Drammen is one of those staples on the World Cup, appearing on the circuit late each season and remembered for its trademark uphill finish in the middle of a city of 63,000 inhabitants, just 40 kilometers west of Oslo, Norway.
“It tends to be fairly predictable snow,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier during an in-person interview in Drammen on Wednesday. “It’s generally clean [snow]. It’s generally some sort of klister.”
But that doesn’t make Drammen easy. Finding the ideal balance of kick and glide on the city’s 1.2-kilometer course, marked by a steady uphill out of the start, followed by a 60-second downhill, and finally, one last climb to the finish, is key and something even the most seasoned World Cup skiers can struggle with at this venue, Whitcomb explained.
“We tend to see athletes focusing a little bit too much on the climbs, getting those good sensations and not enough gliding … out on the downhills,” he said. “That’s where the heart of this course really lies.”
For instance, consider Maiken Caspersen Falla. Coming off an individual skate-sprint victory at 2017 Lahti World Championships, the Norwegian didn’t ski fast enough to qualify for the heats on Wednesday. She finished 31st, 0.34 seconds out of qualifying in 30th but 6.49 seconds off the top qualifying time set by Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski. With Falla usually qualifying first or close to it in sprints (and Pärmäkoski better known for her distance skiing), it was a shakeup that confused even Falla — Drammen’s three-time defending classic-sprint winner.
“I think it is weird,” Falla told NRK, according to a translation. “I do not know what’s going on. I was thinking I was going pretty well. I’m not far behind [the top 30], but I have no idea. Maybe I didn’t have the best skis or maybe I left far too much time in a turn. I am very unsure of what’s going on; the body has worked great the last few days.”
American Kikkan Randall, who placed third in the world-champs freestyle sprint behind Falla, was in the same boat. She finished 52nd out of 56 women in Wednesday’s sprint qualifier, 12.76 seconds out of first.
Whitcomb said that was likely due to too much kick and too little glide. Drammen as a downtown sprint poses an additional challenge for athletes and wax techs, allowing just 20 minutes for testing on race day.
“Every athlete’s working out of one depot so you have basically 100 people, male athletes and female athletes, and just trying to control the chaos as much as possible,” he said. “But I feel like our athletes, I can trust them to ask for more kick and know that it’s not gonna compromise their glide. Sometimes it does, it’s just the risk that you have to make because on this course, you spend a fair amount of time gliding and if you’re not close to having enough grip, you’ll be too tired in the finish.”
One U.S. Ski Team member thrilled with her skis was Jessie Diggins, who qualified sixth (+2.12) behind her teammate Sadie Bjornsen in fifth (+1.63). Behind them, Sophie Caldwell was the third American to qualify in 11th (+2.95).
While Diggins and Bjornsen went on to finish sixth and fifth in their quarterfinals, respectively, and did not advance to the semifinals, Diggins said that in her case, it wasn’t for a lack of speed. After some physical contact at the top of the course got her fired up and surging into first on the long descent, Diggins slipped back to the middle of the pack coming out of the downhill draft and broke a pole around the last hairpin corner before the long, uphill finishing straight.
“Jessie came into the final corner with too much traffic and a pole broke somehow,” Whitcomb said. “If it had been made out of steel, it would’ve bent, but it was loud and unfortunately none of us could get to her because there were too many cameras and fences in the way.”
“I was just ready to fight on that final climb,” Diggins reflected. “I knew I was strong because even after skiing with a broken pole, I caught back up to [the group] at the end so I mean, I did everything I could.”
She finished 5.11 seconds behind the winner of that quarterfinal, Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, who would go on to win the day.
“I was so stoked with my skis,” Diggins added. “They were fast, they had good kick and I know they had good kick because I had one pole and I was like, ‘Wow! They really nailed it!’ ”
While Diggins raced in the second quarterfinal, Bjornsen was one of the guinea pigs, so to speak, in the first heat of the day. Whitcomb explained that coaches and athletes routinely watch the first women’s quarterfinal on sprint days to figure out the course and determine strategies for the remaining rounds.
While Bjornsen skied in third for much of her quarterfinal behind Norway’s Mari Eide, who led for most of it, the American bronze medalist in the world-champs classic team sprint (with Diggins) positioned herself closer to second entering the final climb to the finish.
While the last few hundred meters of the race were shaping into a four-way fight for first between Eide, Bjornsen, Sweden’s Hanna Falk, and Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampič, Bjornsen in the far right tracks suddenly found herself behind a V-board when the course narrowed from four tracks to three across, and her tracks ended. She jumped to the left, slotting in behind Eide, and ran out of room to make any more moves to end up fifth, 2.52 seconds behind Falk in first.
“I felt really strong in the qualifier, had some great skis, and was so excited for the heats,” Bjornsen said, according to a U.S. Ski Team press release. “Unfortunately in the final stretch, I chose a lane that didn’t go to the finish, so I had to stop and go in behind the others — which simply didn’t work. That was an expensive mistake, and cost a day full of great feelings. Fortunately I feel really good right now, and I am so excited to keep racing and get my chance.”
