The first three races of the world cup are over. This morning we rushed out of northern Finland for the slightly sunnier prospects of Lillehammer, Norway. To put it in my parents’ context, we are now in the land of brown cheese.
It is always hard writing about racing when it doesn’t quite go as planned. Ruka was not ideal for me, but it is just the first weekend and there were some highlights along with the inevitable rust from 8 months without ski races.
Prior to Ruka, we spent 5 days in Rovaniemi, Finland adjusting to the time change. Rovaniemi claims to be the official home of Santa Claus although I think North Pole, Alaska makes the same claim. This place seemed to have the spirit a bit on overdrive. Our lodging: Santasport, the local ski team: Santa Claus Ski team. I also had the impression that they were trying to do this all with a straight face. Our hotel, which doubled as a Finnish Olympic training center, seemed conspicuously absent of Christmas decorations or the cheesy Santa images found throughout the US. Additionally, I’d have to rate the food selection quite marginal. Iceberg lettuce, various states of potatoes, and questionably prepared fish don’t exactly tempt my palate. But for all those features, the skiing was quite good. Natural snow was in limited supply when we arrived, but it accumulated a bit over the next five days. There was 9 kilometers of manmade that had been spread over a month before so the natural snow was not that crucial.
In addition to the excitement of being over in Europe and the approaching season, additional energy bounced around with the acquisition of the new US Ski Team wax truck. Over the past 5 years, most of the top world cup teams have rolled out expanding semi-trucks bedazzled with national emblems and sponsors. These provide a more consistent waxing environment and significantly improve the life expectancy of wax technicians. Breathing fluorocarbon fumes for several hours each day isn’t ideal for their health. In typical safety protocol, controlled ventilation schemes (i.e. wax trucks) are preferable to personal protective devices such as respirators. Along with the new wax truck, comes a new relationship for me. Previously on the world cup, I have bounced around wax technicians. This year with my ski team status and a few other changes, I have an assigned technician, JP. This season he will only be working with my APU and USST teammate, Sadie Bjornsen and myself. It’s exciting stuff, but it does mean that we must build a good working relationship. When talking about wax, cross country skiing is a team sport.
After several days training and several fitful nights of sleep, we travelled to Ruka (about 3 hrs by bus) for the opening world cup races. Ruka is a small alpine resort near the Russian border. The food improved slightly and the ski trails shifted from moderate terrain to full on steep world cup hills. As has been standard for the last few years, Ruka opens with a 3 day minitour. What this means is that instead of a normal two race weekend, we would be racing on Friday as well. Also, there would be an overall winner for the weekend. Racing kicked off with the classic sprint. This event is about as far from my specialty as possible, so I was taking it as a warm up for the later races. My chances of making it past the qualification round by placing in the top 30 was extremely slim. Predictably, I ended up racing to 84th which was well outside of qualification; however, this was also much better than I expected. I felt solid through the race and was looking forward to racing 10 times as long the next day.
But, the weather changed. After a casual morning, I turned on our TV to watch the women’s race. Yes, I could have walked about 100ft from our hotel to go see the race in person, but laziness takes over on race mornings. The first image I saw from the race was Kikkan Randall stopped at the top of the hill scraping ice off kick zone of her skis. It wasn’t the ideal image to get me fired up to race. Through ski testing, I was unable to nail a wax that had both glide and kick. Thus, I started quite apprehensively. On the first hill, I slipped out a few times and move out of the tracks for better kick. I could run up the hill alright but had built up enough ice in my kickwax that I was unable to glide. The whole race was this continual battle: try to find kick on the ups and then try to remove that kick on the top of each to get some glide for the down. I did not meet this battle head on. One third of the way through the race I was counting laps just wishing for the race to be over. Through three laps I managed a dismal 86th place. My better sprint result than distance is a clear indication of a bad day.
However, there were a few good things. One, I worked through a tricky day of skis with JP. We didn’t nail it, but we learned from it. Two, as the Norwegians would say, the body was fine. Although I was skiing slow and struggling in the race, physically I think I am close to where I need to be to perform on the world cup.
The weekend in Ruka did end on a better note. The final day of racing was a skate pursuit. Pursuit meaning that most of the field would start based on time back and bonus seconds from the preceding two days. As I was far enough back, my start would just be in a wave starting around 50th place. This makes for a mini mass start with two advantages. First, there are lots of rabbits to chase who start ahead of the wave and second, the real powerhouses of the field are not in the pack. We shifted to a shorter loop for this last race consisting almost exclusively of fast downhills and steep ups. This made for a quite aggressive and jumbled race. With a large group filled with competitive people this made for cyclic racing as each racer tried some aggressive tactic to move through only to be reintegrated later. Through 15 kilometers of racing, my pack absorbed quite a few of the racers who started in front. Although a better race for me, it still ended with a bit of disappointment. On the final lap, I got trapped into a bad position once on a steep hill and again behind a crash on the fastest down. This put me in the back of the pack for the finish. In a close race, this was made a significant difference. My teammate Paddy Caldwell finished 19th for time of day to capture some important points while I just missed out in 31st. The difference was that we were on opposites sides of the group 6 seconds apart.
Nevertheless, my confidence was boosted with the final result. This coming weekend will be more tough racing in Lillehammer with the longest race prior to the Olympics taking place: a 30 kilometer skiathlon.