On one of the first nice days for classic skiing the World Cup has seen all year, Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen led the U.S. in the 10 k classic mass start in 19th and 21st, respectively, on Saturday for the third stage of World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden. It was a race that both women ultimately wished was a few kilometers longer, as they both picked up places together in the last few minutes of the 30-minute race. But given that classic has been the weaker technique for both of them lately, and Randall’s distance form “has been pretty rocky since the Tour,” they were satisfied to keep themselves in decent positions for the final stage of the mini-tour on Sunday, a 10 k freestyle pursuit.
“We both would have been psyched for one more lap,” Stephen wrote in an email. “We were really catching people that last lap.”
The two teammates started relatively far apart and didn’t find each other until the last two laps of the 3.3 k course. Randall sat in 26th at the 5 k time check and Stephen was four seconds ahead of her in 22nd in a field that separated quickly. It wasn’t a pace any harder than usual for a women’s mass start, but the tempo was a challenge on this particular day for the Americans, at least in the first half.
“It’s a women’s race! It was all out from the word ‘go!’” Randall said. “The pace was pretty fast and I had a decent start, but just kind of had trouble adjusting to that pace in the middle section of the race.”
Stephen started hitting her stride just as Randall was struggling, and after the two converged they together to pick off a few skiers and finish on a high note.
“It was kind of nice to have her to follow for a bit,” Randall said of Stephen. “She was carrying a pretty good tempo and then I had really good kick on the uphills, so that was a strong point for me in the last couple kilometers.”
Randall kicked it in slightly ahead of Stephen to finish 1:20.2 behind Marit Bjørgen’s (NOR) winning time. Stephen finished two places and 3.1 seconds behind Randall.
Both Americans had both hoped for more in the second-to-last World Cup of the season, but were satisfied to have maintained good positions going into the final stage of the mini-tour, where they really want to do some damage.
“I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s pursuit start race, as I think they are my favorite kind,” Stephen said. “I am feeling physically good going into tomorrow, so we shall see how it goes! Last World Cup race of the season!”
Stephen moved herself up a few places with Saturday’s result and will start in 22nd, 3:32 back.
Randall sits in 15th in the tour standings and will start the 10 k freestyle on Friday 2:52 behind Bjørgen (who leads the entire field by 1:19 now that Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk has dropped out) and a minute behind Heidi Weng (NOR) in sixth. The outcome of World Cup Finals carries particular weight for Randall’s final placing in the overall World Cup standings, where she currently sits in third. Bjørgen is currently 170 points behind Randall, and if the Norwegian wins the pursuit on Sunday she will be awarded 200 points for the mini-tour win. All Randall has to do to hold onto third is finish at or above fifteenth, which would earn her the necessary 32 points to hold Bjørgen off.
Behind the two leaders of the American squad, Ida Sargent placed 29th behind her teammates on Saturday to put three American women in the top-30, a marker that always brings the satisfaction of World Cup points even if the result itself isn’t as fulfilling. This was how Sargent felt about the place on Saturday, which brought her through the finish 1:56.3 behind the leaders.
“I felt horrible on the first lap and lost a lot of time but then I started feeling better on the next two laps so I tried to move up when I could,” Sargent wrote in an email. “They changed the course to get rid of the sketchy downhill but then there were not any big hills so it was a fast pace all the time and hard to make up time without any significant climbs. But any time I score distance points it’s a good day, so I’m happy.”
A few seconds behind Sargent, Jessie Diggins and Holly Brooks once again finished back-to-back, this time with Diggins taking a few seconds out of her elder teammate. Like Randall and Stephen, the duo skied together for the back half of the race and in the end Diggins nipped Brooks by 1.3 seconds and the pair finished 38th and 39th, respectively.
“We would ski together and we were always trying to bridge the gap back to the next group,” Diggins said. “You know, one of us would try to pull the group up and get tired, and then the next one would try to pull the group up… It’s always sweet to ski with your teammate.”
Diggins alluded to feeling slightly better than the result showed, and she attributed the difference to having “a lot of things to work on with classic technique and wax adjusting and ski picking,” she said. “I was just doing too much slipping and herring boning to be able to hold any sort of pace, so that was a little disappointing. But that said, leaving the season with concrete things to work on for next year is always really nice.”
Rosie Brennan was the sixth American to cross the finish line. She started the race wearing bib 47 in a field of 50, “so the race was relatively uneventful for me,” she said.
She still managed to move up a few places over the course of 10 k to finish higher than where she started in 43rd, 3:04.8 back. The fast opening pace was a challenge — “I felt terrible for the first few k at such a high pace,” Brennan said — but found her stride and skied in a small pack for most of the race.
“I felt pretty good through the race and am certainly becoming more comfortable with the World Cup each race,” she concluded.