Bjornsen and Diggins ended up 21st and 26th on the day, respectively. Leading their team, Caldwell reached the semifinals and ultimately placed ninth overall.
In an in-person interview after the race, she told FasterSkier that she was particularly pleased with her qualifier considering her past results in Drammen. Before Wednesday, had never cracked the top 10 there.
“The first three years I raced in Drammen, it was just a really hard course for me for some reason and I found myself not qualifying, but not even close to qualifying, like, back in the end of the pack,” Caldwell said. “Last year I figured out how to qualify and I was just thrilled to have qualified so this year it was one step further making the semis so I’m really happy with that.
“It’s still a tough course for me,” she added. “It’s so gradual that it’s a really good course for power skiers and that’s been something I’ve been working on a lot, but power skiing for classic for sure isn’t my strength. … I think that’s probably why it’s been so difficult for me in the past but I’m really happy with today.”
Third in her quarterfinal, just 0.79 seconds behind Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who won it, and half a second behind another Norwegian, Kathrine Rolsted Harsem, who automatically advanced in second, Caldwell reached the semifinals as a lucky loser — along with Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen in fourth (+0.95) in that heat.
Caldwell went on to place fifth in the second semifinal, 1.44 seconds behind Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter in first. The American had put herself in third behind Pärmäkoski and Harsem before Ingemarsdotter hammered up the finishing straight to take the win.
“There was a little jostling around both on the downhill and up the final stretch,” Caldwell explained. “I kind of tried to cut inside Ida on the downhill and she moved in front of me so then I switched to the other side, then coming back up this way, Ida sort of hopped in the track in front of me so I went to move to the other one without knowing [Slovenia’s Katja Višnar] was coming up on the side so I had to bop back. There was a lot of bouncing around, but that’s part of the game. You want to be aggressive, but you want to be fair, and I think that’s something I’ve always tried to do.”
Also for the U.S., Rosie Brennan finished 37th in the qualifier and Ida Sargent was 42nd. Canada’s lone woman racing on Wednesday, Dahria Beatty, who turned 23 on Tuesday, finished 48th.
As the day progressed, Sweden’s Nilsson continued to pick up steam. Coming off a World Championships in which she earned one medal (silver in the 4 x 5 k relay) and placed 12th in the freestyle sprint, the world’s second-ranked sprinter (behind Falla) had something to prove.
She started by posting the fourth-fastest qualifying time, 1.54 seconds behind Pärmäkoski, then won her quarterfinal and first semifinal before dusting her competition in the final. While Nilsson followed the lead of fellow Swede Linn Sömskar in the quarterfinal and drafted off Diggins on the downhill to slingshot to first before the finishing stretch, Nilsson took a backseat to Østberg in the semifinal. With energy to spare, Nilsson and her teammate Falk pounced on the long grind to the finish, placing first and second, respectively, while Østberg dropped to fourth behind Lampič in third.
In the final, Nilsson didn’t bother with games. She led out of the start, with Harsem following in second up the first double-pole section of the initial climb. While Nilsson continued to lead over the top, Falk and Pärmäkoski ended up duking it out for second place. Pärmäkoski double poled hard up the finishing straight to move into second, which she took by 0.84 seconds over Falk for her first World Cup sprint podium. Nilsson powered to the win in 3:07.57 minutes, 0.42 seconds clear of Pärmäkoski and 1.42 seconds ahead of Falk.
The remaining finalists, Harsem finished fourth (+3.27), Ingemarsdotter was fifth (+4.86), and Lampič, the U23 World Cup leader, placed sixth (+9.67).
The victory was Nilsson’s eighth of the season and puts her 42 points behind Falla with one sprint to go — a freestyle sprint in Quebec City next Friday, where 50 points for a win are on the line.
“I thought I could win and this feels really great,” Nilsson told the International Ski Federation (FIS), according to a press release. “I was sure Maiken would win the sprint globe today. I don’t think it’s possible still to win it, but there is still a chance and I will travel to Quebec and try my best.”
For Pärmäkoski, the podium showed her continued momentum after two World Championships medals (second in the 15 k skiathlon and third in the relay).
“I am really happy,” she told FIS. “I wasn’t sure how I would feel after the championships but I felt really strong today.”
Falk is third in the overall sprint standings, 154 points behind Nilsson and 29 points ahead of Norway’s Heidi Weng in fourth. At World Championships, Falk missed a medal in the skate sprint in fourth.
“This makes up a little bit for my fourth place finish at the World Championships, so it feels good to come here today and get a podium,” Falk said.
The last European World Cup races of the season will take place Saturday and Sunday with the famous Holmenkollen 30/50 k mass starts near Oslo. This year, those races are classic technique. The men race on Saturday at 12:45 p.m. Central European Time (6:45 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) and women start at noon CET (5 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time) on Sunday.
— Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed