If you want to get paid as a nordic skier in this country, go to Wisconsin. The American Birkebeiner famously has the largest prize purse of any ski race in this country, by a factor of at least four, annually paying out a combined $39,000 to the top six male and female finishers of the headline skate race, plus another $2,500 to the top American man and woman. (For perspective, winning a race at U.S. Nationals nets one $1,200.)
The Birkie’s estival counterpart, in prize money if not — yet — in overall field size or strength, is unequivocally the Shoreline Events rollerski festival. The two-race series, held in and around Rice Lake, Wisconsin, over last weekend, paid out a cool $11,000 total to the top finishers in Friday’s classic distance race and Saturday’s skate sprint.
It is hard to prove a negative, but I am, without doing a lot more research on this, unaware of the second-richest prize purse in American rollerski racing. I would love to be proven wrong about this, because I personally love skiing and believe in supporting American (and Canadian!) skiers with cash money as well as with cheerleading, but I would be shocked if there currently exists another rollerski race in this country with a total prize purse of even $2,000. Comment section at the bottom of this page is open if I am wrong about this; please advise.
(I count $1,500 total for the Jim Bridger rollerski races in Bozeman later this month, which, no snark, is also a lot of money; kudos to the organizers there. But that’s still less than $11,000.)
Anyway, back to Rice Lake over the weekend and the actual racing. The visiting Canadians flexed their muscles on the men’s side, winning both races, while homegrown talent took the wins for the women.
For the former, Graham Ritchie claimed a narrow victory in Friday’s 15-kilometer mass start classic race, while Julian Smith prevailed in Saturday’s all-Canadian skate sprint final. For the latter, Margie Freed, originally of Apple Valley, Minnesota, and now racing for Craftsbury, won the classic race, while Deedra Irwin, originally of Pulaski, Wisconsin, and now racing for the U.S. Biathlon national team (also: Vermont Army National Guard), took the skate sprint.
The weekend’s winners featured impressive palmarès; Ritchie was fourth in the team sprint at 2023 world champs (with Antoine Cyr), and Irwin seventh in the individual race at the Beijing Olympics, one missed shot away from the podium.
Close finishes were the theme of the day in Friday’s distance race, held over (Wisconsin geography alert) Highway W “between Old 14 & HWY O.” The race course required a “Whole lotta KDP,” i.e., kick-doublepole, as Freed wrote on her publicly available Strava profile afterwards.
Freed’s winning time for 15km was 45:42.3. Sarah Goble (originally from Petoskey, Michigan, currently skiing for BSF) was second, 7 seconds back, with Michaela Keller-Miller (originally from Plymouth, Minnesota, currently skiing for Craftsbury; jumped into beer mile worlds in Chicago while she was back home in the Midwest) 16.4 seconds behind in third. Irwin, the biathlete, in presumably her first classic race in some time, was fourth, another 15+ seconds back.
“My back and hips don’t miss classic racing 😵,” Irwin wrote on Strava afterwards. “But I held on as long as I could and couldn’t kick into the final striding gear like I used to!”
There were similar themes in the men’s race, with no one able to get away on matched Marwes over rolling hills and the lead pack working together to cycle through a paceline at the front. Graham Ritchie (Georgian Nordic and Canadian National Team) edged slightly ahead of Logan Diekmann (BSF) near the end to take the win in 39:20.2. Diekmann was 3 seconds back. Conor McGovern (Big Thunder Nordic) was 5.3 seconds back in third. The top six finishers were all within 27 seconds of Ritchie.
American women were the theme of Saturday’s sprint final, video of which is embedded above. Irwin was first, in 2:55.57, with Freed second, 0.72 seconds back, and Keller-Miller just behind in third (+0.79). The rest of the final included Lucinda Anderson (Team Birkie, +2.13) in fourth, Sarah Goble (BSF, +3.38) in fifth, and Ingrid Thyr (newly launched Pathletics Factory Team, +10.69) in sixth.
Also of note, one Lindsay Williams was a heady seventh in qualifying to start the day. Other notable results in Williams’s career include 38th in qualifying in the women’s skate sprint in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, held midway through George W. Bush’s second term and four years before the launch of Instagram; other Americans entered in that race included Wendy Wagner, who is currently 49 years old.
Williams, born in 1984, was only 39 years old when she contested the Shoreline sprints, but was also the oldest athlete in Saturday’s field by nearly a decade (Irwin was born in 1992, then Thyr (1997) completes the chronological podium). Williams was second in her three-women quarterfinal on Saturday to advance to the semis, where she finished fourth in a slow heat and did not advance. I unofficially calculate her as having finished tenth overall on the day. Not bad for age 39.
The men’s final, meanwhile, was all Canada. Ritchie was in contention until he wasn’t, falling in the second half of the out-and-back course and eventually limping into the finish minutes back of the rest of the field. Ahead of him, Julian Smith (NTDC Thunder Bay) took the narrow win in 2:30.91, just 0.17 seconds ahead of Conor McGovern (Big Thunder Nordic). Pierre Grall-Johnson (Nakkertok Nordic) was another 0.15 seconds back in third.
The men’s final was rounded out by fellow Canadians Erikson Moore (NTDC Thunder Bay, +3.62) in fourth, Max Mahaffy (NTDC Thunder Bay, +4.70) in fifth, and Ritchie in sixth.
The sprint course was relatively flat; Freed logged 29km on her skis on Saturday morning, between warmup, qual, and heats, and registered only 135m of total elevation gain on Strava. V2 was the name of the game for athletes throughout the sprint day.
A few days later I caught up with Bjorn Hanson, who with his wife Kristin runs Out There ski shop in Rice Lake and was, along with Kristin and myriad volunteers, the force behind what is now the third annual Shoreline Sprints race weekend.
Hanson is nothing if not an enthusiastic cheerleader for the sport and for his own small corner of American nordic skiing.
Why is the prize purse for this race so high, Hanson was asked, hopefully not too pointedly.
“Why not,” he promptly wrote back. “If we want to grow the sport, support athletes, then it needs money.”
Some of my friends allege that this race is sort of in the middle of nowhere, or at least off the beaten track compared to some other, better-known American ski areas. Any thoughts on that? (I promise that my interview questions are normally nicer than this.)
Here’s Hanson, thoroughly undeterred: Rice Lake is “in the middle of the Nordic World in the USA,” he wrote. “1h45 from MSP, 1h20 from Duluth, 45 [minutes] from the Birkie. We have 14 trail systems within an hour, nine with lights and four with 40km [of trails] or more.”
What are your plans for the future?
“Plans are to keep the fields small,” Hanson wrote. “If anything we would employ a points limit to get high-level athletes. A model similar to BLINK or the Fourcade Fest.” Hanson also mentioned plans to further increase the overall prize purse, which has already gone from a not-small $5,500 in the event’s first year, 2021, up to twice that just two years later.
And finally, What’s your vision for this event five years from now? And if you could get any athlete to attend, who would that be?
“Grow to 30 to 40 athletes in both the men’s and women’s field. Grow the junior event, triple the prize money. Make it a GO to event of the summer.
“Athlete-wise, the athletes who want to work and show they are the next [Jessie Diggins, Ben Ogden, or Johannes Klæbo]. If they want to come, great, but who wants to be the next top skier, we want to see people who want it.
“The biggest question 🤔 Why would a developing athlete not attend an event that has a higher prize purse than the SuperTour. Only bigger purse is the American Birkie and they have a multi-million-dollar budget.”
Next year’s races will be held in Rice Lake in July 2024.
— Gavin Kentch