No more “skiing into a race”
North Americans reflect on changes in the Holmenkollen 50 k
One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. Four years ago, each of these seconds was a place, with skiers in the top 10 finishing within 10 seconds of the winner. Not the case for the men’s 50-kilometer classic mass start at the World Cup in Holmenkollen on Feb. 6 in Oslo, Norway.
“It’s a battle from the start now. The days of skiing your way into the race are over. You have to be ready to hurt from the gun,” Devon Kershaw said on the phone after placing 23rd, 6 minutes and 8.8 seconds behind Norwegian winner Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
The 33-year-old Canadian believes that since the start of his ski racing career, changes have developed in the way these types of men’s distance races unfold.
“Before it would be kind of like bigger pack that would get whittled down to 20 or 30 people. That pack would be surging all the time,” he explained.
The major difference between the 50 k four years ago and this year’s mass start, according to a few North Americans, seemed to hinge on one factor: speed.
“Today the men raced like a women’s race. There was no dillydallying around in a pack. Even the first time climbing we were moving pretty quick,” American Scott Patterson, of Alaska Pacific University, wrote in an email.
In his third individual World Cup race, the 24-year-old Alaskan came close to his first World Cup points in 32nd, 8:47.8 behind the winner.
“It is a change from the 30-person sprint [to the finish] that you would have at times in the past,” the U.S. Ski Team’s leading distance skier, Noah Hoffman said on the phone. He placed 24th, 0.7 seconds behind Kershaw and 6:09.5 behind Sundby.
“I actually think the change in the way guys are racing these probably helps me,” Hoffman added. “Because in a 30-person sprint, I’m very likely to finish 29th or 30th. So, for winning these races, I need to win it in the same way that Sundby does.”
Kershaw elaborated on the race-pace precedent currently being set by the leaders.
“[A] couple kilometers in and it’s already pressing at a strong, even pace. It’s not a surge. That’s just the pace you have to go for 46 k and if you can’t hack it, you blow up,” Kershaw said. “With Martin, he’s changed the way that men’s racing happens.”
Covering the 50 k in time of 2:08:41.9, Sundby won the event by 18.8 seconds over Norwegian teammate Niklas Dryhaug and 1:05.4 ahead of third-place finisher, Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia.
Of course, that’s not to say that the pace is not maintainable, pending equipment, wax support, and fitness.
Canada’s leading man on Saturday, Alex Harvey, skied within the top 10 for the first 10.5 k, sitting in seventh at the 5 k mark, 1.5 seconds behind the race leader at the time, Norwegian Sjur Røthe.
“I felt like I should have been able to stay with the main group,” Harvey said in a post-race phone interview. “But when you’re losing so many positions in the downhills like that and then and trying to make your way back on the uphills in a 50 k … it’s frustrating.”
The Canadians have previously cited wax problems as a hindrance, and both Harvey and Kershaw said they were disappointed with their skis’ inability to keep up with the pace on Saturday. Harvey ended up 20th, 5:49 out of first.
“We’ve had a lot of problems this year with classic skiing, especially in wet klister conditions,” Harvey said.
With humidity hovering around 99 percent and a haze veiling racers from the spectators’ view, Holmenkollen’s conditions were no exception.
With some 200-meters of climbing per 5 k, and six grueling ascents for each 8.6 k loop, the Holmenkollen mass start is certainly not a race many athletes choose to toy fancifully with.
Even with its unforgiving course and few hungry-for-more racers, the atmosphere of this year’s annual 50 k mass start struck just as strong as previous years’.
“You don’t know how many more years you get to race the Holmenkollen 50 k at my age,” Kershaw said. “While I’m disappointed in the result—very disappointed in the result—the experience is something that I’ll always take with me and it’s something that I think even as an older athlete, it’s not lost on me.
“It’s really special as a Canadian to be able to come to Norway and be able to race in such a fabled stadium with 50,000 to 60,000 screaming fans,” he added. “It makes you really love ski racing even if you’re having not the best day.”
Read the complete Faster Skier article at fasterskier.com/blog/article/no-more-skiing-into-a-race-north-americans-reflect-on-holmenkollen-50-k.
This article was originally published on Faster Skier.
It also appeared in the Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.