Swiss ski fans in Val Müstair are used to impressive victories by hometown hero Dario Cologna, so the passionate crowd was well prepared for a lesson on advanced trouncing.
But on a dark afternoon in Switzerland’s Alps, it was Kikkan Randall (USA), not Cologna, who taught the lesson, systematically disassembling the field in the third stage of the 2013 Tour de Ski.
Like an elite collegiate skier home for the holidays, who hops in a local high school race, Randall was in her own world, winning qualification by nearly five seconds and skiing to an almost unheard of margin of victory in the finals of the 1.4-kilometer skate sprint.
With a winding up-and-down course featuring several technical corners and a steep wall of a climb, all signs pointed to Randall bouncing back from a sub-par performance in Sunday’s classic pursuit.
“There are no sure things, but we were pretty confident that today could be a great day,” U.S. Ski Team (USST) Women’s Coach, Matt Whitcomb, told FasterSkier from Switzerland.
The course, situated at over 5,000 feet, was designed with the help of the first Olympic sprint gold medalist and current Swiss sprint coach, Norwegian Tor Arne Hetland, and provided plenty of challenge. It was perfect for Randall, whose superior fitness and technical ability left the rest of the field battling for second.
“It was a really good course for me. I always like it when then have steep uphills and technical turns after that,” Randall told FasterSkier. “It was a tough course. It was taking us 3:40 and we’re up at altitude, but it skied great and it was pretty exciting for the spectators.”
After serving notice of her intentions in the qualification, Randall followed up by controlling the remainder of the race, starting quickly and moving to the front where she could stay out of trouble and make her move when it suited her best.
Whitcomb added that “fast starts are quite easy for Kikkan,” allowing her to get in position without expending too much energy.
According to Whitcomb, she kept the pace “very controlled,” and then when the time came to attack, no one could match her pace.
By using the steeper terrain, Randall was able to splinter her heats.
“The train tried to keep up,” Whitcomb explained, “but everybody sort of moves — a second skier goes, third skier goes and by the time the fifth skier goes it is going to get strung out ten seconds.”
In the final, Randall sat comfortably at the front, and only Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg maintained any semblance of contact up the sharp climb. But she couldn’t match the American over the top, and Randall, had she wanted, could have found a flag for a relaxed celebratory homestretch, cruising in a full 50 meters ahead of the Norwegian.
“There were tons of fans up at the top, and with the lights there were lots of shadows so I had no idea if I’d made a gap or not,” Randall said.
It wasn’t until the homestretch, and a glance at the video board, that she realized she was all by herself.
“I turned around and crossed the finish line and I was like, ‘woah, geez’,” Randall said. “I could have sworn those guys were right there.”
The final margin of victory clocked in at 8.8 seconds, with another Norwegian, Heidi Weng besting Hanna Kolb (GER) for the final podium spot.
Randall on top was par for the course, but the race featured a number of surprises, with distance skiers faring impressively well.
Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) advanced to just her second World Cup sprint final, and cracked the top-30 in a freestyle sprint for the first time in her career, placing 5th.
Teammate Therese Johaug advanced to the semis in a skate sprint for the first time, and American Liz Stephen earned her first sprint points, among other stand out performances from distance skiers.
“It was a hard course with a grueling finish at altitude on day three of the Tour,” Whitcomb said. “It certainly starts to favor distance skiers.”
With the performance, Randall climbs back up to 5th place in the overall Tour standings, 1:18 behind leader Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), who placed 7th in the sprint.
Randall, however, is just 28 seconds in back of Johaug in second.
“I still have some time to make up, but today certainly helped,” Randall said. “It’ll put me in a good group to start with in the next race, so I’m psyched about that, and psyched it’s skating.”
Randall is referring to the fourth stage of this year’s Tour, the Toblach pursuit, a 15k freestyle in the Dolomites of northern Italy.
The Val Müstair sprint was the first and only sprint in the abbreviated 2013 Tour, and while Randall already had a victory under her belt in the 3k prologue on Saturday, she made the most of the opportunity in her strongest event.
“It went really smooth for the whole day,” Randall said. “I was just really psyched to have a good clean race, no tangle ups, that’s kind of been my motto this year is to stay clean, and get some open snow and use what I have.”
Despite her struggles on Sunday, Randall bounced back, and Whitcomb is optimistic there is more to come.
“With Kikkan too, her mood says everything,” he explained. “It’s of course always high, but it goes from high to extremely high, and just having had her birthday, and New Years and Christmas, she’s on cloud nine right now, so you know that is a good time to watch out for her.”
— Audrey Mangan and Matt Voisin contributed reporting.