The early part of a European season often involves a lot of Australian Team athletes in many different places. I had planned to do this long weekend of Alpen (European) Cup racing basically by myself, with wax support from the British team, similar to how I did these same races last year. However, I decided on short notice to go up to Davos last weekend for some training and to watch Phil in the World Cup race there, and ended up taking team-mate Jackson Bursill back to Germany with me, as he decided he wanted to do at least one of the races. Junior team member Finlay Clarke was meant to be in Eastern Germany for the weekend, but after that was cancelled he also joined at the last minute, with a bus trip and a slight diversion allowing us to pick him up on the way.
These three days of racing are massive, with approximately 27 countries represented by over 400 athletes. They also feature fierce competition, with many of the skiers from large skiing nations like Italy, Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland trying to get onto World Cup for their respective countries.
Friday was a 1.4km sprint for all the Aussies, and as predicted from a course inspection the day before, the course was soft, deep and slushy. The races were meant to be held in nearby St Ulrich but had to be moved for the second year in a row, due to lack of snow. The Hochfilzen ski trails were used last weekend for the Biathlon World Cup, and the artificial snow was reused for our races. Unfortunately there had been a heavy rainstorm and above average temperatures, almost ten degrees above and not freezing at night, which made for a challenging race on a strip of snow surrounded by brown grass.
Finlay was off first, pulling out a time of 3:21.26 and a place of 92nd of 115 out of all juniors, despite 71 of the 91 people ahead of him being in the U20 rather than U18 category. 21st out of U18 is a fantastic result for a first race in Europe, and in previous years he would have been into the U18 finals, but unfortunately they were all mixed in together. Due to the quirk of junior sprint FIS points, his 417 points were in no way reflective of the way he skied, especially when the fastest junior did almost the same time as the fastest senior, albeit influenced by the rapidly deteriorating snow.
Jackson was up next, his 80-odd kilograms not really allowing him to float on top of the slush and pull out the result he wanted. Added too this was a stumble as his ski tip got caught in 10-15 cm deep slush, which led to a time of 3:14.19 and earned him 85th place (of 98) and 243 FIS points. I followed 9 minutes later, skiing just over 4 seconds slower (3:18.26) with only a minor loss of balance shortly after the start. I was relatively happy with my race, although in the time it took to finish the course I felt like I hadn’t really started to hurt which is always a frustrating thing about sprint racing for me. I was 3 places behind in 88th and 272 points.
Saturday morning dawned damp and misty thanks to a factory just near the race course which spews out steam that settles over the race course and prevents a proper freeze; somewhat amazingly the course had firmed up a bit and was ready to take the assault of 420 skiers skiing a combined 1570 laps, plus people on the course warming up. Or rather wasn’t ready: by the time Jackson and I reached the latter stages of our race the course resembled a slurpee the whole way around, and we’re still amazed Finlay didn’t drown as he was close to the very end. Making matters worse for us was that the starting orders had been reversed, meaning the best people got to go first in each division, giving them a better course to ski on. We weren’t among the best people so suffered accordingly.
I was first off and immediately slipped in behind a German and French skier on later laps (the race was 5 x 3km). I was keeping with them really well until I fell over on the first difficult corner. Despite losing precious time here, it was still my fastest lap, as the course was still in acceptable condition. After that it was just a matter of trying to stay light on my toes and not push too hard with my legs, which only wasted energy and caused more sinking. I had an OK race, coming in 85th out of 107 starters (40:57.5, 179 points), steadily moving up one position with each intermediate checkpoint. Jackson started 30 sec behind but lost time, finishing in 93rd (43:26.1, 236 points) in a hard day at the office.
The second biggest highlight of the day was Finlay’s first distance race in Europe, where he skied to 31st out of 68 U18 starters, finishing 10km in 30:29.9 and 199 points. The most exciting thing for the other two of us was his position improvement through the race, with 46th, 40th, 33rd then 31st at the finish. The temptation to go out hard and blow up is huge in these kind of races, so kudos for that!
Of course the most exciting thing from the day wasn’t even from an Australian, but was British skier Andrew Young’s 3rd place in the World Cup skate sprint. We watched it on British coach Alex Standen’s phone in our shared wax cabin, and together will all the Brits here we got extremely excited for British Nordic’s first ever World Cup podium.
The Sunday of the St Ulrich races is traditionally a mass start, but like last year it was changed to individual start because of the short loop and the chaos that would ensue having so many races running at once on a 3km loop. Jackson decided to rest, while Finlay and I both competed.
It had fortunately frozen overnight, meaning the men’s classic was held in pretty good and firm conditions. I couldn’t shake a feeling of apprehension before the race, and during the race I had a few slips while doing diagonal stride which awakened an old back injury. Before long I was skiing to protect my back, which a) is slow and b) makes you more likely to slip again, this making the problem worse. After 7.5 pretty mediocre kilometres I pulled out of the race, which was a disappointing end to the weekend.
Finlay wasn’t on until 2 hours later, by which stage the course had gone back to slush, although not nearly as bad as previously. Finlay put in another solid performance, coming 41st out of 58, in a time of 33:46 and 278 points. He described feeling a bit slow and relying too much on his arms, which is often a temptation in classic races, particularly in slow snow. While watching the race Jackson and I both commented on how he looked to be handling European racing very well so far; we were both impressed.
We made a quick getaway back to Sonthofen, where we made a visit to the local water park, because that’s what we do on the Australian team…
Many thanks to the good, or more accurately excellent, people at British Nordic for helping us out over the weekend. Coach Alex Standen did a great job steering the ship and to have three extra athletes associated with the trip adds a lot of effort, and the wax techs Thomas and Petter did a great job giving us fast skis every day!