Rumford’s Black Mountain served up a perfect New England day for the first day of Bates Carnival nordic racing: temps in the mid 20s and a constant wintry mix.
Yesterday’s snowstorm devolved into a mess of sleet and ice, turning the fresh powder into brittle boilerplate. While the groomed trail was a fast mix of powder and ice crystals, off trail was crustier than a stale baguette.
The wonky conditions had teams on course bright and early trying to find a kick waxing solution for the day’s conditions. Every option was tested - including zeroes, klister, and hardwax. In the end, it seemed like most teams found klister to offer the best combination of grip and glide.
As the morning continued, the weather stayed consistently inconsistent. Precipitation swung between rain, sleet, and snow - or some combination thereof. This wacky weather actually kept snow conditions steady, as no one type of precipitation was dominant enough to alter the already commingled track.
Kick wax dialed in, (or not) the women’s field made the long trek across the Black Mountain parking lot and took their spots in the start chevron. They prepared to tackle a course that was wearing under the weight of hours of wax testing and warm-up laps. The downhills had disintegrated into piles of deep sugar, hiding snow snakes that bit at boots, and the uphills were pounded into slow-going slush that made them even more aerobically taxing.
From the start, a pack of Catamounts was on the hunt. Four UVM women took the initiative and led the race through the opening kilometers. The course, “Paul’s 5k,” trends downhill for the first two kilometers before starting a rolling climb back to the start/finish. Before returning to the stadium, it veers right and heads up Black Mountain’s iconic “High School Hill,” the steep rise to the course’s high point. From there, it drops down over a few rollers before lapping through the start/finish.
After one lap, just seven seconds separated the top nine women - four UVM skiers, three from Middlebury, and a pair of Bowdoin racers.
Throughout the next lap, the leading quartet of Catamounts: Anya Bizyukova, Lina Sutro, Margie Freed, and Waverly Gebhardt pushed the pace and cracked the lead pack. Only Middlebury's Sophia Laukli, hot off three-straight carnival wins and racing just ninety minutes from her hometown of Yarmouth, Maine, was able to hold on.
Constant skiing was not kind to the course. Precipitation continued to fall, the tracks collapsed onto themselves, and the slush covering the climbs deepened. As the women started the course's main climb for the third time, Laukli started hammering.
Laukli accelerated up the rolling climbs and opened daylight on the rest of the pack. She said she "focused on attacking the uphills and pushing over the tops, knowing there was recovery after."
She came into High School Hill with a small gap, and flew to the finish to win her fourth straight race, this time by a slim ten second margin.
UVM held on for a strong finish, with Bizyukova, Freed, and Gebhardt in 2-3-4. Middlebury’s Annika Landis grabbed a top five in a sprint with UVM’s Lina Sutro, who was followed by Bowdoin’s Gabrielle Vandendries in seventh.
Bizyukova, in her second season racing for UVM, has had a tough first half of carnival season. She said "My health was not really good first three carnivals, but I was pretty fast before I got sick and I kept believing that I could get back to good shape. Today's race definitely gave me a lot of confidence."
Bizyukova also credited her team for supporting her throughout the season, saying "I'm grateful for my team and coaches that keep believing in me even when I'm having a hard time. Looking at the weather I was ready to struggle today, but the coaches worked well and the skis were perfect."
UVM racked up 132 points, besting Middlebury's 124, while Bowdoin finished third with 88 points.
With an hour between the finish of the women’s and start of the men’s race, there was just enough time for coaches to frantically retest kick wax and put finishing touches on the next set of skis. The weather continued to make skiers from the mountain West reconsider their decisions to come northeast for college, cycling between snow, sleet, and rain during the men's warmup.
Harvard’s Rémi Drolet, who skipped Colby Carnival to compete in Canadian World Junior trials, wore Bib 1 and took the race out with a vengeance. Almost as soon as it started, the race was strung out, with Drolet at the front setting a torrid pace. He described his race plan as "To go hard pretty much off the start and push it hard to separate the pack."
Ben Ogden, who secured two dominant wins last weekend, was the sole skier who could match Drolet's speed. The two took off, saying their goodbyes to the rest of the field and embarking on a two-horse race for the next 17k.
Ogden took a small gap over Drolet into the second lap. His five second advantage didn’t hold up, and two were skiing together by the third lap. It was clear that the win would come down to one of the two young skiers with sparkling resumes (Drolet was seventh and Ogden was 10th in the 30km classic mass start at the 2019 World Junior Championships.)
Behind them was a splintered field spread out across the slush and slop of Black Mountain. Middlebury’s Peter Wolter and UVM’s Bill Harmeyer chased valiantly but couldn't close the gap, instead settling into a duel of their own for third place. Behind them, UVM’s Ian Moore was the loneliest man in the universe, fighting to catch Wolter and Harmeyer and hold off the next pack, a fifteen-odd strong group of skiers that slowly broke apart throughout the race.
Ogden and Drolet two held pace for the next two laps, matching each other’s every move. Skiing was treacherous - snow snakes were biting and the slushy climbs snapped many a pole (and dream) but most of the field stayed upright with equipment intact.
As Ogden and Drolet came through the lap lane into the final lap, freezing rain continued to pelt the course. Spectators, many looking worse for the wear, continued to line the course and provide encouragement, or at least share the misery.
Drolet had fast skis that were a touch slick. He said "I think faster skis with a bit less kick wax was the way to go today, and the Harvard wax technicians made sure I had the fastest skis out there!"
The two stayed matched coming over High School Hill the final time, and Drolet attacked on the final downhill/rolling section to take sole possession of the lead. He came into the stadium all alone, double-poling his way to Harvard's first carnival win since 2004.
Ogden was ten seconds behind, continuing his strong carnival season with another podium finish. In the next duel, Harmeyer outkicked Wolter, taking the bronze medal by just 1.2 seconds. Moore hung tough on his lonely mission, grabbing fifth place and securing the win for the Catamount men (130 points total.)
Drolet is the first-ever Harvard male nordic skier to win a carnival, and only the second Crimson to win a carnival in the past 35 years. His performance, along with a few other strong races, powered the Harvard men to a best-ever second place finish, piling up 107 points. Middlebury was third in the men's race, notching 96 points.
Harvard head coach Chris City was thrilled with his team's historic day, saying "It was a great race out there today. Rémi’s win is really exciting. He’s such a hard worker - both in his training and his academic life...He and Ben put on quite a show!"
Drolet was also excited about Harvard's success, saying "I am very happy to be a part of this team, and they support me so well. I hope that we can continue to improve as a team."
The freezing rain has switched over to snow and tonight’s forecast looks to create fantastic conditions for tomorrow’s 5/10k individual start skate. The race a combined carnival/Eastern Cup.
Total nordic scores after Day 1:
UVM - 262
Middlebury - 220
Bowdoin - 177
Complete results from today, as well as start lists for tomorrow, are available here.