At age 37, with more than 110 World Cup wins, 18 World Championships titles and six Olympic gold medals, it’s hard to imagine Norway’s Marit Bjørgen as anything but a machine; she races, she wins, she repeats.
But even the World Cup veteran, who first raced the circuit in 1999, occasionally considers the simplicity of throwing in the towel. With intermittent snow showers on Saturday in Kuusamo Finland, temperatures hovering around freezing and varying snow conditions over the women’s two-lap course, many competitors entered in Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic individual start were caught in the classical dilemma of either slipping or sticking.
“It was interesting to see everyone out there — from all different countries — during the warmup come to the top of hills and just scrape their skis off; it’s not something that you always see on the World Cup,” U.S. Ski Team member Ida Sargent said in a post-race phone interview. “But it was just one of those days where nothing was going to be perfect.”
No matter how prepared or fit an athlete is, part of the allure and challenge of cross-country skiing is the element of ever-changing conditions. Mother Nature, after all, cannot be tamed. And even someone like Bjørgen can find it defeating.
“It was challenging to lead today,” Bjørgen told NRK, according to a translation. “I considered giving in after the first kilometer, but then I got a good split time and realized that it was just as bad for everyone. Then you just had to bite your teeth together … I think I finished well.”
By the first kilometer, Bjørgen in bib 30 (out of 89) was situated in third, 2.5 seconds back from the race leader at the time, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla. In the next two kilometers, Bjørgen lost 8.6 seconds on Kalla, but surpassed Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen to move into second. Over the next 3 k, Bjørgen regained ground and began to close in. By the 6 k mark, she was but 0.6 seconds off of Kalla’s time and in another two kilometers, she was ahead by one second.
Having overcome her initial discontent with the conditions, Bjørgen did not let off the brake, besting Kalla by 17 seconds at the finish and taking over the leader’s chair in 25:07.6. That result stood, and just 0.8 seconds out of second place, Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg stood on the final step of the podium in third place (+17.8).
American Jessie Diggins, of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), placed 10th (+1:03.9) for her fourth-best result in a 10 k classic — her most recent being an eighth place in a classic mass start at last season’s Tour de Ski stage in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“I think this is probably the best I have ever done in Kuusamo,” Diggins said on the phone, referring to her performances in previous classic distance races there. In 2015, she finished 38th in the Ruka 10 k classic pursuit, and a year ago, she placed 13th in the Ruka 10 k classic.
“I usually try to come into the season really patient and work into it,” she continued “So it was a really nice surprise to feel pretty good today and fire up the engines, get that first distance race out of the way and remember how it feels to pace a 10 k.”
She stayed within ten seconds of 10th place for most of the race, closing it down to 2 seconds with less than to 2 k to go before securing her final top-10 spot. While Diggins explained that many of the racers she saw on course appeared to have either no glide or no kick, she felt fortunate to have a decent balance of both.
“I would ice up a little bit, but I could just run up the hills out of the track and then kick them really hard and they would clear up,” Diggins said. “So they stayed pretty fast, but with good kick as well, which was really really impressive. It could not have been easy to get the best of both worlds, so I am really, really grateful to those guys [our wax technicians].”
Ahead of Diggins was Norway’s Heidi Weng in fourth (+34.0), Austria’s Teresa Stadlober in fifth (+36.4), Norway’s Ragnhild Haga in sixth (+38.2), Russian U23 (under-23) skier Natalia Nepryaeva in seventh (+42.8), Sweden’s Stina Nilsson Friday’s classic sprint winner) in eighth (+46.1), and another U23 Russian, Anastasia Sedova in ninth (+53.4).
Sargent placed 22nd (+1:21.9) for her best World Cup distance race result since 2014 and was the second fastest American woman of the day.
“I haven’t scored distance points in a couple of years now, so it feels awesome to be back in the points, and I am really stoked to start the season out like this,” said Sargent, who’s been known for her sprinting results in Kuusamo (with a fifth place in its 2014 classic sprint and seventh place in 2015).
“I was definitely a little conservative at the beginning, but I think the upside of that is not blowing up, especially for me being a little more sprint-based,” she explained. “It was exciting to be pushing and working my way through the race; moving up that way.”
