Tad Elliott and Brian Gregg shaking out the travel from the Birkie (Photo credit: Bryan Fish)
Settling in to beautiful Switzerland I finally have a chance to reflect and re-live the Birkie. Tad (Birkie Champ) and I are rooming together and it is pretty fun to talk about the big race. The entire CXC Crew went on a mix of Jetstream Red and Blue and our skis were fantastic. Jason Cork put in a lot of time testing in multiple locations along the course. It is sweet to go in to a race confident that your skis are going to be fast.
About 10km in, I thought I was watching my Birkie dreams fade away. The Frenchman who finished 2nd last year and Graham Nishikawa got a break on the pack and were off the front. For a while we could see them, but then they got far enough up on us that they disappeared. I was really worried. Last year the Frenchman broke away on his own which is pretty risky, but the two of them might be able to ski away from the pack.
I felt great and my skis were one of the best in the field. I wanted to chase them down and I talked to some of the other Americans about it but we decided to wait. After a fast start to the race we settled in to a relaxed pace and I really started to worry. After OO I went to the front to take a short but quick pull to see if I could get the group to work together and bring back the leaders. A few minutes up front and it was obvious to me that it was way harder to lead than chill at the back.
As we neared Mosquito Brook, Matt Liebsch (2009 Champion) and Tad Elliott came to the front and I knew things were about to get hard. Those guys took off switching leads. Our pack of 3rd-14th strung out and fractured as we flew along the course. Matt and Tad did all the work and in a matter of a kilometer we went from not seeing the two front runners to skiing alongside them. The pace slowed slightly and our group of 14 came back together.
It is a bit of a blur, but as we entered the rolling hills before the giant 'B' hill Tad made a move and shot off the front of the group. Shortly after Matt moved over and crashed into Lars, breaking his own pole. Matt desperately yelled at the spectators for a spare pole but no one responded. Eventually Matt went over to the side of the trail and just grabbed a pole that someone had used to get out to cheer. I heard him yell back, "I will leave it with the Birkie Office... Thanks."
The group focused on catching back up to Tad. There were a few attacks at the front but we weren't making any time up on Tad. It took me a while to fight up to the very front and when we crossed Highway 77 I decided to try and make a break. I went around on the outside and went as hard as I possibly could. My quads were screaming at me as we climbed Duffy's hill but I just focused on my technique. As we crested the hill I stole a glance back and saw that there was one skier behind me. I yelled at him to take a pull. Turns out it was Lars who had spent more than his fair share of time at the front. He said he couldn't and I tried to ignore the growing pain in my legs and I was forced to slow down slightly.
I thought Matt was out of the picture but he came a round and yelled that he would take a pull. We only had about 20 meters on the guys behind us. I swallowed as much air as I could on the downhill and tried to recover as best as possible. We crossed Wheeler road and the group behind us was gaining on us. I decided to make one last go of it and went to the front to take a pull. I really wanted our small group of 3 to stay away from the big pack.
As we entered the lake I got a split that we were 28 seconds down to Tad. I picked up the pace again thinking that maybe if we are worked together we could catch up. A few hundred meters later the adrenaline faded and I glanced back to see 5 guys sitting on me. I have led across the lake in the past only to get absolutely worked in the final 200m sprint. I sat up and geared up for the sprint.
Tore Gundersen the winner from last year was at the back of the pack and I tucked in behind him. He was hurting and actually told me to go in front of him. Matt led for a little while then drifted back. Our pack was now down to the money positions of 2nd through 6th. About 1km from the Finish Matt made another move and got a few meters on the group.
As we came off of the lake I went for it one last time. I had rehearsed the sprint many times in my mind. The snow was softer than usual but I felt that I had plenty of spring. I felt like a new born girraffe trying to walk. My focus should have been on trying to accelerate as fast as possible but I certainly was just thinking, 'Don't Fall.' Knowing that things could be close I threw my foot at the line.
It was a good thing that I had as Michael Sommpi of Canada was in the far left lane and was only a few inches behind me. All of a sudden the pain disappeared as I realized that I had earned my first Birkie podium. Even more special is that I was sharing it with two of my good friends and former CXC teammates. Not to mention we were all Americans.
The race organizers wanted to rush me away to the press room but I told them that the race wasn't over. I had to stay and watch the elite women and cheer my wife on. They were way in to it and brought me right up to the finish line to watch and cheer.
Brian Gregg, CXC Elite Team, 3rd place