There were two somewhat disparate takeaways for the Americans on the first day of World Cup Finals in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday. One was the elation that came with Kikkan Randall being awarded the sprint crystal globe for the second time in a row. Andy Newell joined her in being recognized as the fifth-ranked sprinter on the men’s list, which likewise brought the American a sense of accomplishment for the consistency in his sprinting throughout the year.
On the flip side, the race that took place on the Royal Palace steps did not turn out the way the U.S. would have hoped for on a perfect day, particularly as it was the opportunity to score big in a sprint until next November. Newell produced the team’s top finish in 11th after taking sixth in his semifinal, followed by Torin Koos in 25th after finishing fifth in his quarterfinal.
Ida Sargent led the women in 20th, Randall placed 22nd and Holly Brooks finished 27th. The U.S. put five athletes in the heats — “Which was good,” said women’s coach Matt Whitcomb, “but Andy was the only one to make it through to the semis. So, it ended a little bit faster than we wanted it to, but I think we showed that we’ve got a little bit of fire left and looking forward to the next three days.”
On a course that was frigid, windblown and made of manmade snow covered with a fresh dusting of powder, conditions were tricky. The men had a relatively easy time of picking skis, as double-poling turned out to be far and away the more efficient option. With a few exceptions, the men’s field went with skate skis and muscled their way through Stockholm’s climbs. The usual headwind on the far side of the course forced smart early positioning, as leading the pack early wasted valuable energy.
“Because there was some fresh snow today — last year it was just kind of icy and fast — today I think because it’s also really windy the tracks were getting that powder windblown in to the [them], so skate skis were running a lot faster,” Newell said. “In order to kick you had to use a pretty sticky kick wax, so…especially for the men it seemed like most people were double-poling.”
Newell’s double-pole strength showed through in the qualifier, where he had the 10th-fastest time, and the quarterfinals, where he was only 0.1 seconds behind Tomas Northug’s (NOR) heat-winning mark. Newell ran into trouble in the semifinals, however, when he simply ran out of steam on the second half of the course after getting out to a fast start.
“I’m not sure what happened in the semi,” Newell said. “It was really windy out there so maybe I led too much, but for whatever reason I didn’t have the kick I needed to up the last hill. So I’m disappointed with that. I know I’m a better double-poler than to be 11th or whatever I was today. In a double-pole sprint I should be in the final. So it was a little bit of a disappointment, but it was an improvement over last weekend, so that’s good.”
It’s been since a month ago in Davos that Newell last made it past the quarterfinals, but he was so consistent earlier in the season that he finished his sprint year ranked fifth overall.
“I’m happy it was such a consistent season with the sprints, and happy to have a handful of top 10s this year, but super frustrated not to get a podium,” Newell said. “I felt like I was feeling good enough for a podium this year on certain days and it just didn’t pan out, so I think that to finish fifth in the sprint cup without a podium is almost ridiculous. It just shows how consistent I was this year but without that extra something to get on the podium, I guess.”
Newell is actually the only one out of the top nine on the World Cup sprint list who didn’t podium at least once in ten sprint races.
“I’m happy to be fifth in the world but I know I should do a lot better, especially when I know I should be on the podium more often,” he concluded.
Looking forward to the rest of World Cup Finals, Newell is most looking forward to the 3.3 k freestyle prologue on Friday and the 15 k mass start classic on Saturday, both in Falun.
“I’m just looking to score some more distance points,” he said. “If I can be top-30 I’d be psyched.”
Koos and Noah Hoffman are the other two American men competing in World Cup Finals. Koos finished 25th and Hoffman was 53rd in his first-ever city sprint.
“Not only was today my first city sprint, it was only my second time ever double poling a classic sprint on skate skis,” Hoffman said. “That is a tough task for me right now, combining multiple weaknesses in my skiing. It was a challenging day but a really cool venue. I’ve never done anything quite like it. I would like to improve my sprinting so I can race more city sprints! I want to see the rumored city sprint in Central Park, New York come to fruition. Overall I had a great time in a brand new experience.”
Randall’s crystal globe headlined the Americans’ day, but within the women’s race it was Sargent who led the way for in the results. She had her best career qualifier result with the 11th-fastest time and finished fourth in her heat to finish 20th overall.
“It was my best qualification result yet so I was really happy with that,” Sargent said. “In the quarterfinal, I was hoping to draft and then go for it on the last uphill but I didn’t ski the transition into the hill very well and had to go far wide and was disappointed to not make it out of my quarterfinal. Still it was so fun racing in the city and skiing over the palace steps.”
Randall finished fifth in her quarterfinal to take 22nd behind Sargent. She’s has had the sprint title in the bag since winning a dramatic freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland, two weeks ago, so on Wednesday her primary goal was to finally crack through to the final in her weaker sprint discipline.
“Since this was the last World Cup sprint of the season, I had high expectations to improve upon my previous best finishes here in Stockholm and make the final,” Randall wrote in an email. “I’m still chasing after my first classic sprint podium.”
As previously mentioned, conditions were a challenge for waxing. Fresh snow blown into the otherwise icy tracks made kick that was good in one place slip or be too slow in others. Randall led her heat around the first corner, but after struggling up the first hill she was unable to stay in contention. Once the leaders got away from her the realization that they weren’t coming back compounded her feeling of fatigue.
“The manmade snow was breaking down and turning to sugar on the first uphill while freshly fallen snow was getting drifted over the top and really slowing it down,” Randall said. “It was a big challenge to find skis that had kick in the sugary snow but weren’t too slow in the windblown.
“I struggled to kick up the hill unfortunately and dropped to fourth over the top. Coming into the 180 turn, I got pushed wide by [Anastasia] Dotsenko and did my best to get back in line and draft behind her. But I was having trouble keeping up in the double pole. Going into the last uphill I lost that adrenaline surge of being right in the pack and kind of seized up. Even though we had a fast heat, I was disappointed to have not been fully in the mix and to have had my day end so soon.”
Holly Brooks finished sixth in her heat to take 27th in her first top-30 appearance since the pre-World Championships World Cup in Davos. Just outside the qualifying cutoff, Jessie Diggins was 34th. Rosie Brennan finished 40th and Liz Stephen was 43rd.
Overall, Whitcomb thinks the entire World Cup field, including the U.S. athletes, is feeling “appropriately tired for this time of year.” The circuit took a bus to Falun directly after racing concluded in Stockholm to get ready for the second stage, a freestyle prologue, on Friday.