No, this was no ordinary dream.
If you woke Sunday to watch the women’s World Cup 10-kilomeer classic pursuit in Toblach, Italy, it was a bit of a nightmare if you were rooting for Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla wearing the yellow bib as the Overall World Cup leader.
Kalla began the day with a five-second micro-cushion as the first skier out of the gate after her win in Saturday’s 10 k freestyle individual start in Toblach. Her coaches might have urged her to keep the tactics simple and warn her to not look back — just go and go and wait for the eventual catch.
Five seconds behind at the start was Norway’s Ragnhild Haga, 13 seconds back Norway’s Heidi Weng, 18 seconds back Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, 22 seconds back Norway’s Marit Bjørgen as the fifth starter, and sixth off the line and 25 seconds back, another Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Østberg.
A pretty basic sport fable playing out on a 2 x 5 k loop: the chased fox in Kalla and the win-starved Norwegian queen, Bjørgen, along with an all-star Norwegian lineup as the pursuers.
Toblach’s pursuit was an anomaly on the World Cup. According to the International Ski Federation (FIS), of the last 31 pursuits on the World Cup, all were part of mini tours, typically three days long. March 2002 would have been the last time a non-tour pursuit was run with a 5 k pursuit in Falun, Sweden. And yes, as if 2002 doesn’t sound prehistoric when it comes to nordic sport, Bjørgen was hunting back then, too, and placed 26th in that race.
Kalla kept her distance for a time. At 3.5 k, Bjørgen led the Norwegian chase group which strided 8.3 seconds behind. As the skiers pulled through on the undulating flats into the stadium and readied for the course’s two major climbs on Lap 2, it was no longer Kalla leading out.
The race soon resembled a high-tempo Norwegian-only threshold session. With the occasional lead swap, Bjørgen, Weng, Jacobsen, Østberg and Haga — the Norwegian train came through the 5 k checkpoint in that order — were as formidable pack as any to state that Norway was still queen of this Toblach hill.
At 6.4 k, Kalla still matched the pace, but she could be seen sliding slightly back in the scrum of Norwegian suits. As Østberg led through at 7 k, Kalla began her modest fade: she was 6.2 seconds back.
Bjørgen then took the throttle’s control and made it a three-skier race. At the 8.5 k mark, Bjørgen, Østberg and Weng separated themselves in a 1-2-3 break.
Jacobsen was 9.5 seconds back, Haga 13.4, while Kalla must have been feeling the residue of her champion’s effort Saturday and skied 25 seconds behind.
Although Weng and Østberg have had their days as sprint winners, Bjørgen charged down the final stretch for another World Cup win, finishing in 25:29.3 minutes. Østberg was three-tenths of a second behind in second and Weng 0.8 seconds back in third. Jacobsen skied to fourth (+21.5), Haga fifth (+31.8) and Kalla sixth (+41.9).
“After my performance yesterday I was not quite sure where my shape was,” Bjørgen said, according to a FIS press release. “But my plan was to close the gap on Charlotte by the end of the first lap, which I did. It is great to win again and head to Christmas break with a victory. I will not compete until the Norwegian championships.”
In skipping the Tour de Ski, which starts at the end of this month, Bjørgen will have nearly four weeks off until Norwegian nationals Jan. 11-14, 2018.
Sunday was Bjørgen’s second World Cup win of the season. She also won the gritty no-kick 10 k classic during the season-opening World Cups — the Ruka Triple.
As far as the Overall World Cup standings after the conclusion of race Period 1, Kalla still leads by 98 points over Østberg in second, while Weng remains in third, 104 points out of first. Bjørgen moved up to fourth, 117 points back.
The USST Chase
The U.S. Ski Team (USST) had two skiers in the top 10 on Saturday: Jessie Diggins placed seventh while Sadie Bjornsen was ninth. Diggins began the race 40 seconds after Kalla while Bjornsen left the start four seconds behind Diggins.
