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.
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
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.
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.
— Kaitlyn Patterson