Sunday’s 4 x 4-kilometer relay in La Clusaz, France, was a 39:23.3 minute macro-statement by the Norwegian women’s team of Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Marit Bjørgen, Ragnhild Haga, and Heidi Weng.
That statement was dominance. Norway won the relay in time-trial-like fashion: each Norwegian leg a solo affair. Finland’s team of Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Anne Kyllönen, Riita-Liisa Roponen, and Laura Mononen placed second (+50.2). Sweden’s team of Emma Wiken, Stina Nilsson, Maria Rydqvist, and Anna Dyvik was third (+1:08.9).
As with lopsided races, the 10,000 foot view on the first classic leg showed Østberg stretching a fatigued rubber band back to the pack. At 2 k, 11.5 seconds was Østberg’s initial gap.
Then snap. The band broke. At 4 k when Østberg handed off to Bjørgen, it was a 28-second cushion on Russia, 33.3 to Switzerland, 34.9 to Finland.
Why belabor the point in words when the numbers tell the micro-story which lead to the dominance?
- Østberg fastest leg at 10:04.
- Bjørgen fastest leg at 10:11.8.
- Haga seventh-fastest leg at 9:43.2.
- Weng fastest leg at 9:27.9.
Some problems are good to have. That’s the case with Norway and Haga. Here’s the context. Although she skied the seventh-fastest leg split, it was a tight leg and she kept Norway’s lead comfortable.
For example, the U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen skied the 10th-fastest third leg, only 13.4 seconds off the fastest time skied by Sweden’s Rydqvist. Compare that to the fourth leg, the 10th fastest time was skied by Kazakhstan’s Irina Bykova — she was 57.2 seconds off Weng’s pace.
There’s the number crunching and analysis, but it can be rendered down to this: Weng had plenty of time to high-five the crowd before crossing the line.
With her teammate Therese Johaug serving a provisional sentence for doping, Weng is the new relay team anchor.
“It wasn’t that scary when the girls performed so well,” Weng told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race about her anchor role. “I didn’t have to sprint at the end. The last time I had a final leg I was too afraid to do anything. Now I was high-fiving the spectators and had some fun.”
Østberg told NRK in the same article that she was experiencing pre-race butterflies. “I was extremely nervous before the start, but it went well,” Østberg said. “I didn’t want to disappoint the other. You’re competing for a team in a relay and not yourself. I didn’t want to let the others down … I had to go fast today so Marit could go home to her son Marius. She’s missed him all week.”
Relay Socks and Rebounding from Illness
Here’s the straight talk. The two powerhouses of the deep U.S. women’s team, Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen, were scratched from the roster due to illness. But the relay socks made a feisty appearance.
The U.S. lineup that finished seventh overall (+2:26.0) consisted of Sophie Caldwell, Rosie Brennan, Liz Stephen, and Kikkan Randall.
“You know clearly we were not at full strength today and it showed I think,” U.S. head coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier on the phone. “My guess is that Sophie might be fighting a little bit of something, we have seen that before where an athlete maybe is on the edge of getting sick and goes out and skis fine for a while and then kind of blows up and it turns out maybe they are coming down with something.”
Caldwell is primarily known as a sprinter on the World Cup. Sunday’s relay legs were 4 k, a relative no-women’s land when it comes to sprint or distance race length. One kilometer into the race and Caldwell was third (+1.0). By the first tag to a resurgent Brennan, Caldwell had lost over a minute to Norway.
On Saturday, Brennan skied from last to 22nd place in the 10 k freestyle mass start. During the relay Brennan again proved she’s in play too when it comes to a classic relay leg. During FasterSkier’s conversation with Grover, the internet was down in La Clusaz.
“I haven’t really seen any times yet, there is no internet up here today, so it seemed like a pretty solid leg out of Rosie,” Grover posited.
In fact, Brennan skied the fourth-fastest split of any second-leg skier (+38.2) — Bjørgen set the benchmark.
“The legs were incredibly short, especially for people like Liz and I who like a little longer,” Brennan said of the 4 k distance, as opposed to 5 k, on the phone. “I think it was a solid effort and especially considering the illness that has destroyed our team the last week.”
Brennan began the season out of the points and took last weekend’s races in Davos off.
“I definitely had a less-than-stellar start to the season, I don’t really know why,” Brennan said. “I guess in my past it hasn’t been uncommon for me to start a little slow, but I was trying, I was actually focusing on doing the opposite just knowing it is so important to come over here and have some good races and build some confidence right away, that obviously that didn’t work out quite as planned.”
Brennan will remain in France for the holiday break and begin resting and preparing for the Tour de Ski beginning on Dec. 31. She’ll begin the Tour with a boost of confidence. “It was great to turn that around yesterday and I am feeling much better to hear that I had the fourth-fastest leg, or time on my leg, it is really encouraging especially for such short race,” Brennan said. “I wasn’t quite sure about my speed just yet, that is definitely a step in the right direction for me.”
