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Old and New, Many Contenders in the Hunt at 2016 American Birkie

About 200 men and 60 women will line up in the elite waves of the 43rd American Birkebeiner on Saturday at Telemark Resort in Cable, Wis.

About 200 men and 60 women will line up in the elite waves of the 43rd American Birkebeiner on Saturday at Telemark Resort in Cable, Wis.

HAYWARD, Wis. — Despite rain, wintery mix and above-freezing temperatures in the 48 hours leading up to race time, the excitement for the 43rd American Birkebeiner is high. With the late decision to change the Birkie to a Worldloppet event, the fields are deep and promise some dramatic racing.

In the women’s field, France’s Aurelie Dabudyk wears the red bib leading the FIS Worldloppet Cup. Dabudyk battled American Holly Brooks for the win last year but couldn’t match Brooks’ attack over Lake Hayward. Brooks will not return to defend her title this year as she has dialed down her racing schedule after a demanding marathon schedule last season and a rollerski injury this fall.

Dabudyk will be challenged by three-time Birkie champion Caitlin Gregg, who, in her first season as U.S. Ski Team member, returned to the U.S. last month after racing on the World Cup. Last year Gregg did not race the Birkie as she was racing in Europe, but this year she will be aiming to become the winningest athlete in Birkie history. She is currently tied with Manfred Nagel of Austria for the most Birkie wins with three apiece.

Holly Brooks after winning the 42 k Dolomitenlauf on Sunday in Lienz, Austria, with second-place finisher Aurelie Dabudyk of France (left) and third-place finisher Antonella Confortola (right). (Photo: FIS/Dolomitenlauf)

Holly Brooks (c) after winning last year’s Dolomitenlauf in Lienz, Austria, with second-place finisher Aurelie Dabudyk of France (left) and third-place finisher Antonella Confortola (right). (Photo: FIS/Dolomitenlauf)

The women’s race features a deep international field with eight seeded starters hailing from outside the U.S.  This includes the top four in the FIS Worldloppet Cup overall standings including Dabudyk and her Haute-Savoie teammate Elisa Brocart of Italy in second.

Although they are newcomers to the Birkie, Czech Klara Moravcova and Switzerland’s Rahel Imoberdorf currently rank third and fourth in the Worldloppet standings, respectively. The runner-up in the 2014 Birkie and 2006 Olympic bronze medalist Antonella Confortola of Italy will also be on the hunt for the Birkie title.

Although many top-10 finishers from last year are missing from the 2016 start list, the field has significant domestic depth. For the Stratton Mountain School T2 team, Erika Flowers will take her first crack at the Birkie fresh off a win at the Craftsbury Supertour and fifth place in the 20 k freestyle mass start at 2016 U.S. nationals.

“I hear the fans are pretty amazing so I am looking forward to skiing by some of the more iconic spots on the course …I’ve heard a lot about Powerline, OO, Bitch Hill, shotskis, drummers, hecklers…the whole scene should be pretty exciting!” Flowers wrote in an email.

Other domestic talent includes Mary Rose of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, as well as Rosie Frankowski (who won the Qaniq Challenge last month in Valdez, Alaska) and Lauren Fritz of Alaska Pacific University.

Caitlin Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project is notably missing from the start list as she is currently representing the U.S. on the World Cup. SuperTour skiers Annie Hart and Chelsea Holmes are listed on the start list but will not be racing.

Bonaldi is Back, Along with Babikov

Italy’s Sergio Bonaldi (r) outlasts three Frenchmen en route to his second American Birkebeiner victory on Saturday in the 42nd annual Birkie in Hayward, Wis. (Photo: Darlene Prois/ABSF)

Italy’s Sergio Bonaldi (r) outlasts three Frenchmen en route to his second American Birkebeiner victory at last year’s 42nd American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis. (Photo: Darlene Prois/ABSF)

The men’s race also features a talented field, including last year’s champion Sergey Bonaldi of France. As a two-time Birkie champion, he returns as a favorite, however, this year he will be missing the support of any Team Salomon Italia racers who helped landed him on the top step last year.

The most well-represented international team is French team Gel Interim Rossignol fielding four racers including current Marathon Cup leader Bastien Poirrier and consistent Birkie contender Benoit Chauvet. Another French athlete Ivan Perrillat Boiteux of team Houte-Savoie currently sits second in the Worldloppet Cup and will be looking to break up the Gel Interim Rossignol contingent.

Another contender will be Canadian World Cup skier Ivan Babikov. Although he decided last minute to compete, Babikov is no stranger to the Birkie as he has three races and one win in 2008 under his belt.

2012 American Birkebeiner men's 50 k skate podium: (left to right) Matt Liebsch in second, Tad Elliott in first, and Brian Gregg in third.

