Halfway through the 15k women’s pursuit at the U-23 World Championships, the Russians appeared to have everything under control. Skiing three abreast on their second of four trips up the big climb here, there didn’t seem to be a way for anyone to get around their sea of blue suits.
But when they switched to skate skis, the Russians’ grip on the race disappeared as quickly they had taken it, snatched by a pair of Norwegian women, Hilde Lauvhaug and Astrid Oeyre Slind. Working together, the two blew the race apart, and after shattering the field, Slind powered away from her teammate on the last hill to take the win. Svetlana Nikolaeva salvaged the day for the Russians by finishing third.
After her fifth-place finish in Thursday’s classic distance race, Canada’s Brittany Webster flirted with another top-five today, making the lead group of nine when the pack split up on the third lap. She said that effort was a bit much for her, however, and after Slind and Lauvhaug got away, it was all Webster could do to keep it together to win the sprint for eighth place over Aurelie Dabudyk (FRA) and Britt Ingunn Nydal (NOR).
“I didn’t have much left,” she said.
Sadie Bjornsen was the top American finisher, in 26th. She was sitting 17th after the classic leg, but lost nine places during the second half of the race. Becca Rorabaugh was skiing near Bjornsen at the transition after a rough start, but she said she fell after the exchange and lost a lot of ground, leaving her in 31st place at the finish.
Ida Sargent and Kate Fitzgerald were the two other American starters; they ended in 34th and 38th, respectively.
In an interview with FasterSkier after the race, Slind said that the Russians’ pace during classic section was fairly tame, and that behind them the rest of the field was jockeying for position. Nikolaeva agreed, saying that she and her teammates were just trying to keep things under control.
Towards the end of the first skate lap, Slind and Lauvhaug began stretching things out, and an initial group got away as the women went over the course’s big climb. By the last time up that hill, the two Norwegians had left everyone else behind.
They went over the top together, and it looked like the race would come down to a drag race on the finish stretch. But there was one more hill before the pair entered the stadium, and Slind, seeing that Lauvhaug was getting “wobbly,” seized the opportunity, opening up a big gap that reached eight seconds by the finish.
When the rest of the pack reached the top of the big climb for the last time, Japan could almost taste its first medal of the championships after three fourth-place finishes here, with Yuki Kobayashi holding a small lead over Nikolaeva as the two began their descent into the stadium. But by the time the two were over the same hill where Slind had made her move, Nikolaeva was able to sprint away from Kobayashi, and she held on for the bronze.
Today’s races were the last for the U-23 athletes here, and tomorrow’s relay is the final event for the juniors. Check back tomorrow for coverage.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.