Noah Hoffman and Aku Nikander skied just about stride for stride for the last 20 kilometers of Friday's U.S. National Championship 50-K classic race. The men's winner would be decided by a sprint to the finish.
Hoffman knew his chances were slim, as he's not known for having a strong sprint. He was right.
The University of New Mexico's Nikander pulled away and finished nine seconds ahead of Hoffman in 2 hours, 23 minutes, 8.3 seconds.
"He had been better than me double-polling all day," Hoffman said. "He was just too good for me today."
The Finnish-born Nikander said his equipment gave him an edge.
"I had so good skis," he said.
Nikander's nationality excludes him from winning an American title, which went to Hoffman. A member of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, Hoffman now has two national titles and two wins this week in Anchorage. His first came in last Saturday's 15-K freestyle at the SuperTour Finals at Kincaid Park.
Nikander said Friday's victory helped him salvage a tough season.
"This was a race I wanted to show I was in shape," he said.
Nikander and Hoffman displayed their strength and endurance on a Hillside Trails course full of steep climbs. At the 20-kilometer mark, Nikander, Hoffman and Reese Hanneman -- who placed third in 2:24:09.9 -- were 17 seconds ahead of four pursuers.
Thirty kilometers into the race, three lead groups formed. Nikander and Hoffman remained in front side-by-side. Alaska Pacific University's Hanneman fell about 26 seconds behind the front men but increased his lead to a minute over the foursome behind him.
Both gaps widened with 10 kilometers to go. Nikander and Hoffman were neck-and-neck in the final one and a half kilometers to set up a sprint to the finish line.
Hoffman, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, praised Nikander for a remarkable race.
"He was impressive," Hoffman said. "I'm excited to watch his career develop."
South High senior Seiji Takagi won the 30-K junior race in 1:34:22.2. Takagi separated from the other junior skiers on the first lap up the Spencer Loop.
"I started climbing pretty hard," he said.
On the final lap, Takagi's coach told him East senior Thomas O'Harra was closing in.
"That gave me the motivation to keep going," Takagi said.
He held off O'Harra, who took second in 1:34:34.5. The bronze went to Vermont's Ian Moore, of Green Mountain Valley School, who finished in 1:36:09.9.
Watching the 50-K skiers zoom past was "super impressive," said Takagi, especially since they had to cover an additional 20 kilometers.
Though tiring, Hoffman said, it was an enjoyable 50 kilometers.
"It was a really challenging course," he said. "Really fun to ski."
Reach Mike Nesper at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4335.
For full results, visit http://summittiming.com/races/race_results.php 
2014 ConocoPhillips U.S. National Championships
Men's 50-kilometer classic mass start
1) Aku Nikander 2:23:08.3; 2. Noah Hoffman 2:23:17.3; 3) Reese Hanneman 2:24:09.9; 4) Brian Gregg 2:27:46.6; 5) Lex Treinen 2:27:58.3; 6) Andrew Newell 2:28:01.4 7) Simeon Hamilton 2:28:12.3; 8) David Norris 2:28:25.7; 9) Scott Patterson 2:28:39.6; 10) Michael Fehrenbach 2:29:06.7.
By MIKE NESPER