QUEBEC CITY — Generally speaking, most European-based World Cup skiers wouldn’t have picked Canada as their ideal place to end the season. It’s too far across the pond, too far from the beaches, too far from home.
The other option had been Tyumen in Siberia, so that probably wasn’t a top pick, either, but Québec City became the International Ski Federation’s choice once Russia relinquished its hosting responsibilities for World Cup Finals.
Québec City organizers, headed by Gestev, had just under two months to prepare. Having hosted two stages of the Ski Tour Canada last season and a World Cup sprint weekend in 2012, they had the experience, but World Cup Finals — complete with three uninterrupted days of racing and season-ending awards — was another animal of its own entity.
Fortunately, the weather cooperated. Three days before World Cup Finals, Québec City and the eastern part of North America got its biggest snowstorm of the season and perhaps the last several winters. With three straight days of racing taking place on the open-aired Plains of Abraham, most familiar with the expansive downtown park expected bone-chilling wind. Yet with above freezing temperatures at race time, that wasn’t much of a factor, especially not on Saturday and Sunday.
Each day, spectators and athletes required fewer layers, and by Sunday, some of the athletes were down to bibs only. The sun was intense, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the athletes were happy.
“When I saw that we would race here, I thought, ‘Oh no. We’ll have to go so far from home,’ ” Norway’s Heidi Weng told FasterSkier on Sunday. “But when I come here, it’s more like winter, and I like the track here, and I’ve gone very fast here before. So I knew I could go do a very good race here, so now I hope we come here often. It’s very good, and many people, and the atmosphere, and good snow. It was very great to be here.”
Weng spoke to a horde of reporters with a large, silver briefcase by her side. In it was one of the Crystal Globes she had just received for winning the Overall and Distance World Cups (she won one globe for each season-long category). Between Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Weng finished sixth in the freestyle sprint, second in the 10-kilometer classic mass start, and second in the 10 k freestyle pursuit. Her Norwegian teammate and longtime idol, Marit Bjørgen beat her in both the distance races.
In all, Weng racked up about 20 individual World Cup podiums (including her Tour de Ski win, Lillehammer mini tour win, and World Championships silver in the 30 k freestyle mass start). She was the most consistent skier throughout the season, thus earning the Overall World Cup crown by 40 points over Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, and distance title by 97 points over Bjørgen.
“I’ve had many podiums this year,” Weng said. “In sprint I have taken huge steps, so I am very happy with the season. I have won a sprint race, and that’s the most important to me…
“Maybe I must have a little more confidence that I am good and a good skier, because I always think I am not so good as the others, but now I have a better head,” she added. “Maybe you can say in your head that you are very good and very strong, so next year I do a joke with my head.”
While Weng keeps telling herself that she can win, Bjørgen is fully aware that she’s back to her top form having won every distance race since the new year. That’s nine straight individual wins, including two from this past weekend.
After starting one second behind Weng in Sunday’s 10 k skate pursuit, she outlasted the overall and distance World Cup champion by 1.2 seconds at the finish after leading Weng for most of the three-lap race.
“It has been an incredible season for me after Christmas,” Bjørgen, who had a child in December 2015 and took last season off, told reporters on Sunday. “I won every long distance and four golds in the World Championships so this has been incredible and to win today also.”
On Sunday, Bjørgen caught Weng quickly and with the third starter, Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, heading out 29 seconds back, the two skied off together and away from any threat to their top-two quest.
On the first lap, Østberg tried to close the gap, coming within 23 seconds of them at 1.3 k, but by the time she lapped through the stadium at 3.3 k, she was 33 seconds behind and just seven seconds ahead of a chase pack with her Norwegian teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla, Pärmäkoski, and Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and Stina Nilsson. Another 20 seconds behind them, American Sadie Bjornsen and Sweden’s Anna Haag were leading a pack of eight.
One lap later, Bjørgen and Weng cruised into and out of the stadium 46 seconds before Østberg, who was still 10 seconds ahead of the four-woman chase pack by the time she came through. The group, which was down to Nilsson, Ingemarsdotter and Parmakoski, eventually caught Østberg less than a kilometer before the finish, and Østberg finished at the back of that group in sixth, 1:06.8 behind Bjørgen. In a race for third, Nilsson took it by 1.9 seconds over Ingemarsdotter in fourth and 5.6 seconds ahead of Pärmäkoski in fifth.
