Talent at Steamboat skimo race hints at future of newest Winter Olympic sport
In a ski mountaineering race, the tiniest of advantages can make a big difference, especially when the competition is tight.
The top-five racers on the long course at the 15th annual Cody’s Challenge, were together most of the event. They eventually rode over the finish at the base of Steamboat Resort one by one on Saturday, April 1, separated by a few seconds that were determined by slight actions throughout the morning.
Mark Flis didn’t start in front, but that was intentional.
“The guys in the front with the fresh snow were working really hard breaking the trail all day,” he said.
Anders Carlson spent much of the first few sections in the lead, but eventually slipped behind a few competitors.
“My skis were so slow,” he said. “They’re waxed for spring wax.”
Kevin Merenda came prepared for varying conditions and even packed a new set of skins for each ascent, hoping to have a smoother transition each time.
Each of the speedsters who finished in the top five were equipped with skinny skis, which on a powder day, seems impractical, but worked for the well-practiced group of young men.
While it didn’t necessarily pose an advantage, Merenda said he enjoyed sinking a little further into the snow.
“We skied thigh deep powder while everyone else was limited to ankle deep powder because their skis are fatter,” he said.
Coming into the transition ahead of the last uphill, Flis arrived first. However, four competitors were just seconds behind.
“I start panicking,” Flis said of transitioning right next to his competition. Nevertheless, he got out of there first and his slight lead carried him to the finish.
Transitioning from a downhill to uphill setup includes taking off one’s skis, pulling out skins from a backpack, bib or pocket, laying them on each ski, adjusting the bindings and boots to allow for uphill travel then getting back onto the skis.
For most of the top-five competitors, the series of tasks took no longer than 20 seconds.
“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” said Rob Aldrich.
Sixteen-year-old Landon Jakob finished just outside of the top three in his final race of his first season of competing in ski mountaineering.
“I like it. I started out front but got passed by quite a few people at the top of the first big hill,” Jakob said. “I was probably 12th or 13th and felt good on the second hill and on the sidestep spot, I passed five or six people and got back into fifth. … I was out to have a fun last race.”
The teen from Utah rose almost immediately to the highest level of the sport, recently returning from France where he competed at a Youth World Cup event alongside Carlson.
Seeing youth like Jakob and Carlson excel in the sport is more exciting than it was even two years ago, as ski mountaineering was announced in 2021 as the next sport to be added to the Winter Olympic schedule.
Jakob isn’t putting the pressure of making the first-ever team on himself, though, especially since the only event added to the Olympic docket is a three-minute sprint.
“I just want to keep training and keep getting better,” he said.
Shelby Reardon is the assistant editor at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach her, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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