In the first kilometer, Sargent was positioned in 69th, 7.6 seconds away from 22nd. In the next 2 k, she moved up to 42nd, and by the halfway point she was in 33rd. Sargent continued to move up in rank, improving five more places by 6 k and moving into 24th with 2 k to go. By the finish, she had moved up to 22nd.
“She just had an awesome pace out there,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Head Coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone after. “She started quite slow for the first 1.2 k. Something we talked about that has worked really well here, you go out too hard and you blow up, and you just bleed time throughout the race, or you go out conservatively see where the body is and figure out where you can put the pedal down. She skied a really patient race for the first two k and then was able to push the pedal and got a great response out of her body.”
Just 1 second behind Sargent was another USST member Sadie Bjornsen, coming off a career-best second place in Friday’s classic sprint, in 23rd (+1:23.4). While Bjornsen explained she had adequate recovery from the sprint, she had difficulty with her skis.
“I worked really hard to calm all my excitement last night, and channel it towards today,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I woke up feeling recovered and ready to rally. … Unfortunately, I really struggled with skis today, and didn’t have the extra power to push through it. I was really proud for fighting hard, and pushing on like I was racing for a medal. What I have learned with classic skiing in this world of crazy conditions is that when the stars align, it can turn into an incredible day. But, it doesn’t happen every day, so no matter what, you have to be ready to seize every opportunity like it is your day. I am looking for more in my distance classic skiing of course, but the season is mighty long, I am happy with how I feel, so I know it will come this year.”
In the standings, Bjornsen is now ranked 11th, behind Norway’s Haga and ahead of Sweden’s Anna Haag. Diggins is 16th with one race remaining: the women’s 10 k freestyle pursuit on Sunday.
Finishing 6.2 seconds outside of the top 30 (and just 0.3 seconds out of 31st) was Rosie Brennan (USST) in 33rd (+1:47.7). Happy with her ski choice, Brennan used the conditions as an opportunity to test her race technique.
“I decided to try a more aggressive pacing strategy today to ensure I could hold my technique together with such challenging conditions,” Brennan wrote in an email. “I think I over-paced as a result and should have started picking up the pace sooner than I did. This are all the things that take a few races to get back into the groove so I’m not too concerned with that. However, I felt good after picking up the pace so I think I am fit and ready more for.”
Three places behind Brennan was another USST member, Sophie Caldwell (who finished eighth in Friday’s sprint) in 36th (+1:50.1).
“This is a really tough course, so I tried to pace it well and take the first lap in control,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I knew it would require some patience and tried not to panic if I didn’t feel perfect or my skis weren’t perfect in some places. I decided to go on wax and my skis were icing a bit over the tops of the hills, but I was able to ski off the accumulated snow and they felt fast for the downhills.”
In addition to reaching the semifinals in Friday’s opening sprint, Caldwell started her World Cup season by racing to third in the sprint’s qualifying round.
“Physically I felt pretty good today,” Caldwell wrote. “I was a little sore from the sprints yesterday, but I felt like I was able to recover enough to still have good energy and I was happy with the race. I felt like I skied the downhills well and definitely got a little tired going over the top of the massive uphill the second time, but was overall pleased with the race and think it was probably one of the best, if not the best distance race I’ve ever had in Kuusamo.”
Nine American women raced Saturday’s 10 k, with Kikkan Randall (USST) finishing 48th (+2:14.5), Liz Stephen (USST) 58th (+2:26.3), Chelsea Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) 64th (+2:50.0), and Julia Kern (USST D-team) 74th (+3:19.2).
Three Canadian women competed, with Emily Nishikawa (Canadian World Cup Team) leading them in 56th (+2:24.2), Cendrine Brown (National U25 Team) following in 76th (+3:23.6), and Dahria Beatty (World Cup Team) finishing 84th (+3:53.5).
In Sunday’s 10 k freestyle pursuit, Kalla as the mini-tour leader will start 2 seconds ahead of Bjørgen in second and 12 seconds ahead of another Swede, Nilsson, in third. Østberg will start fourth, 20 seconds out of first, and Nepryaeva will head out fifth, three seconds after Østberg. Bjornsen in 11th will start 46 seconds back (and just 6 seconds out of seventh), and Diggins will start 1:04 back in 16th, 3 seconds behind Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen in 15th.
— Ian Tovell and Harald Zimmer contributed