With the front lead group well-established and working together to reel Kalla in, the Diggins-Bjornsen pack, which included Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva, Austria’s Teresa Stadlober and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen, had also taken form by the 2 k mark. At that point, the five-strong group was 46 seconds behind Kalla in first.
The group of five worked together to ward off any challengers skiing up from behind. At times during the race, with the camera lenses pulled back and the wonders of lens optics, it appears Diggins and Bjornsen were right there and potentially able to bridge up to Bjørgen and the Norwegian cohort.
By the race’s midpoint at 5 k, Nepryaeva pulled the group, 38 seconds behind the leaders. That time gap held as Diggins spearheaded the five skiers through the 7.1 k mark.
When the Bjørgen-Østberg-Weng surge went down around 8.5 k, the time back to Diggins and Bjornsen inflated to approximately 50 seconds. Kalla was falling back off the leaders as well, yet remained 23 seconds ahead of Diggins and Bjornsen.
“Initially I was trying to bridge up to Ingvild but she had an awesome and impressive race so when I realize we wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap, I was still skiing really hard but also preparing mentally for the final sprint-out. Which came as predicted – the final 2km felt like an all-out sprint!” Diggins emailed.
The group trying to lock in seventh through 11th place came into the finishing stretch as if it were simply the fiery endpoint of a Toblach drag race.
Channeling her double-pole sprinting chops, Diggins was the first of the group to the line placing seventh, 53.6 seconds behind Bjørgen in first.
Nepryaeva skied to eighth (+54.2), Bjornsen ninth (+55.2), and Stadlober took 10th (+55.6) in a photo finish with Niskanen, who placed 11th (+55.6).
“Pursuit races are pretty fun – I love being in the hunt!” Diggins wrote. “I had an awesome pack of girls to ski with and everyone took turns pulling at the front so we were moving along at a good pace. I just love that feeling when everyone is still racing each other, but also working hard and taking their turn so that the pack is ripping along the course! The race felt like it flew by.”
The addition of the new USST waxing truck aside, Diggins made note that her skis have have been like an ace card.
“Big shoutout to our techs for having given us great skis today,” she wrote. “That was really important on a course with so much glide but also some crucial climbs.”
Diggins will spend the holidays in Seefeld, Austria, as she rest and preps for the Tour de Ski which begins on Dec. 30 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Diggins plans to complete the Tour.
Bjornsen also conveyed that she’s pleased with the way the Toblach weekend unfolded.
“Exciting, and wild day 2 of this weekend! It was a fun day of skiing, with a little different feeling than normal,” Bjornsen wrote in a mass email to media outlets. “It was kind of hard to feel strong and in control on that course, but I gave it my all, and was again happy with the finish. I can feel my brain needs some rest right now. Period 1 is an intense block, with a lot of travel, and a lot of excitement for me. I felt today that my mind and body were digging deep down for the final fumes in the tank… so I’m excited for some holiday time!”
Rosie Brennan (USST) scored in World Cup points for the third-straight race after starting 19th and finishing 25th (+2:14.6).
Starting 1:15 minutes back at the start, Brennan ventured out amidst what could have been called a controlled mass start. Three seconds ahead of her, Finland’s Laura Mononen started 18th, and only 16 seconds behind Brennan was the 32nd starter, Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen.
“I was with that group for most of it,” Brennan said on the phone. “It started as a small group and people kept latching on — whether we were catching up to them or they were catching up to us. And it ended up as a pretty large group.”
Brennan did cede time to the leaders over the course of the 10 k, but Period 1 has proved positive for her.
“Towards the end I just got real tired and could not quite keep on the group,” Brennan said. “I was kind of dangling behind them down into the finish.”
Brennan is currently ranked 24th in the Distance World Cup standings and 33rd in the overall standings.
Also for the U.S., Chelsea Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) finished 39th (+3:03.8) and Liz Stephen (USST) finished 48th (+4:05.2).
Canada’s Emily Nishikawa placed 53rd (+4:14.5), Dahria Beatty finished 63rd (+5:44.7), Cendrine Browne 66th (+5:57.7), and Katherine Stewart-Jones 70th (+7:31.5).