“It was a mental struggle the whole way because they were 15 and 10 seconds behind me all the way, and that’s a difficult gap,” Østberg told FasterSkier. “They were three and four working together, and I was all by myself in front. I really tried to push as hard as I could, and stay in front of them, and I had 10 seconds, and it was less than 1 kilometer left, and I really believed that I could take it, but when they passed me, they had such high speed, I couldn’t keep up with them. So that was not so fun to see them pass me there, but I managed to take the third place overall [in the World Cup], so I have to be satisfied with that, I guess.”
“I think we worked well together,” Nilsson told FasterSkier. “Krista did the hardest work, I think, but I tried to help her as much as I could, and I was very excited that we could catch up to Ingvild. … I knew that when we started to be in the sprint course, I started to feel at home, then I just wanted to go as fast as I could.”
Exactly a minute before Nilsson — a sprint specialist — finished third, Bjørgen had crossed the line first in 22:36.1 minutes after getting slightly ahead of Weng coming out of the downhill with 100 meters remaining. Leading up to that point, Weng had come from behind to attack on the second-to-last climb, a markedly steep one, but Bjørgen responded quickly.
“I thought that Marit was a little bit more tired than me, but when I attacked on the sprint uphill I hoped that I could get some meters to Marit, but she was there, and in the downhill she came from behind and take a better speed,” Weng said. “That sucks, but I was number two, and it’s not many who can be on the podium, so I am very happy.”
“I knew that it would be a sprint in the end with Heidi and to have her behind me is a very good feeling,” Bjørgen said. “I’m 10 years older and to be there is a good feeling to take with me into the Olympic [year next season].”
Bjørgen is 36. Weng will turn 26 in July. Nilsson is 23.
On Sunday, Bjørgen not only won the pursuit and with it, the World Cup Finals mini tour, but she was also the fastest for time of day in 25:35.1. Weng was second fastest, 2.2 seconds back, and Nilsson third (+11.9) after starting seventh and moving her way up to third.
On her 34th birthday, Germany’s Nicole Fessel was fourth fastest (+15.3), and Bjornsen of the U.S. tied Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla for fifth on the day, 17.8 seconds off Bjørgen’s time.
Overall Bjornsen placed 10th (+1:27.2) after starting 1:10 minutes back in 10th with Kalla in ninth and skiing with her and Fessel (the 13th starter) to the finish.
“Charlotte was going so hard from the start,” Bjornsen said after. “I actually did my warm up behind her, trying to get used to her speed because that was my main goal, to stay with her today. I knew it was going to be rippin’, and at one point some of the girls went in front of me, and I let her get away, and I was like, ‘No! I have to stay with her!’ So I had to do a full sprint in the middle to catch back on, which took a lot to recover from.”
At the finish, just 0.4 seconds separated Kalla, Fessel and Bjornsen, who placed eighth (+1:26.8), ninth (+1:26.9) and 10th, respectively. Ahead of them, Norway’s Falla placed seventh (+1:19.8).
“I really wanted to outsprint those girls in the finish for some redemption from the sprint race the other day,” Bjornsen said, referring to her 13th place in the World Cup Finals opening skate sprint. “I’m super happy with a top 10 in the tour. That’s some of the best general skiing I’ve done this year, and it’s good to end on a high note.”
The U.S. had two in the top 20 both overall and for time of day, with Jessie Diggins in 16th (+2:14.8) after skiing the 14th fastest time of day (+35.0). After placing ninth in the sprint and 27th in the classic mass start, she started Sunday in 20th and moved up four places by the finish.
“This weekend, in particular, was not what I wanted,” Diggins told reporters after. “To be honest, I was in tears before the race, because I was up all night coughing. I don’t know if I was getting sick or what, but I was getting nauseous, and I started to puke a little bit, and I was like, ‘I just want to race, and race in front of my family. I just want to go out there and be able to have a good day.’ ”
Diggins immediately got to work out of the gate and was up to 19th at the end of the first lap with Germany’s Stefanie Böhler. She skied with Böhler to the finish, before edging the German by two seconds for 16th.
“I decided I was going to go for it, and it was really working for me when Stefi came by,” Diggins said. “I was just hanging on in the uphills, and then on the downhills, if I was right in her draft, I could push or pull and help each other that way, and that was really cool. I really like skiing with Stefi, she’s awesome, and we were both working together to get the fastest time we could.”
At the end of the season, Diggins ranked sixth in the overall World Cup and seventh in the distance standings.
“My biggest goal for today was to only say positive things to myself all day, no matter what anything felt like, no matter what the skis were doing, no matter what my body was doing, no matter how sick I felt, and the only thing was to push really hard and cross the finish line and be proud of pushing,” Diggins said. “You can’t control a lot of things in ski racing, but you can control, how much effort you put into it, and I can honestly say I’ve put 100 percent in this season, and I’m really proud of that.”
While 12 American woman completed the tour, 15 Canadians women did the same, with Emily Nishikawa (Canadian World Cup Team) leading them in 38th (+4:52.7) after starting 39th. Cendrine Browne, of Canada’s national U25 Team and Pierre Harvey Training Centre, finished just two seconds later in 40th (+4:54.7) after starting 41st.
“I was the last person to start before the wave,” Nishikawa explained. “And the wave, they’re working together as a mass start and moving pretty fast, so I got caught by them at the end of the first lap. I tucked in behind Rosie [Brennan of the U.S.] for the second lap and I actually had a big tangle with [Switzerland’s] Laurien van der Graaff on the fast downhill so I lost contact, lost all my speed. … and I did my best to come back.”
Browne started in the wave and described skiing in that group throughout the race.
“Unfortunately, I finished at the back of the group as I was losing energy,” she told FasterSkier. “I still managed to gain 30 seconds on the leader, which I’m happy about. I finished 41st again, behind my goal of moving towards the top 30, but it’s not dramatic. I think it’s a nice way to cap off the season.
“It was really an amazing weekend, the atmosphere, the crowd, the conditions, everything was on point,” Browne added in French. “I couldn’t have hoped for a better way to end the season.”
“We were so lucky to get [the World Cup Finals] here instead of Russia,” Nishikawa said. “We got to start 30 athletes, lots of people starting their very first World Cups, which is so exciting to see. It’s great for development for our country… We’ve got a really exciting group of women coming coming up in Canada now and to see this group of 15 women get starts this weekend is just great.”
Also for Canada, Dahria Beatty finished 50th, Annika Richardson 55th, Frédérique Vézina 57th, Katherine Stewart-Jones 58th, Andrea Dupont 59th, Annika Hicks 62nd, Sophie Carrier-Laforte 63rd, Sadie White 64th, Lisle Compton 65th, Katherine Weaver 66th, Laura Leclair 67th, and Mia Serratore 68th. Alannah MacLean did not finish.
For the U.S., Sophie Caldwell placed 36th (+4:26.1), Rosie Brennan 42nd, Caitlin Patterson 43rd, Chelsea Holmes 45th, Julia Kern 46th, Kaitlynn Miller 52nd, Liz Guiney 53rd, Becca Rorabaugh 54th, Erika Flowers 56th, and Jennie Bender 60th.
“Sadie’s skating has reached a new level this season,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said, according to a team press release. “Jessie also had a measure of redemption leading a train of women and moving up four places in the standings today. Rookie Julia Kern continued to impress, staying in front of the chasing group for the entire race and winning the sprint at the end.
“We are very proud of the American effort this weekend — athletes, club coaches and U.S. Ski Team staff,” he continued. “We had some great races but, of course, were left wanting a bit more.”
The U.S. Ski Team will finish out its season in Fairbanks, Alaska, with the SuperTour Finals next week, March 27-April 2. Most Canadians are traveling to Canmore for Canadian Ski Nationals, which started Sunday and extend through this Saturday.
— Gerry Furseth, François Léger Dionne, Jake Ellis, and Ian Tovell contributed