CRAFTSBURY, Vt. – In shades of red, blue, green and white, six highly competitive women stood at the start line at the SuperTour Finals on Tuesday waiting for their signal to get after the 1.6-kilometer classic loop one more time.
On one end of the A-final lineup stood World Cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall, who flew in from Europe on Sunday. On the other, her World Cup teammate and distance specialist, Liz Stephen soaked up the opportunity to race in a sprint final at home in Vermont.
Then there was Chandra Crawford, the lone Canadian National Team member in Craftsbury coming off two titles at Canadian Nationals last week. To her left, Central Cross Country (CXC) racers Jennie Bender and Jessie Diggins (U.S. Ski Team) stood on either side of Craftsbury’s Ida Sargent (USST).
This was going to be good.
While spectators gathered around the start and finish near the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and lined several parts of the manmade loop, the six A-finalists did their thing, racing as hard as possible on the longer-than-usual women’s course.
The snow on the original women’s cutoff had melted, leaving one highly reinforced loop to race on. Even Sargent wasn’t familiar with it – they were racing on a new men’s course – but the competition was up for the challenge.
The fastest qualifier by nearly seven seconds, Crawford kept up the tempo through the heats, leading and eventually winning each. Immediately in front in the A-final, she set the pace and stayed ahead, accelerating on the last climb to take the clear-cut victory.
Diggins finished about three seconds later, edging Bender in a double-pole sprint for second. Fighting some illness after 4 ½ months overseas, Randall placed fourth. Stephen was fifth in her first career classic sprint final, and Sargent was sixth after falling on the first downhill.
“I like to lead and make the pace more mellow and attack at the end, so I did that,” said Crawford, fresh off her first 30 k classic national title at Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec. There, she also won a 1.4 k freestyle sprint.
“It’s the end of the season. I know everyone is just torched right now,” she said. “I just wanted to go out there and enjoy this last week of racing.”
She appreciated the friends and fans cheering for her, many of which called her Chaundy.
“It’s good to be in the U.S.,” Crawford said. “The American team really took me in this winter so I feel pretty happy to be here.”
After placing third in the SuperTour Finals classic sprint last year, Crawford resolved to return to this year’s Spring Series. She said she had a blast in Sun Valley, Idaho, and was looking forward to her first trip to Vermont. Two days into her stay, she appeared to be adjusting well.
“It was really fun out there,” she said. “These guys [at Craftsbury] did an amazing job with the course. I can feel all the work that’s been poured into it. It’s in great shape.”
After placing sixth in last year’s SuperTour Finals sprint and also in Sunday’s 9.6 k classic race, Diggins was pleased with finishing second to Crawford, a 2006 Olympic skate-sprint gold medalist.
She avoided Sargent’s crash early on after Sargent moved to step in the track she was in. Sargent said she tried to get out, but wiped out at the bottom of the first descent.
That made Diggins more alert throughout the rest of the race, and she took advantage of great kick on the long uphill on the second half of the course.
“I haven’t done heats in a classic race since nationals,” Diggins said. “Classic racing for me in the klister conditions has just been really challenging. It’s been hard to learn and figure it out as you’re just racing so it was really good to finish out the year on a good one.”
She also noted the benefit of racing with veterans like Crawford and Randall, and learning along the way.
Also on the podium, Bender finished second in both her quarterfinal (to Sargent) and semifinal (to Crawford). She had been looking to cap the sprint season on a high note. Fifth in the qualifier behind Crawford (3:29.4), Sadie Bjornsen (USST/APU), Randall, and Holly Brooks (USST/APU), respectively, Bender said she met her goal of starting off stronger.
In the heats, Bender said she was even more motivated.
“You look around and it’s like, ‘Oh these are all really good sprinters,’ ” she said. “To have Kikkan back and Chandra was awesome. Once I made it to the A-final it was like, ‘OK, anything goes. You never know, anything can happen.’ ”
In the end, she was happy to share the podium with her teammate, Diggins.
“This year has been great,” Bender said. “I’ve just been really happy with my team and the coaches have been doing a great job. It will be sad for Gus [Kaeding] to leave, but Stratton welcomes him with open arms, [his] alma mater. I’m excited for the season to come.”
After sweeping SuperTour Finals last year, Randall said she didn’t feel great in Tuesday’s final, but enjoyed the scrappy race. After winning her quarterfinal and semifinal, she managed to get ahead early in the A-final behind Crawford. Diggins remained in close contention and Bender accelerated to the finish to beat her by about a ski length.
“I’ve been doing just a lot of racing the last couple weeks,” said Randall, who placed fourth in the Red Bull NordiX ski-cross event in Oslo, Norway, on Saturday. With all the travel in the last few days, Randall figured she picked up a cold.
“It’s the end of the season so it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s nice to be back and really nice to see everybody. It’s fun to have made it through such a great season and now I have a little bit of fun here in the sun.”
Stephen, who was second to Randall in the quarterfinal and third behind Randall and Sargent in the semi, was excited about advancing through the heats.
“I don’t sprint and I definitely don’t classic sprint and I was in the final with an Olympic champion and the overall World Cup sprint winner,” Stephen said. “There’s no better day than that. It was like the most fun that I’ve ever had.”
After hoping to qualify in the top 30, she clocked the eighth-fastest time. From there, Stephen aimed for the semifinals.
“And then I made the semis and I was like, ‘Woah,’ ” she said. “I knew I had to do two more, might as well try to do the A [final] and not the B, so it worked out.”
Sargent, who made a tactical move on the last climb of her semifinal to get in front of Bjornsen and make the A-final as well, was one of the first off the start in the final round. She said she fell within 200 meters later.
“I made a push to catch back up, but then ran out of energy and just couldn’t make it back up to that group,” Sargent said. “I was just on my own out there, holding in for sixth place.”
Regardless, she said it was great to race against such a strong field.
“It was really fast,” she said. “Fun.”
After finishing fourth in her semifinal behind Randall, Sargent and Stephen, Bjornsen won the B-final. Her APU teammates, Rosie Brennan and Brooks rounded out second and third in the B-final and respectively placed eighth and ninth overall.
A junior racer, Corey Stock (Cambridge Sports Union) made the B-final and ultimately took 10th. Susan Dunklee (CGRP/USBA) was 11th and Becca Rorabaugh (APU) was 12th.