CU junior wins Owl Creek Chase |

CU junior wins Owl Creek Chase

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Noah Hoffman’s absence figured to bode well for Durango’s Tad Elliott in Saturday’s 22nd annual Owl Creek Chase.

While Hoffman, the Aspen nordic standout and current U.S. Ski Team member, humbled the field in last year’s Chase, it was Elliott who provided the stiffest competition. With Hoffman competing in his first World Cup on Saturday in British Columbia, Elliott figured to be the favorite here.

University of Colorado standout Matthew Gelso didn’t cooperate. The 2007 first-team All American ” and Elliott’s former World Junior teammate ” made his first trip to Aspen a memorable one. The 20-year-old from Truckee, Calif., overtook Elliott 13 kilometers into the grueling 21-kilometer race from Snowmass Village to Aspen. He extended his lead on a lengthy downhill from Buttermilk to the Aspen Golf Course and glided confidently to the finish line.

Gelso, who took third in Friday’s race on the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s trails, finished in 53 minutes, 38.8 seconds.

“I’m so used to skiing lap races. I don’t think I’ve done a point to point like this since I was 13 or 14,” Gelso said. “The course was super fun. It was all new to me.”

Elliott, meanwhile, was in an all-too familiar position when he crossed the line nearly 43 seconds later. He edged out 2007 Chase winner Josh Smullin by 17 seconds. Zach Simons (54:38.2), the 2006 champion, was fourth and Kazakhstan Olympian Andrey Golovko (54:38.7) fifth.

Rebecca Dussault claimed the women’s title, finishing in 1:02:33.7.

“I knew not having Noah in the field would be nice, because he’s one of the best senior racers in the country ” and he’s just a junior,” said Elliott, who will join Hoffman in France for the World Junior Championships later this month. “But man, the field was so good. I really just wanted to come in and have a good race.”

Early on, the 20-year-old was bidding for a win. He and Gelso vaulted to the front soon after the start, setting a slow early pace as the field skated across the Snowmass Club Golf Course and headed toward Owl Creek Road.

Both racers had reason to be cautious at the onset. By his own admission, Elliott was “a little too eager” in Friday’s 10K, faded quickly and wound up 25th.

Because Gelso had never seen the course ” one widely regarded as the most difficult on any circuit that was shortened 4 km. this year” he was understandably anxious.

“It’s definitely a little nerve-wracking because other guys have skied here before and you haven’t,” he said. “If you go into it at high elevation a little too hard, you can blow up in the first 5 km. You have to pick and choose when to go hard. You have to be careful.”

“I really didn’t even notice [that the course was shortened],” Elliott added. “It was so hard.”

Elliott clung to the lead as he negotiated the first extended climb on Owl Creek Road. Gelso and Golovko, who had distanced themselves from the field, were a few seconds back.

After about 13 km., Gelso caught his good friend. The two skated stride for stride across Buttermilk and across the Tiehack pedestrian bridge.

“I looked back and didn’t see Golovko,” Gelso remembered. “I look at Tad and said, “‘Let’s do it, man.'”

Gelso surged into the lead on the ensuing downhill, building a sizeable cushion by the time he hit the Aspen Golf Course.

“I didn’t know how much left I had to ski,” Gelso said. “I didn’t know where the finish was, so I just hammered it. I couldn’t afford to get caught in a sprint.”

The plan worked. Minutes later, Gelso found himself all alone as the finish area and large crowd rounded into view. He skated smoothly down the final straight-away, raising both arms as he drifted across the line.

Elliott followed soon after, flashing a large smirk as he skidded to a stop.

“It was almost like the same plan as last year,” he said. “Last year I just followed Noah, he because he was so strong. [Gelso] was by far the strongest today. Congrats to him. … I’m absolutely happy with second.”

After battling sickness for much of his sophomore year (he had his tonsils removed), Gelso was fit and dominant Saturday. A win over a field loaded with college and professional talent should give him confidence as he prepares for the World Junior Championships.

“There probably 10 guys that could’ve won today,” he added. “This was a successful trip for sure.”

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