Italian skiers won six consecutive American Birkebeiners from 2001 to 2006, and reasserted themselves at the front of the 40th anniversary race on Saturday.
The five-man skate sprint in front of cowbell clanging fans on Hayward’s Main St. was a blue wave, four Italians and Czech Martin Koukal. After a lengthy review of the finish photo, Sergio Bonaldi grasped the victor’s bouquet and a check for $7,500. (Click here for preliminary results).
The photo showed that Bonaldi, 34, had a ski tip across the line just ahead of Fabio Santus, his Italian teammate and the course record holder. Alan Martinelli was in third, 3/10ths of a second from victory.
Fresh snow, roughly six inches fell throughout the day Friday, slowed the pace and Bonaldi’s winning time of 2:09: 18 was well off Santus’ 2010 record of 1:56:58.
Bonaldi said the group of Italians were hesitant to break away early, fearing soft snow would make for a harder-than-usual race.
But after his victory, he declared the course “the best track in the world.”
In the women’s division, Caitlin Gregg also covered the 50-kilometer course well off her own course record – 2:16:07 – in 2011. Still, her second victory in three years was just as sweet.
“These races have been wonderful experiences,” said Gregg, a team CXC skier from Minneapolis, Minn.
Gregg and her husband, Brian, used her first winner’s paycheck for a down payment on a house and they plan to bank her second Birkie prize for eventual parenthood.
“It means a ton for us, it’s hard to explain in words,” said the Northern Michigan alum.
Gregg and the rest of the elite women started 20 minutes ahead of their male counterparts and enjoyed having the woods, the hills and the quiet to themselves. A pack of 12 diminished to five over the last three kilometers across Lake Hayward, and Gregg surged around Tatjana Mannima, of Estonia, at the finish line.
The Estonian, the leader in the FIS World Marathon Cup Series, said she had hoped to finish in the top three and liked very much the course set up by Tony Wise to bring Nordic skiing to Wisconsin in 1973.
Caitlin Patterson, from the Craftsbury Green racing team, battled back to catch the lead group and finished third.
Men’s classic: Doug DeBold, a team CXC racer from Wayzata, Minn., had planned to sit in the pack and fight for the sprint victory, but changed that strategy when he opened a gap going up Mosquito Brook hill, 12 kilometers from the finish line.
With David Chamberlain and Jacob Boyce chasing, Debold “skied as hard as I could.
“I was scared, scared at the end,” he said. “Coming down Main St. was pretty sweet. It’s the Birkebeiner. Yeah, it’s a big deal.”
Debold, 23, took the win in a time of 2:50:57, about five seconds ahead of Jacob Boyce, from Duluth, Minn., and Chamberlain, the 2012 Birkie Classic winner from Boulder, Colo.
“That was a pretty gutsy race on his part,” Chamberlain said, giving a nod of respect to the winner.
In the women’s classic race, Ingrid Saupstad put her faith in her father’s wax abilities and was rewarded with a victory in her second Birkebeiner.
The 21-year-old college student from Oslo, Norway, confessed she raced far too fast in the early stages but overcame her fear of exhaustion and held off Claire Luby, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and Kim Rudd, a mother from Plymouth Minn., who finished her 17th Birkebeiner.
With the fresh snow, racers and their wax techs scrambled to adjust their skis to match the conditions. Saupstad had her father prep her skis, in Oslo, two days before the race. She said at the podium, “I trust him 100%.”
Birkie Warriors: “At the start, I lost it emotionally,” said Tom Lawn, of Plymouth, who portrayed one of the two Birkie Warriors in the 800-year-old legend that led to the spectacle of today. “I looked over at my grandkids, and remembered every Birkie I’ve ever done.”
This one was 29, and the first in layers of wool and cotton, a metal helmet and on 80-year-old wooden skis. Lawn’s son, Chris, joined him in the garb of the original Birkebeiners and a family friend, Lori House, portrayed Inga, the mother of the Norwegian prince skied to safety during a civil war in the 1200s.
For the finish, they scooped up Chris Lawn’s daughter, six-month-old Kiersten, who portrayed the baby wide-eyed and with a smile.
It’s amazing to think that all these people – more than 10,000 – are all skiing because of this legend, Tom Lawn said.
Family support: Saupstad said she “felt like a queen” skiing up Main St. in Hayward to cheers and victory. It was a feeling she shared with her family back home in Oslo, and in a country that serves as the inspiration for the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin.
“The Birkebeiner is so huge in Norway, so winning the American Birkebeiner is just amazing,” she said. “I called my family and they were so happy.”
No fear: Caitlin Patterson, the 23-year-old from Vermont, struggled much of the day to hang on to the lead group, which included Compton and a half-dozen European veterans. She had skied with Compton, however, in shorter races and never flinched, believing all the while she belonged right there.
Return of the first winner: The skiers who set the first tracks in what has become North America’s largest ski race basked in the glow of the Birkebeiner torch Thursday, telling stories, wearing knickers and gliding on wooden skis.
The first annual 5K Nikkerbeiner brought the first Birkebeiner winner to Main St. in Hayward and a number of the 34 intrepid Nordics who joined him on the make-shift trail that led them to Cable.
“That is one of the greatest things in my life, to see how it has grown,” said Sam Ersson, now 75. “This, I could have not dreamed of in 1973. I can’t say it in words, but in my heart, it is very, very warm.”
Forty years ago, Ersson answered an ad from Tony Wise and moved from Sweden to Cable to become the ski instructor at the Telemark Resort. He arrived in November, and set about working on Wise’s dream to make Northwest Wisconsin a paradise for cross-country skiers around the world.
There was one catch.
“I told him my name was Sam, and he said, ‘I want to have a Nordic ski instructor. Your name is Eric.”
And that’s how it reads in the official results: Eric Ersson – 2:48:16.
He didn’t quite match that time on Saturday, but looked steady and happy gliding among the trees at 75.