A little less than twenty seconds into Saturday’s 10-kilometer freestyle mass start, American Rosie Brennan was facing the wrong way. A collision in the first 100 meters had left her spinning and when she finally came to a stop, all that lay before her was the small section of course she had already covered.
A few seconds later — upon turning around and seeing the entire women’s field of World Cup athletes skiing away — the 28-year-old realized where she was: dead last. It was certainly not where Brennan had planned to start her 10 k, but then again not everything always goes according to plan.
When a bout of illness hit the U.S. Ski Team (USST) a couple of weeks ago, Brennan — a USST B-member — did not go untouched. Seven days ago, the Park City, Utah, native opted to skip the women’s 15 k freestyle race in Davos, Switzerland as a result of not feeling in top form.
After a weekend off, the return to racing this Saturday and Sunday in La Clusaz, France, left Brennan unsure of what to expect from her racing. With many of her 2016/2017 season results thus far leaving her just outside of earning World Cup points, Brennan entered Saturday’s 10 k seeking a confidence boost performance.
“I did not have the start to the season that I had imagined,” Brennan said during a phone conversation. “I definitely was looking to turn things around [in Saturday’s 10 k].”
When Brennan said ‘turn things around,’ she hardly meant to facing back to the beginning of her 10 k. Seeded in bib 43, Brennan’s original strategy for the start was to get into a good position from the gun.
“Things don’t always go as planned,” Brennan said.
In fact, for Brennan, things were the exact opposite of what she had hoped.
“I got tangled up like 100 meters into the race, spun around and fell over and then got up and realized that I was in last place,” Brennan explained. “So then I was like ‘OK, well I guess the race starts now.’ ”
As Brennan worked to reconnect with the back of the pack, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg began to leave it behind. The three Norwegians, who started in bibs 3, 2 and 1, respectively, wasted no time punching the front pace, with Bjørgen at the helm.
By the first of five 2 k laps, the trio had already put a close to 15-meter gap on the chase group, which included their Norwegian teammate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson.
Coming into their second lap, Weng took the lead for Norway’s front-running triad, while Nilsson, in bib 8, and Germany’s Nicole Fessel in bib 9, hunted the Norwegians. By 4 k the Swede was comfortably resting on Bjørgen’s ski tails.
As the chase in the front of the field continued to unfold, so did one from the back. Brennan had caught up to her USST teammate, Liz Stephen, and the two were maneuvering around the skiers ahead of them, even if only one at a time.
“I got tangled up like 100 meters into the race, spun around and fell over and then got up and realized that I was in last place. So then I was like ‘OK, well I guess the race starts now.’ ”–Rosie Brennan after Saturday’s World Cup 10 k mass start
“Those two went out of the start basically last and second to last,” USST Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone. “It was a furious race, but they both worked their way up through the whole race, just picking people off on every lap.”
With a manmade course loop barely wide enough for two racers to ski side-by-side in some sections, passing was no easy feat. Especially if that attempt to move was from last to the low twenties. Yet by the last lap, both Brennan and Stephen had done just that.
“It was not an easy course to pass on so I just had to be patient and hope that my fitness would bring me up and up through the race,” Stephen said on the phone.
“This is one of those races where it’s better if I don’t set specific result goals,” she added of her expecations coming into Saturday. “Take the opportunities when you have them to pass and then just keep your head positive the whole time.”
As Brennan and Stephen furthered their forward momentum, Bjørgen, Weng, Nilsson, and Østberg continued to take command from the front, with lap three and four led by Østberg. Just 50 meters behind was a chase group spearheaded by Fessel.
Heading into the final lap, Nilsson still trailed Bjørgen, threatening to break the Norwegian podium sweep. In the second to last climb, Bjørgen made her move to Østberg’s right and Weng followed. However, by the course’s final climb, it was Weng who powered to the top first, securing the lead and eventually the overall win by a close to 10-meter gap.
Weng finished in 23:43.5 minutes. Crossing 2.1 seconds behind her was Bjørgen in second.
I knew I had to be in first or second position before the finish stretch if I wanted to win,” Weng said, according to a FIS press release. “In the finish I saw Marit and Ingvild and I thought they passed me. It was great to see my name as the winner. I had to give everything I had left.”
Rounding out the all-Norwegian podium in third was Østberg, who finished 2.9 seconds back from Weng.
Despite their late start, Brennan and Stephen managed to move around more than half the field, finishing in 22nd (+1:31.9) and 23rd (+1:36.5) respectively.
“I felt more like myself,” Brennan said of her overall race performance. “I had a little bit more energy and was able to be in the race. So that was very positive and I’m happy about that.”
Also earning World Cup points for her second-straight top 30 was Canada’s Dahria Beatty (+1:38.7) in 26th overall.
“My race was really good,” Beatty wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I was hoping to be able to ski strong through the middle laps where I struggled last weekend and I did that. I was thrilled to get my first distance top 30. I got caught up behind a small crash at the beginning but after that I was able to avoid any tangles and move up through the field.”
The next North American to finish was USST member Kikkan Randall in 36th (+2:10.6) followed by American Caitlin Patterson in 37th (+2:12.7).
“I’ve had some indications in the first period that my fitness is better than my results are showing and that is a matter of sharpening my race form,” Randall wrote in an email to several media outlets. “I’m still working on relearning how to handle the race effort feelings after my year away from racing. Every race is helping me get a little bit closer. I was expecting better results in this first period but I am being patient and am confident I can build speed as the season progresses.”
As for how she felt about this race in particular, she wrote that she was “moderately satisfied … I had a good first half but there were a few windows to pull a little more out of myself in the 2nd half that I didn’t quite get today. Going to learn from this and keep pushing forward.”
On more thing: “When the world cup was in La Clusaz in the late 80’s we had no USA skiers racing,” Randall noted. “So we’re pretty pumped to have a strong team over here now that can contend every weekend!”
Grover highlighted Patterson, as she skied in the top 20 for about 2 1/2 laps.
“Then she had a fall on the last tough corner on the fifth lap,” he said. “So she was skiing really well for a while and then she faded and then she fell, so that was a bummer.”
For Canada, the next finisher was Cendrine Browne in 41st (+2:32.3), Emily Nishikawa in 48th (+2:52.4) and Sophie Carrier-Laforte in 59th (+5:59.8).
Neither Jessie Diggins or Sadie Bjornsen of the USST started Saturday due to illness. Bjornsen explained that despite this perhaps being her most looked forward to weekend of racing, being healthy for the remainder of the season was reason enough to not race.
“Between all my French family and friends, my boyfriend here to cheer, amazing France (which has become my second home), and a relay weekend… it was looking pretty amazing!” Bjornsen wrote in an email of the races in La Clusaz. “But, the Tour de Ski and World Champs are pretty important to me as well. So in an attempt to try to get more healthy than I woke up this morning, I did a last minute call to sit out…. and chose health over all other emotions.”
The U.S. women return Sunday for the women’s 4 x 4 k relay.
— Jason Albert contributed reporting