The largest Cross Country Ski Race in North America, The American Birkebeiner, is upon us. This marks the races 42nd year. On February 21st 10,000 competitors will traverse the 34 mile distance between Cable and Hayward Wisconsin. The Birkebeiner lovingly referred to as Birkie by cross country enthusiasts, is a unique race because while the race attracts local enthusiasts and amateur skiers, it also can bring out the elite competitors of nordic skiing. Matt Liebsch is one of the many world class cross country skiers who will be competing in the race, but last year he wishes he didn’t. In 2014 Liebsch would’ve liked to have been 5000 miles away from the annual Wisconsin event- In Sochi Russia.
It must’ve been particularly heartbreaking for Matt considering that he had met the qualifying Nordic standards to compete in the Olympics but was still denied a spot on the U.S. team. At Birkie last year the 2009 Champion finished twelfth.
While Matt enjoys the event he explains his lack of ecstatic excitement for the event not just last year but in general, “It’s all for fun,” said Liebsch, 31. “The Elite Wave has 200 guys, but of that, only about 10 have a realistic shot at winning it. It all depends who is feeling good, who has a good body that day, and who has the right skis for the conditions. I feel I can compete with the top guys out there.”
Besides Liebsch, a few of those ten who have a realistic shot of winning The American Birkebeiner are Czech Olympian Petr Novak, who won the event last year. Simone Paredi and Sergio Bonaldi of Italy, and Christopher Perrillat and Benoit Chauvet of France.
These few and a handful of others are Matt’s real competition, While Matt wouldv’e loved teh 1st place bib from last year, Matt doesn’t envy the pressure that that bib will bring to last years winner Novak. Matt explains “I had that bib one year, and let me tell you: It’s really heavy.”
Matt Liebsch is not the only elite American skiing in this years Birkie. Tad Elliot the winner from 2012’s Birkebeiner is also racing, as well as Brian Gregg. Leibsch explains the fractured nature of the sport in America. where there the idea of skiing as part of a team is very much a part of competitve cross country skiing in much of Europe, Cross Country in the Wild West of the U.S. is a bit like the Wild West, every man for himself. That being said Leibsch is confident about the United States performance at Birkie this year.
“I liken it to a bar fight,” Liebsch said. “You might hold your own with one or two, but five? No way. You have no chance. That is how big of advantage it is, so when I looked at the Elite list and saw only a couple Italians from the same team on there, I immediately liked our chances. You can deal with that.”
Americans are still not the norm in world class Nordic skiing, but with competitors like Leibsch, maybe that can change.