2012 American Birkebeiner men’s 50 k skate podium: (left to right) Matt Liebsch in second, Tad Elliott in first, and Brian Gregg in third.

For the Americans, Tad Elliott, Matt Liebsch and Brian Gregg have a strong history at the Birkie as the trio swept the podium in 2012, with Elliott leading the charge and Liebsch claimed a victory in 2009. Elliot has come back strong from illness to claim the 30 k freestyle title at 2016 U.S. nationals and poses a threat if the race comes down to closing tactics.  Kris Freeman is another mainstay of American distance skiing and will bring his extensive international race experience to his first Birkie appearance.

Although the weather is disconcerting to many Midwesterners, it hasn’t phased Liebsch.

“I am pumped!” Liebsch wrote in an email. “Bigger euro field so it will be deeper but I am excited for a ‘warm’ birkie.  I think skis could play a big factor in the race and I am excited that it could be a very fast race.”

Lex Treinen of Alaska Pacific University looks to repeat his feat as the top American finisher, after placing fifth last year. He is joined by APU teammates David Norris and Tyler Kornfield, both coming off strong recent results on the SuperTour circuit.

The race can be followed live on Xcountry live starting at 8 a.m. Central on Saturday.

Men’s seeded elite start list | Women’s seeded elite start list

— Kaitlyn Patterson

El Niño Tests Birkie Organizers and Racers: Thunder in Hayward on Thursday

HAYWARD, Wis. — A steady rain and rumbles of thunder could be heard at Hayward High School Thursday evening, spiking the anxiety of hundreds of skiers claiming their bibs at the Birkie Expo. Nothing gets skiers riled up quite like an unusual or unpredictable race conditions and this year’s 43rd American Birkebeiner on Saturday is shaping up to be the perfect storm. The weather for the first half of race week was seasonable with pristine skiing conditions. Two to five inches of new snow fell on the course Monday overnight and temperatures plummeted below zero degrees Fahrenheit. However, northern Wisconsin would not be spared the wrath of El Niño for the annual congregation of skiers in Hayward. It was going warm up and it was going to rain. Temperatures were forecasted to rise above freezing by midday Thursday and not fall below the magic 32 degrees until long after the last racers crossed the finish…

City of Lakes and Mora: CXC Marathon Cup Roundup

February was the month of Minnesota racing on the CXC Marathon Cup series as the state hosted City of the Lakes Loppet and Mora Vasaloppet on consecutive weekends. Although both sites struggled with low snow leading up to the races, Minneapolis won the last minute snow lottery and Mora made the best with what they had with the help of some new snowmaking equipment. Although conditions looked dire leading into the City of the Lakes Loppet (Feb. 5-7), Minneapolis received 9-13 inches of snow the week of the race allowing them to pull off the full race schedule. The events included the Finn Sisu sprints in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, the Hoigaard’s Classic Marathon on Saturday, and The Columbia Skate Marathon on Sunday. To earn points for the overall CXC Marathon Cup, racers had to compete in the Minnie Tour which required competing in all three races. City of the Lakes Loppet…

Johansson-Norgren Back on Top, Gjerdalen Edges Eliassen at Toblach/Dobbiaco Cortina

The 39th Toblach/Dobbiaco Cortina made its debut on the Visma Ski Classics Circuit this year. Although the course had to be shortened to a 32 kilometer event, the course still offered its share of climbing between the start in Prags/Braies and the finish in Toblach.  Both the men’s and women’s races were determined in the final meters in some of the closest finishes of the Classics this year. In the women’s race, Seraina Boner of Switzerland pushed the pace on a lead group of seven with 15 kilometers to go. She was matched by Sweden’s Johansson-Norgren and Masako Ishida of Japan.  The three women raced the second half together and the title was decided in a sprint finish and Johansson-Norgren bested Boner (+1.34) and Ishida (+1.58) for her fifth Classics victory of the season. Johansson-Norgren recovered from a fourth place finish last weekend at Kaiser Maximilian Lauf where Boner took a convincing win….

Warm Weather Shakes Up International Schedule; Birkie Becomes 5th Worldloppet

Eliassen, Boner Win Relocated Ski Classic at Kaiser Maximilian Lauf Poor snow conditions in Oberammergau, Germany, leading up to the König Ludwig Lauf, forced the cancellation of the sixth Visma Ski Classics race. However, thanks to some quick organizing from Seefeld resort, the professional race was decided to be relocated to the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf in Tirol, Austria, just four days before the event. Seefeld has hosted cross-country ski events twice for the Winter Olympics and features 200 kilometers of groomed ski trails. Initially a 50 k event, the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf extended the course for the Ski Classics event making a challenging three-lap, 65 k event while also offering a 22 k citizens race. Petter Eliassen took his third Ski Classics win of the season just beating Johan Kjølstad in a sprint finish. Seraina Boner of Team Exspirit took her first win of the season on the women’s race. Eliassen (Team LeasePlan Go) and Kjølstad (Team…

