded strong contingents of World Cup podium finishers and Supertour winners.
APUNSC'S first-leg skier, Erik Bjornsen, skied away from SMS T2's Simi Hamilton before two kilometres of the five-kilometre course. SMS T2's second-team skier Ben Saxton finished the leg in second, as Hamilton trailed a minute behind Erik Bjornsen at the tag-off.
APUNSC'S second-leg skier Rosie Brennan lost just two seconds to SMS'S Sophie Caldwell, while APU'S third-leg Scott Patterson gained another 20 seconds to give them a 1:23 gap going into the final leg. It was still not done deal, however, as SMS was anchored by Diggins, whose World Cup win earlier this year came in the very 5km distance and technique. After the first lap, Diggins had gained back some 20 seconds on APU'S anchor Chelsea Holmes, but it soon became clear that the gap was too big. Holmes coasted into the finish for APU'S third-straight relay victory over SMS T2. In fact, a composite team finished the race in second, but since the racers were not registered under the same club affiliation, their finish was unofficial. The official third place went to APU'S second team of Norris, Reese Hanneman, Becca Rorabaugh and Jessica Yeaton.
Racers were given another day's reprieve before the season-finale 30/50km Classic race. In the women's race, Diggins finished with a clean sweep after winning the Supertour final races as well, skiing away from the field after her first of nine laps. The hometown girls Ida Sargent and Caitlin Patterson took the next two spots, finishing just seven seconds apart.
The men's race proved to be more dynamic. After taking the first two intermediate sprint bonuses, Hoffman bonked on his final lap, turning in the 44th-fastest time and falling from third to seventh. Erik Bjornsen (APUNSC) meanwhile pushed steadily until the 13th lap, where he was finally able to drop Tad Elliott (Vail), who ended up in second. David Norris (APUNSC) meanwhile found himself in third after skiing most of the race on his own in fourth. Conditions during the race were slow, hot and slushy, and many of the top racers suffered bonks at some point during the race. Bjornsen finished the race in an unusually slow time of 2:43:56, at 1:39 ahead of Elliott. Because of the 15-lap course and the difficult conditions, all but the top-11 finishers were lapped by the leaders in the men's competition.
USSA Supertour Wrap
Following the U.S. Nationals in early January low snow levels forced skiers to use an alternate course instead of the scheduled Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic venue in Lake Placid, N.Y. on Jan. 30-31. The first day's freestyle sprint featured a long climb followed by a descent into the finish. Qualifications were won by birthday-girl Caitlin Patterson of Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) and University of Vermont (UVM) senior Cole Morgan. The heats proved a different story for Morgan, who gapped the field on the climb, but was passed on the long descent in his semifinal and didn't advance to the final. David Norris of APUNSC, who qualified in 18th, proved to have the tactics right for the day, dropping back in the climb and tuck-skating the final downhill into the finish. He beat his APU Nordic Ski Center teammate Eric Packer for the win in the final, while newcomer Akeo Maifield-carucci of Bridger Ski Foundation was third. In the women's race, Caitlin Patterson was unable to hold on in the final metres and was outsprinted by Middlebury College's Kelsey Phinney. Annie Hart of Stratton SMS T2 was third.
The 15km Mass-start Classic for the following day was rescheduled as a 10km interval start on a 2.5-km loop. Norris shocked Olympian Kris Freeman of Freebird with a 44-second win and got his second-ever Supertour victory in two days. Lex Treinen of APUNSC was third, another 14 seconds back. Caitlin Patterson received a belated birthday win, dominating the field to take a one-minute victory over her teammate Kaitlynn Miller. Chelsea Holmes of APUNSC finished in third, just days after returning from a World Cup stint in Europe.
The next weekend's races on Feb. 6-7 were again changed due to snow conditions, this time moved from Stowe, Vt. to Craftsbury, Vt. Races again were held on a relatively flat, 2.5-kilometre loop with shortened distances for both men and women. Dartmouth skier Patty Caldwell had a dominant performance to win the 10km freestyle by nearly 40 seconds over Tad Elliott of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. Freeman was third, one second behind Elliott. Hart (SMS T2) benefited from a late fall by Holmes (APUNSC) in the 5km race and took the women's win by three seconds. Erika Flowers, also of SMS T2, was third.
The next day, Flowers was on top in the 10km Classic race, beating junior teammate Julia Kern by 12 seconds. Local CGRP racer Liz Guiney was third, just ahead of Holmes of APUNSC, who opted to double-pole the relatively flat course. Nine of the top-10 men double-poled their race, and Freeman took a seven-second win over UVM'S Morgan, who is more known for his sprinting. Morgan's teammate Joergen Grav, originally from Norway, was third.
After a weekend off, racers headed for Hayward, Wis. for the American Birkebeiner, Feb. 18-20, which gives half-points for Supertour finishers. The men's field was stacked with European marathon teams, as a shortage of snow in Europe forced Worldloppet organizers to include the Birkebeiner in the series. Canada's Ivan Babikov was also on the start line, as he was sent home after lacklustre results in the World Cup. It was Norris who shocked everybody when he sprinted down Main Street after 54 kilometres to take the American and overall win, which gave him a brand-new Slumberland mattress in addition to the $10,000 in prize money and the Supertour points he accumulated. Frenchmen Ivan Perillat Boiteux and Benoit Chauvet were second and third. In the women's race, Caitlin Gregg of Team Gregg waited until the final few kilometres to secure her record fourth women's victory over Frenchwoman Aurelie Dabudyk. Flowers of SMS T2 was third.
USSA Supertour Finals Recap
Organizers at snow-starved Craftsbury, one of the few venues in the East with any sort of skiing, pulled off an impressive 3.3km loop for the final races of the season. The week began with a 10/15km freestyle race. The women's race held no surprises, as 2016 World Cup winner Jessie Diggins of SMS T2 skied away with a 36-second victory over APUNSC'S Sadie Bjornsen. Riitta-liisa Roponen, a guest starter and World Cup veteran from Finland, finished third, ahead of the third American, Holmes (APUNSC). The men's race proved to be a showdown between APUNSC'S Scott Patterson and US Ski Team veteran Noah Hoffman, racing for Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. Scott Patterson missed out on the win by a fraction of a second after getting a false split with 500 metres to the finish, saying that he was 12 seconds ahead. Patrick Caldwell finished just 11 seconds back despite skiing his final lap with a broken-off pole tip.
In the next day's Classic sprint race, Diggins was on top of the women's field again, winning the qualifier by seven seconds over local Ida Sargent of CGRP. That was the order of the final, with Rosie Brennan of APUNSC completing the podium in third after qualifying in the same place. The men's qualifier was won by Logan Hanneman, the winner of the season's first sprint in West Yellowstone, Mont. The younger Hanneman, Logan, couldn't keep up with Erik Bjornsen or his older brother, Reese, in the final, and settled for third. Erik Bjornsen, who finished a disappointing 15th in the previous day's distance race, said the late-season win was welcome. “I'm still mentally pretty motivated, but maybe the body is a little flat,” he said. With the men's finish, APUNSC nailed a podium sweep.
When the dust settled, Caitlin Patterson was the overall women's series winner, while Eric Packer took home his first USSA Supertour title as well winning the men's series.