When Kikkan Randall (USA) packs her bag on race morning she adds an extra set of dry clothes in case she needs them for a podium. These are the kinds of things she has to think about now that she’s racking up regular appearances in the top three.
On Saturday in Oberhof, Germany, the preparedness was self-fulfilling. With a hard-fought victory in the Tour de Ski prologue, Randall brought her podium count for current season to five. She bested Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), who were second and third, by just over four seconds over 3.1 k.
“I knew I had a decent chance [of winning] but after ten days since the last race and taking it pretty easy over Christmas you’re never quite sure how you’re going to feel,” Randall said. “The feeling the last couple of days hasn’t been great, but I’m learning that’s usually an indication that I’m going to have a good performance.”
She pushed herself to the point of nearly making herself sick. After crossing the line Randall lay in the snow, exhausted, and thought for a few minutes she would lose her breakfast. Prologues are short, but give athletes nowhere to hide.
The Oberhof course was straightforward enough — flat through the stadium to a V2-able climb and a drop back down into the finishing stretch — but Randall knew the distance would be unrelenting.
“You have to start off strong, for sure, but you also have to conserve a little bit because the effort almost sneaks up on you,” she said. “You’re all of a sudden blown before you even realize it.”
Randall therefore left the gate skiing strong but conservative, making sure to save energy for powering over the top of the hill and maintaining a high tempo in the final meters. She executed it perfectly; when U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb told her at the top of the climb that she was battling Kalla for the lead, Randall put her head down and fought to gain seconds in the final kilometer.
It didn’t help that a strong wind faced skiers as they came back into the stadium. “That was a hard last k,” Randall said. “Coming down the home stretch, for 200 m it’s just flat, there’s a headwind, and it’s foggy — so you can kind of see the pine boughs that lead to the finish line but it just felt like you weren’t getting any closer. That was probably the toughest part of the race.”
This is the Tour de Ski, of course, so there’s no rest for the weary. Though Randall is happy to have started the seven-stage event so well, she’s also realistic about the importance of the first stage in the grand scheme of the Tour.
“Hanna Brodin (of Sweden) had a really solid prologue last year and then already by the second or third stage faded quite a bit back,” Randall said. Brodin was third in the 2012 prologue and 53rd in the pursuit the next day.
“While it’s nice to have a good result today it’s really about having that consistency over seven events. I’m confident in my ability to do that but you can’t take too much away from today. You’ve just got to focus on tomorrow right away,” Randall said.
Just behind Randall, Kalla put together a near-perfect prologue in her first race back since her extended break from racing. The Swede and her coaches were relieved to find out that her fitness was where it should be.
“I was very curious about how my shape would be competing against the others again,” Kalla said in a press conference. “The 3 k suits me well in skate when I am in good shape.”
Kowalczyk, the defending champion, was only a fraction of a second behind Kalla and appeared satisfied with her third-place standing going into Sunday’s pursuit when the real hunt begins.
“Tomorrow the plan is to go fast right from the start and try to catch Kikkan,” Kowalczyk said.
The women have a 10 k classic pursuit on Sunday. With her bonus time Randall will start nine seconds ahead of Kalla and fourteen ahead of Kowalczyk. The battle will be a tough one for Randall, who still considers her classic skiing a weakness, and there are plenty of contenders lurking further back in the pack. Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) was 10th on Saturday and her teammate Therese Johaug (NOR), who poses a bigger threat, was 13th and starts 32 seconds behind Randall.
“This time is nothing in a mass start,” Johaug told the NRK. “I’m just glad that Kowalczyk did not finish in the top two.”