Gjerdalen Bests Eliassen, Johansson-Norgren Wins Again at Manmade Marcialonga

Two kilometers of manmade snow is one thing, but covering 70 k with artificial snow is another story. Yet, despite no natural snow, the organizers of Italy’s Marcialonga, the fifth event in the Visma Ski Classics, managed to pull-off the classical-style Worldloppet race event on Sunday with complete snow coverage over the 70 k course. Testing the tracks first were the women marathoners, who started 10 minutes prior to the men. At the 18 k mark, Sweden’s Britta Johansson-Norgren and Austrian Katerina Smutna broke away from the other 937 female competitors and skied together until the infamously most difficult part of the course, the Cascata climb. With 2.5 k of uphill to the finish in Cavalese, the real battle for first between Norgren and Smutna began. In the end, Norgren bested Smutna by 1.4 seconds, claiming her first Marcialonga win in a time of 3:13:50.7. It was her third-consecutive Ski Classics…

Eliassen, Johansson-Norgren Top La Diagonela for 2nd Ski Classics Win

Sunshine and a full race course made for happy racers at La Diagonela, the fourth Visma Ski Classics event on Saturday and the first to be held on a single-lap course this season. Petter Eliassen of Team LeasePlan Go and Britta Johansson-Norgren of the Lager 157 Ski Team both won the second-consecutive Ski Classics this season after taking titles at the Jizerská 50 two weeks ago. Instead of 15 laps of a 3.3 k course at Jizerska, skiers traversed a 55-kilometer course along the beautiful Engadine Valley in the classic-only race. Contained within the valley, the course is relatively flat but features a significant climb just after 20 k to bring racers to the highest point of the course at 1800 meters above sea level. Although the second half features a net descent, skiers are challenged by undulating hills and a final climb into Zouz, Switzerland. Although it was initially planned as a 65 k event, minor changes had to…

CXC Team Dominates Noquemanon Ski Marathon

MARQUETTE, Mich. — Bluebird skies greeted skiers in for the start of the Noquemanon Ski Marathon, the second race of the new CXC Marathon Cup, on Saturday. Although the race offers both skate and freestyle options, the 50-kilometer classic race is the premier race and it is designated as a classic event in the CXC Marathon Cup. The race is held on a unique point-to-point course beginning in Ishpeming, Mich., and ending in Marquette. The course has a net descent of 800 feet, all occurring in the second half of the race. However, the course poses unique challenges with steep climbs, technical descents, frozen lake crossings capable of shearing off kick wax, and the potential for significant temperature changes across the course. The CXC Team was well represented on the women’s and men’s podiums of the 50 k classic race. Kyle Bratrud won the men’s race by over five minutes in 2:25:28. Bratrud…

Treinen Defends Qaniq Challenge Title; Frankowski Tops Brooks in Two-Day Event

  By Gavin Kentch VALDEZ, Alaska — Lex Treinen defended his title in the second-annual Qaniq Challenge while Rosie Frankowski set the pace for the women, completing an Alaska Pacific University (APU) sweep of the two-day series last Saturday and Sunday. The Qaniq Challenge sent skiers around a classic course on the first day of racing, then over a different skate course on Day 2.  Each course was roughly 15 kilometers.  Lowest combined time from both days wins.  In this year’s race, as in 2015, time gaps created on Day 1 proved difficult to overcome on Day 2, and the overall finish order remained largely unchanged after the first day of racing. Saturday sent the field of 36 racers over a classic individual-start course.  Race organizers called the classic course as 19 k, but by general acclaim it seems to have been somewhat shorter than that. Two-thirds of the course was pancake-flat, running along a river…

Gregg Edges Liebsch in Seeley Hills Classic; Naryshkina Dominates Women’s Race

By Kaitlyn Patterson It was a cold morning in Seeley, Wis., so cold that the traditional 42-kilometer Seeley Hills Classic, the first race of the CXC Marathon Cup, was slightly shortened to 38 k with temps at -5 degrees Fahrenheit at the start and not predicted to rise above zero degrees. Seeley Hills traditionally draws strong fields to race exclusively classic technique on the American Birkebeiner’s famous ski trails. The race starts and ends at the “OO” trailhead, the Birkie’s halfway point. In the men’s field, Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus), Matt Liebsch (Gear West/Salomon), and Nick Power (CXC Team) established themselves as the lead group halfway through Saturday’s race. Liebsch and Gregg later dropped Powers around 33 k, but neither could get away. “We made a number of moves on each other but were unable to break the other,” Gregg wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “We train together a lot and we know…