CANMORE, Alberta —Emil Jönsson wouldn’t try, saying “I didn’t dare to do it.”
Kikkan Randall (USA), however, did dare, and she almost pulled it off, ultimately undone by a “bobble” in the finish stretch and the speed of Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR).
On a course that culminated in a long fast downhill to the finish, skiing off the front was not only risky, it was decidedly crazy.
Russian Nikita Kriukov, 3rd in the men’s race summed it up perfectly in broken English.
“No one have a chance to win before the last downhill,” he said.
Out of 16 heats on the day, between men and women, only one person made a convincing run at securing the top spot with an attack on the hills — Randall.
In a final stuffed with Norwegians, she waited patiently letting the trio of Falla, Celine Brun-Lie and Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg set the pace up the first climb.
In the men’s final, Federico Pellegrino attempted to gap the field over the top of the second big climb, but despite what Kriukov termed “good acceleration,” he was quickly consumed by the chasers on the descent and slipped to the back of the pack and 6th place.
In the women’s quarterfinals, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) tried a similar move, surely aware that her finishing speed in a skate sprint would not be enough. But she could not muster the power to get even a small gap, and was easily taken down in the homestretch.
So what was Randall thinking when she pulled up alongside Falla on the last steep pitch?
“I went into the final not really sure what my strategy was going to be,” she said. When the opportunity presented itself, she decided to take it.
With heat after heat featuring little drama before the last 200 meters, Randall’s ferocious attack halfway up the hill was a welcome change.
The crowd roared as she dropped the hammer, accelerating over the top onto the flats before the descent
Falla said she was “a little surprised” when Randall made her move, thinking her opponent would look to stay in second.
The Norwegian was the only woman who could respond, though just barely.
“I had to fight really hard on the last climb to not let Kikkan go,” Falla said, though she was also relieved.
“I got a little stressed when I was first because that was not a part of my plan,” Falla explained.
Like most of the athletes she looked to slot into second or third to gain the draft on the run to the homestretch.
The gap from the top two was quickly ten meters, then twenty and Randall had succeeded in splintering the field, leaving a four-way race for third.
As she headed toward the descent, Randall did not know whether she had accomplished her goal or not.
With coaches yelling and no shadows, she had no idea if she was free and clear or if the whole heat had responded.
“I came around the bridge and didn’t hear a whole lot of commotion behind me, which I took as a good sign, but as we came down the downhill you know the shadows can come,” Randall said. “I was really happy it was just one.”
As the pair approached the finish lanes, Falla stepped out and the slingshot effect brought her alongside, but no further.
But as Randall went to accelerate, Falla suddenly pulled ahead.
“I had a little bobble right as we entered the lanes,” Randall explained. “I just didn’t stand up right away. I kind of got my weight back on my heels for just a stride or two and I couldn’t quite get it back.”
Randall said she was actually happy to see Falla, looking forward to a good “drag race.”
But there would be no final drive for the line. Falla did not relinquish her edge, and the two women swapped places from Quebec City last weekend — a race in which Randall would not be challenged.
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover pointed out that while Randall did not succeed in completely getting away, her strategy secured a spot on the podium, no sure thing on the Canmore course, even for arguably the best skate sprinter in the world.
Well behind, the race for third played out with Brun-Lie coming from the back to edge out Denise Herrmann (GER).
Overall Randall said she felt strong. Qualifying in first, she told FasterSkier that the quarterfinal was actually the toughest.
Waiting in the pack, she found the speed too low.
“Playing with a lower pace early on makes the top of that hill all that much harder,” she said.
She got stronger as the heats progressed and said “I felt like I still had plenty of juice, plenty of power,” in the homestretch.
And despite her small misstep in the final sprint, she didn’t take anything away from Falla.
“She is really on this weekend. She is a great competitor and it is fun to have good competition like that,” Randall said.
Falla placed second to Randall in the Sprint Cup last year. The 22-year-old has 11 career World Cup podiums, including three this year. And following in Randall’s footsteps, she is also developing into a threat in distance races, earning her first non-sprint podium in Thursday’s 10km classic race.
For her part, Randall has to be satisfied with her fourth podium of the young season, and moving into a tie with Marit Bjørgen for most World Cup points on the season.
Bjørgen still wears the yellow bib as the World Cup leader as she holds the tiebreaker — most wins on the year.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting