(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Nichole Bathe.)
BEITOSTØLEN, Norway — The question of whether Bjørgen or Weng will be the bigger name this season went in the favor of the former on Friday at Norway’s first big matchup of the season. Marit Bjørgen, now 37 and in her 20th World Cup season, won the first race of the three-day International Ski Federation (FIS) weekend in Beitostølen, starting last out of 56 women and finishing first in the 10-kilometer classic individual start, with 29.4 seconds between her and Weng in second place.
On a morning that marked the start of the 2017/2018 season in Norway, with temperatures just below zero and a snow squall during the women’s pre-race warmup, the snow covering the course appeared loose but ample.
Weng, the 26-year-old reigning Overall World Cup and Distance World Cup champion who started 30 seconds behind fellow Norwegian national-team member Bjørgen, told reporters after the race that she was satisfied with her performance, but could have skied better and “could have had better grip”.
For the first 2 kilometers of the race, Bjørgen’s pace was comparable to that of another one of her teammates, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who started just ahead of Weng. But halfway through the race, Bjørgen was nearly 22 seconds up on Østberg and 28 seconds ahead of Weng.
While Bjørgen continued to put seconds into her teammates in the final 5 k — blowing through the 7 k checkpoint 28 seconds faster than anyone else — Weng and Østberg battled for second. Weng clocked through 6.1 k just 2.7 seconds faster than Østberg and skied 5.1 seconds faster than her over the next 900 meters. Despite crossing the finish 11.6 seconds faster than Østberg, Weng’s time in the leader’s chair was short-lived, as Bjørgen finished 29.4 seconds faster with a winning time of 29:30.9 minutes.
Østberg claimed third, 41 seconds back and 10 seconds ahead of another Norwegian national team member Ragnhild Haga in fourth (+51.0). Norway swept first through 13th place with Kathrine Rolsted Harsem in fifth (+1:08.1), Astrid Øyre Slind in sixth (+1:27.5) and notably, sprint specialist Maiken Caspersen Falla in ninth (+1:54.3).
“Marit is superior,” Weng said in a post-race interview with NRK. “This is top level and I have to step it up.”
She added, “29.4 and 41 seconds is a lot, but Marit is not invincible.”
But even Bjørgen has to tell herself to ski relaxed for the first race of the season.
“I tried to stay calm and ski my way up to Weng,” Bjørgen told NRK. “Considering that she held the yellow bib [as the World Cup leader] last year, I think that’s pretty good.”
Bjørgen reflected that she could have skied the flatter parts of the course better.
“Heidi did well there, and it was fun to ski behind here and learn from her,” she said.
Fourth-place finisher Haga told reporters that she was pleased with her technical improvements in classic, which she has been working on for three years.
“It was fun, and I’m glad I was able to race at such a high level,” Haga said.
Three Americans, two of which race for Great Britain, finished 29th, 30th and 31st: Annika Taylor (+3:48.2) Nichole Bathe (+3:51.3) and Anne Hart (+3:51.4), respectively. Taylor was born in California and is a member of Great Britain’s women’s team, as is Bathe, who hails from Wisconsin and is also a member of the CXC Team. Hart, originally from Minnesota, races for the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team in Vermont.
Since mid-September, Bathe, a recent University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate, has been living in Lillehammer, Norway, while training with the British national team.
“It’s been quite the transition especially from college racing but it has been such a great learning experience and makes me really exited for the season!” Bathe wrote in an email. “That was my first race of the season and I thought it went okay. I went out pretty hard which caught up to me in the end but overall I think it was a good start to the season.
“Typically I am more of a sprinter but in general I like classic more than skate and 5k classic is my absolute favorite race,” she added. “This winter I am focusing on U23s [World Championships] and skiing fast there especially in the sprint. I will mainly be racing in Europe this year. I am racing the Kuusamo World Cups and then heading onto the OPA and Scando Cup races!”
In an in-person interview with FasterSkier, Hart explained that she made a point to get on snow earlier this season and spent the last two weeks training in Sjusjøen, Norway. After this weekend, she’ll return to the U.S. for the first SuperTour races in West Yellowstone, Montana, Dec. 2-3.
“I’ve been told by just about everyone that this is more competitive than a World Cup in part because these are [the Norwegians’] major qualifying races [for the World Cup], or their only ones I think,” Hart said of Beitostølen. “So I just went out hard. I had great kick on my skis so I just was really working on skiing well because last year that was an area I think I just got really frantic.”
During training on Thursday, Hart skied one lap with Bjørgen.
“Yesterday I actually skied with — stalked — Marit on an easy lap, and I was just trying to imitate her skiing,” Hart said. “So I was just trying to think of her out there and obviously not quite as fast, but I was really psyched with how I skied everything well. I felt a little tired on the last bit, but again, I didn’t fall apart and I’m really pleased with that.”
For Hart, the biggest difference she noticed in this initial race of the season was the fact that she was having fun.
“Last year I was just struggling the whole season to find that ‘fun’ gear, I guess, and today I was really enjoying the whole time and really pushing and not looking forward to the end,” she said. “Instead of thinking, ‘I have to make it another kilometer,’ it was like, ‘Oh my god, I only have a kilometer to go. I’ve gotta really give it all I’ve got.’ ”
For Canada, Isabella Howden, of the newly formed Barrie Cross Country (BXC), finished 53rd (+7:18.2). Afterward, Howden, who started 16th, recalled being passed by the five fastest women on her second lap, which she said was beneficial.
“That was pretty cool, seeing them and getting to stay with them on the downhills and copy their technique for as long as I could see them,” she said.
For Howden and some of her Canadian teammates, Beitostølen is familiar territory; they raced there last year. Regardless, she was in awe of the atmosphere.
“It’s so cool … all the kids up there cheering and there’s a whole crew around the corner with all their cowbells, like 10 of them,” she said with a laugh.
Sundby Pulls It Together
In the men’s 15 k classic individual start that followed, defending World Cup champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby took the win by 18.2 seconds over Norwegian teammate Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, who won last season’s Sprint World Cup at the age of 20.
Now 21, Klæbo is recognized as more of an all-around force, and on Friday, he led the men’s race up until the 4.9 k checkpoint. Sundby started last out of 158 men and trailed Klæbo until 6 k. But from that point on, the race was Sundby’s; at 9.8 k, he was 12.3 seconds faster than Klæbo in second place.
“I had to pull myself together,” Sundby told reporters after the race, explaining that he felt tired around 6 k. While the rest of his race required some extra effort, Sundby expressed contentment with his performance.
“This was something positive that I will take with me going into the season,” he said. “This was the first race of the season and it could have gone both good and bad. … It was so-so, I felt goofy skiing today, but that was also the case for everyone else.”
He attributed that awkward feeling to challenging conditions, “but that is also good practice,” he said. “I didn’t feel all that well in the first 5 k, but after that I was able to speed up and I felt that was able to control the race.”
And he did so without going too far into the pain cave.
“I didn’t have to dig as deep as I have done sometimes in the past,” Sundby said.
Sundby’s winning time of 38:57.2 was 18.2 seconds faster than Klæbo in second and 37 seconds clear of Hans Christer Holund in third. The top-seven men — all Norwegian — finished within 59 seconds of first. The women were a bit more spread out, with the seventh-place woman, Silje Theodorsen (Kvaløysletta Skilag), finishing 1:36.3 behind Bjørgen.
Holund clawed his way into the race after his 4.9 k time ranked 11th. With about 5 k to go, the Norwegian national-team member was up to fifth, and by 11.9 k, he was within reach of the podium in fourth place.
Didrik Tønseth ended up just 1 second off the podium in fourth (+38.0), while Johan Hoel (Åsen IL/Team Veidekke Oslofjord) placed fifth (+42.2), ahead of Simen Hegstad Krüger in sixth (+44.1) and Emil Iversen in seventh (+59.0).
The lone American in the race, Noah Hoffman placed 29th, 2:25 minutes behind Sundby. After a slow opening that put him in 47th at the 2.1 k mark, the former U.S. Ski Team member settled into a pace that put him within the top 30.
Afterward, he told FasterSkier that his performance was a good starting point. He started the race toward the back of the field in bib 145, just ahead of several top Norwegians.
“It was a little unfortunate that there was a big train that formed right behind me, and those guys didn’t catch me until less than a k to go,” Hoffman reflected. “I was hoping they’d get me a little sooner or not get me at all, but it was good.”
In terms of a race plan, he explained that he tried to ski with energy and build throughout the entire 15 k, which he felt he did.
“I got a little excited the second time up the big hill and maybe burned a little too much, but for the most part it was a good effort and I’m looking to build this for Sunday and then obviously into next weekend,” he said.
After Sunday’s second set of distance races in Beitostølen, the 10/15 k freestyle individual starts, Hoffman will race four weekends of World Cups as an invited member of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) for Period 1. He missed the objective qualifying criteria for renomination to the USST by one place (he ranked 51st in the World Cup at the end of last season) and is thus skiing independently this year, paying his own way (and paying his own wax technicians, Zach Caldwell and recently retired USST tech Peter Johansson) so that he can race in Europe.
“The early season is important for me this year because I don’t have guaranteed start rights for the whole winter, so I need to ski well,” Hoffman, 28, said. “And I believe I’ve done everything I can to prepare and I hope to see the results from that.”
Several Canadian juniors raced the men’s 15 k as well. Ryan Jackson led them in 97th (+5:16.8), followed by Scott Hill in 99th (+5:19.1), Joey Foster in 124th (+6:45.3), and Maks Zechel in 143rd (+8:25.5).
“It was hard out there today,” said Foster, a 21-year-old member of BXC, noting that he was still feeling the effects of travel after arriving in Europe a week ago. “Considering how I felt, the race was pretty good. … I started with what I thought was a pretty conservative pace and I got in with a good train of people, and I skied with them for almost the whole first lap, and from there I just kind of fell off pace. … I think my leadup to the race just wasn’t as good as it could’ve been, so I wasn’t feeling as crisp as I would’ve liked.”
The Beitostølen FIS races continue through the weekend with classic sprints on Saturday, which U.S. Ski Team member Andy Newell plans to race, and 10/15 k skate races on Sunday.