For one final weekend in Davos, Switzerland, anticipation builds for the fast-approaching world championships, and with everyone’s mind focused on what comes in Val di Fiemme next week the U.S. women delivered a solid team-wide performance in the classic sprint on Saturday. Led Kikkan Randall’s in eighth-place finish, three Americans made it to the heats and two more were only seconds away from the points.
“We had a really good day,” said U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb. “It’s the kind of day we wanted to have before going to World Championships and our sprinters will go there with some confidence now, so we’re really pleased.”
Randall was the only woman on the team to advance past the quarterfinals; Ida Sargent was 18th and Holly Brooks finished 23rd. Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell each just missed out on the heats — in a dead tie on a four-minute course measured to the hundredths of a second, they were 1.42 seconds off the cutoff in 32nd.
Though it’s not the best day the women’s sprint squad has ever had, it was exactly what Whitcomb was looking for in his athletes in the midst of a taper period before the team heads to Italy.
“The body feels a little strange sometimes when you’re going through a taper,” he said. “Sometimes it feels great and sometimes it feels a little lethargic.”
For Randall, who still holds onto the World Cup sprint leader bib by 134 points after Saturday’s race, Davos was a mixed bag. Though she was disappointed not to reach the final she still thought it was a good tune-up before Val di Fiemme, especially since it’s been a few weeks since her last race. Randall could tell her fitness was good on Saturday despite feeling off earlier in the week.
“We’ve been starting our peak coming into World Champs, so it’s good to get confirmation on where the body is today. I felt really strong,” she said.
After qualifying in fifth Randall won her quarterfinal handily. At over four minutes long, the Davos course made for one long sprint at altitude and demanded additional technical prowess on an icy downhill corner. Women snowplowed the tricky descent all day, and Randall alone skidded around it with her skis parallel.
“Everyone had been sliding it, and there was ice in certain places and you’re on classic skis and in classic boots, so it was a little tricky,” she said. “I found that taking it on the inside felt the most stable to me, so it was fun to know that headed into the downhill I had that in my back pocket.”
Randall entered the semis against Marit Bjoergen (NOR), Julia Ivanova (RUS) and Aurora Jean (FRA) feeling strong, but as the heat got underway she found her kick lacking, and she slipped on the steep uphills. She finished fourth in her semifinal and ended her day in eighth.
“I didn’t have quite enough kick to stay right in that group,” she said. “I felt that fitness-wise I should have been in the final, but I think that just bodes well for five days from now.”
Whitcomb acknowledged that Randall should have had more kick in the semifinals, but also noted it’s a hard tradeoff to weigh as an athlete’s technique breaks down through a tiring series of sprint heats.
“I think if we did it again we’d give her more kick in the semis but she was also getting a little tired there too, so its hard to say,” Whitcomb said. “If you added more kick would you be able to keep the same glide necessarily to get to the finish line in time? It was a very competitive eighth place and we’re happy with the day for her.”
Sargent’s 18th-place finish gave the Americans another reason to be happy on Saturday. On the hilly Davos course Sargent made a point of layering her kick wax on thick. She ended her day in the quarterfinals, where she finished fourth behind Anne Kylloenen (FIN), Ida Ingemarsdotter (FIN) and Denise Hermann (GER), and Sargent saw room for personal improvement in her tactical decisions from the heat.
“I had a slow start and then I went wide on the corner on my first lap and got passed by Ida Ingemarsdotter,” she wrote in an email. “And then on the uphill on my second lap I jumped in the inside track behind someone and boxed myself in. Striding is my strength so I need to find room to go on the hills rather than waiting for the double pole finishing stretches which is an area I still need to improve.”
Sargent is feeling confident and expectant as she looks ahead to World Championships.
“It was a fun day,” she said. “My energy was good and I’m excited getting ready for Italy.”
Brooks’ solid performance in Davos — 21st in qualifying and 23rd after the quarterfinals — comes after a recent series of disappointing results, so she was most pleased to be feeling better.
“I happy whenever I score World Cup points!” Brooks wrote in an email. “That said, I always have goals of doing better… I feel like my shape might be coming around just in time for Val di Fiemme but after tomorrow, we shall know more.”
Brooks had the misfortune of being placed in Justyna Kowalczyk’s quarterfinal, who went on to win the entire race, so her heat “strung out pretty quickly,” Brooks said. But by finishing in the points Brooks met a season-long goal targeted at well-rounded racing. She has now been in the top 30 in all the four major disciplines: sprint and distance in both classic and sprint technique. Brooks credits a serious rest period leading into Davos with feeling race-ready again.
“I definitely had a period of fatigue in the middle of the season and I’ve really focused on resting the last two weeks. I’ve cut the training volume, the distance pace, and the number of hard workouts,” Brooks said. “I’m still waiting for my first appearance in the semi finals but I’m making the heats more often so that’s a good sign!”
“Sodie” Just Miss Heats
Sophie Caldwell and Sadie Bjornsen, nicknamed “Sodie” for their oft-confused first names, fittingly skied the exact same qualifying time on Saturday: 4:10.66. The mark was just outside the cutoff for the top 30 and left the pair with a bittersweet taste in their mouths.
Whitcomb characterized the 1.42 second-miss as “mildly heartbreaking” for Bjornsen and Caldwell but was not concerned about the pair making it into future heats.
“Today’s result is definitely bittersweet for me,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I’m happy because it’s the best I’ve ever done in a World Cup classic sprint, so I feel like I’m heading in the right direction, but obviously I’d be happier if I had been able to ski the heats.”
Caldwell, who recently spent time on the Scando Cup circuit and hasn’t raced on the World Cup since Liberec, had a hard time judging her feeling on the challenging Davos course.
“I didn’t feel quite as snappy as I’ve felt the past few days but it was a really long and tough course, so I’m not sure if anyone used the word ‘snappy’ to describe their race,” she said, adding that her “fitness feels really good right now and I’ve done a lot of racing in the past ten days so I’m looking forward to taking a few days easy and getting ready to go again.”
Bjornsen, who has experienced her fair share of World Cup qualifiers just outside 30th, echoed Caldwell that the position is “never fun” to be in. Bjornsen already has a list of things to improve on for next time: her cornering on the icy downhill and a better warmup among them.
“Last weekend I did the team sprint and I realized I didn’t feel good until the third time around,” Bjornsen said. “I think today was my final realization that my warm up is just not hard enough or something…so I think I need to nail down the warm up a little bit better… I’m glad today I had that opportunity to figure it out before World Championships.”
World Cup action continues in Davos on Sunday with a 10 k individual freestyle, and from there the U.S. heads to Italy along with the rest of the circuit for two and a half weeks-worth of highly competitive racing at World Championships.
“This is the calm before the storm,” Randall said, who will skip Sunday’s race to recover. “It’s nice to have this weekend to dial things in before next week, but pretty soon, before we know it, we’ll be in Truckee for Spring Series.”