Like Brennan, Stephen came into the day heartened by a solid effort and result on Saturday. But 4 k is a k short of 5 k.
“Even a 5 k is like a sprint for me. Rosie and I were actually talking about that in our cooldown,” Stephen said after the race. “When I go out, it’s like a sprint, because when I’m done with a sprint, I’m like ‘it’s already over?’ and it’s kind of like that in a relay. Don’t blow up, but it’s pretty hard for me to completely blow up in such a short race. I attacked from the beginning knowing that this is a nine-minute race today, and I do intervals longer than that often times.”
Grover reiterated that point. “It was a 4 k course for the relay and you know Liz just needed more real estate out there. It was almost like, some of our athletes, it takes them one or two k to get into the race and you are already half way through the race at that point.”
Stephen kept the margin to Norway just under two minutes and showed improving form before her favorite stretch of racing in the Tour. “I’m always looking forward to [the Tour]. But also I feel like this last weekend that I’ve been able to feel like I want to. Physiologically I feel like racing has really helped get me into the shape I want to be in. I have some work to do over the break, but I feel like I’m in a good place to do what I’m normally able to do at the Tour.”
Team and relay vet Kikkan Randall skied the anchor leg. Her’s was the seventh-fastest anchor leg (+27.1).
“I got the tag from Liz a ways back from Germany ahead and a gap to Italy behind,” Randall wrote in an email to several media outlets. “I focused on holding a good rhythm on the first lap but Italy was able to almost close the gap. I was getting ready for a good battle on the last two climbs but I guess the Italian anchor crashed behind me. So I skied the rest of my lap alone.”
Randall secured seventh place for the U.S. (+2:26).
Grover didn’t spend any time lamenting what could have been. “I really expect by the time we do our next relay in Sweden that we are going to be very competitive for the podium,” he said. “Norway, of course, on paper was far gone, but in terms for the hunt, the usual hunt for Seed 3, we will be back there.”
Expectations are what they are for the U.S. women’s relay team: high.
Grover explained that the relay is a target event for a podium at both 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Olympics. “We also have a women’s team right now that is the strongest women’s team we’ve had in the history of U.S. skiing. So the time to win is now, and we’ve got the athletes to do it,” Grover added.
In mainstream professional sports, cybermetrics is understandbly the rage. Essentially it’s data-based decision making when it comes to sports. Coaches like Grover and U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb play their version of ski-cybermetrics when picking a relay team.
“It’s a matter of putting together on a certain day the right athletes, with the right fitness in the right technique, in the right legs, and also taking into account the course profiles in terms of strengths of the athletes, and what are the attributes of the course,” Grover said of picking the most viable relay squad. “Is the course long for 5 k, it it short for 5 k? Is it flat for classic? Is it hilly for classic? Is it technical or is it more of just a grinding course?”
The U.S. team’s strategy is to have at least three skiers in each discipline, skate or classic, to choose from on relay day.
“If we can do that, then we can put the women who are the fittest at the time and for whom the technical elements of the course suit their strength the most, and we can put together a super competitive team, so that is kind of the puzzle that we are always putting together with relays,” Grover said.
The next opportunities to contest the relay will be the 4 x 5 k in Ulricehamn, Sweden, on Jan. 22, and March 2 at World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
Canada’s team of Emily Nishikawa, Cendrine Browne, Dahria Beatty, and Sophie Carrier-Laforte finished 12th (+4:07.9). But the biggest victory of the day for the team was fielding a women’s relay.
“We were so happy to have a women’s relay team today,” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “I didn’t feel great today, but my teammates all skied really well and I’m very proud of them. It makes having a tough day so much better when you can be pumped to see amazing races from the rest of your team! The atmosphere in La Clusaz is just amazing! So many fans out cheering and the organizers did an incredible job of getting the course ready. It was a lot of fun racing here.”
Beatty was also excited about Canada fielding a legitimate women’s World Cup relay team.
“It is wonderful for us to be able to start a relay,” Beatty wrote in an email. “Having a group of women on the world cup this first period has been really great for all of us. Today’s race was a great building point for our team and I am really proud to be able to races with this group and grow together.”
The Canadian appears to be coming into good form; Beatty skied the second-fastest third leg (+2.8).
“I was really happy with how my leg went,” Beatty added. “I was able to build off my good feeling from yesterday and ski a really strong race. I was just focusing on trying to catch as many people as possible. When I found out that I had skied the 2nd fastest leg time I was a bit shocked and really excited. It feels great to have a great feeling race correlate to a strong result.”
— Aleks Tangen, Ian Tovell, and Jake Ellis contributed