Bring on Marit Bjoergen.
That was the message Kikkan Randall sent with her skiing in Dusseldorf, Germany on Saturday, racing to a sensational second place in a freestyle sprint on a short course that doesn’t even suit her strengths.
After qualifying in eighth and blazing through the first two rounds, Randall overcame a poor start in her final heat, flying past Slovenian Vesna Fabjan on the homestretch to take her fifth-ever podium finish, just behind winner Arianna Follis (ITA).
With a longer skate sprint on tap in Davos, Switzerland next weekend, Randall said that she is ready to take on Bjoergen, the undefeated Norwegian who has dominated the World Cup circuit this fall—and who was the only woman to get the better of Randall in a sprint race in Norway last March.
“I’ve been wanting a chance with her in the skate sprint since Oslo last year,” Randall said.
Randall wasn’t the only American who had a strong race on Saturday. Canadian Chandra Crawford was eighth, finishing fourth in the preliminary round and then leading her semifinal heat before fading late. The result was enough to pre-qualify Crawford to compete at the 2011 World Championships in March.
For Follis, the victory was her first in an individual sprint since she won a world title in the event in 2009.
She has raced every single edition of the Dusseldorf World Cup since its inception in 2002, but in nine tries, Saturday was the first time she cracked the podium in the individual sprint. (She won the team event last year, with Magda Genuin.)
“A podium that seemed haunted to me here—this time, I really enjoyed it,” Follis told the Gazzetta dello Sport.
But Follis was unchallenged over the last 200 meters, which meant that the real excitement was behind her, with Randall pinballing her way back to the front of the pack after a poor start.
After jetting to an early lead in her first two heats—crucial on the Dusseldorf sprint course, which at 828 meters is one of the flattest and shortest on the World Cup circuit—Randall was glacial off the line in the final, heading to the first corner sitting fifth in a field of six racers.
“My poles slipped a little bit, and so I was a little slower coming out. And then I kind of panicked—kind of got my weight a little too far forward, so I didn’t build the momentum on that first stretch that I had in the earlier rounds,” she said.
With the women taking just two minutes to complete a circuit, Randall didn’t have much time to make up ground. But while she knew that she would have to be “really aggressive,” Randall also didn’t panic.
“You…don’t want to be too frantic and too aggressive, because then you might end up getting tangled up with someone and going down,” she said. “You’ve gotta be smart.”
On the back side of the course, heading up the tiny hill known as “Mount Dusseldorf,” Randall said she was getting ready to follow Hanna Falk, the 21-year-old Swedish phenom who won the Dusseldorf sprint last year in a breakout performance.
But, Randall said, she could tell that Falk was starting to flag, so instead, she snuck into a narrow opening behind Follis and Fabjan, who were working their way up the climb on the opposite side.
“I could definitely feel another skier right there, and I barely got into the spot,” she said.
The move left Randall in third place going into the final turn, still trailing Follis, who was leading, and Fabjan, the Slovenian who had set the fastest time in qualifying.
One of the tricks that Randall had learned on the Dusseldorf course, she said, was that cornering is crucial. “If you can accelerate out of a turn really well, then that can give you some space,” she said.
And accelerate she did, passing Fabjan on the final straight, and even making up ground on Follis before running out of room. After a tough race last weekend in Finland, where she failed to qualify for the heats in the classic sprint, Randall said that the result was a relief.
“All I could think was, ‘that’s more like it!’” she said. “This is really where I want to be—I want to be challenging for the
podium every time in a skate sprint.”
Randall said that she was especially satisfied with her finish given that her big moves in past sprints have typically come on tough climbs—which were nowhere to be found on Saturday. In her two previous races in Duesseldorf, she had never placed higher than 28th.
“It was a big question mark,” Randall said. “I was really excited today to feel so strong and powerful on the flats, because I think that’s where I’ve really been trying to improve my skate sprinting.”
While Randall kept her cool during Saturday’s final round, her composure had already been tested numerous times over the last 48 hours.
After a few days of training in Finland, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) was supposed to arrive to Dusseldorf on Thursday. But a strike by Finnair’s flight attendants left the Americans marooned in Helsinki for a night, and they didn’t arrive in Germany until Friday.
Snowy weather then forced the USST to do their typical pre-race tune-up workout on foot, rather than on rollerskis. Even more problematic, the athletes were without their baggage.
Fortunately, Head Coach Chris Grover had been around long enough to know not to depend on baggage handlers.
“Before we left, we told [the athletes], ‘in your backpack that you carry on, have your skate boots, have your race suit, have your warm-ups,’” he said.
The USST also had all of its skis, thanks to a cargo van that had already driven from Finland to Germany earlier in the week. As a result, Randall had everything she needed for Saturday’s race—except for her poles, which the USST shipped on the airplane with the rest of its baggage.
While Andy Newell was forced to borrow a pair of poles from the Swedish team, Randall had a spare set—although they were a centimeter too short. But they worked well early in the day, Randall said, and she stuck with them, even though the Americans’ bags showed up in time for the finals.
From Dusseldorf, Randall will now head to the resort town of Davos, Switzerland, for a distance classic race and another skate sprint. Ida Sargent headed home after last weekend’s races in Finland, so the U.S. women will not start Sunday’s team sprint.
While Randall was disappointed to miss another day of racing, she said she was also looking forward the Davos sprint course, which suits her better than Dusseldorf’s. The women will be racing 1.4 kilometers—400 meters longer than last
year, and the same distance as the men.
That event will give Randall her first shot at Bjoergen in a skate sprint since Oslo, and according to Grover, the Alaskan is firing on all cylinders.
“She’s proven all fall that her fitness is unbelievable,” he said. “She probably needed a skate sprint to be able to demonstrate how good in fact it was.”
Before Davos, though, will come at least a little merriment, with help from the 10,000 Swiss francs (just over $10,000) that Randall earned for her second place.
“It’s a good day at the office,” she said. “[I’ll] definitely be taking the team out and celebrating tonight.”
—Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
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.