With Friday’s skate sprint opener at the Rossland mini-tour serving as a winner-takes-all qualifying race for the Canadian World Championships team, smart money said that the Canucks would come out swinging.
And they did—at least one of them. After sneaking through her quarter- and semi-final heats, Perianne Jones (Canadian National B-Team) roared out of the start in the finals, intent on staying out of trouble and keeping her Oslo dreams from sliding away in a crash.
“I just really wanted to be in the front,” she said, “because I didn’t want to get tangled up or anything.”
Behind Jones, though, were Sadie Bjornsen and Holly Brooks, two Americans who could afford to take a more measured approach to the final. After trailing Jones for nearly all of the race, Bjornsen had a little more steam left for the finish, taking advantage of the draft to make her move just after the final corner, on the way to her first win on the domestic circuit.
“As I passed her, it all hit me,” Bjornsen said. “It was a pretty good feeling.”
Brooks made a similar charge, but just ran out of room—she and Jones ended up tying for second place when organizers couldn’t separate them in the finish photo.
“We looked at it every which way and could not separate them, based on the information available,” said Ian Sibbald, Rossland’s chief of competition.
While Bjornsen was the only official winner on the day, there were prizes for two of the top three athletes. As the top Canadian, Jones almost certainly earned herself a spot on the start line at the World Championships sprint in Oslo on February 24. And as the first woman to the finish, Bjornsen will be the overall leader of the mini-tour heading into its second of three stages on Saturday.
In addition to being the first to the line, Bjornsen also skied the fastest prelim on Friday, repeating her performance from the Sovereign Lake classic sprint qualifier last weekend.
According to Brooks, the Rossland sprint course was tight and technical, featuring a dicey s-turn that sent a number of skiers sprawling over the course of the day.
Along with Bjornsen, Brooks, and Jones, the final heat included Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers), who finished sixth, Heidi Widmer (Alberta World Cup Academy), who finished fifth, and Jessie Diggins (CXC), who was fourth, continuing a strong early-season run thanks to a nifty move in her semifinal.
As Diggins approached the finish line fighting her teammate Caitlin Compton for third place—which represented the last berth in the finals—she found herself coming up hard on Jones, who had slowed down to conserve energy.
“My foot went between her skis,” Diggins said. “I ended up eking out just enough to make it into the A-final.”
But after two tough rounds, Diggins said that she was starting to feel fatigued by the last heat—that round belonged to Bjornsen, Brooks, and Jones.
After last week’s sprint in Sovereign Lake, where a tangle with Brooks on one of the last sections of the course allowed Jones to get away, Bjornsen said she was keen to take another shot at a win.
Rossland has a short, fast finish though, and with Jones again in the lead heading into the final corner, Bjornsen said she thought her chances were slipping away again for a second time.
But Jones said she bobbled in the corner and nearly crashed, giving the other women an opening. And coming from behind, Bjornsen said she also got an unexpected draft that helped boosted her past, to the win.
“There was kind of a slingshot effect, a little, on that last corner,” Bjornsen said. “It was kind of perfect—you come into the finish really booking it.”
Meanwhile, Brooks was coming on strong, too. Thanks to a well-timed lunge at the finish, she and Jones ended up finishing in a dead heat—one that couldn’t even be settled by Rossland’s FinishLynx camera, which shoots 600 frames per second. It took a discussion by the race jury to settle the matter, which was complicated by the fact that Brooks’s white Salomon boot blended into the snow.
“The jury, and everyone in the organization—they were all just crowded around the video timing picture…and no one could really figure it out,” Brooks said. “It was just a little hairy. People were kind of debating back and forth. Peri and I were kind of peering over their shoulders.”
Sibbald said that both Brooks and Jones would be paid the prize money for second place—$150—and each would receive the second-place time bonus of 56 seconds.
Bjornsen will have a full minute deducted from her time for her win. She credited the victory to her experience this year with APU, which she joined last spring.
Prior to this season, Bjornsen said, she had struggled to sustain her speed through four full sprint heats. But after upping her base training and mixing in some sprint-specific interval sessions over the summer, she said she had noticed a big difference.
“I’ve never had the durability to finish sprints hard,” she said. “It’s just nice…knowing that I have the energy now.”
Bjornsen’s best results have come in sprints and shorter races, so she’ll have her hands full holding off the rest of the women’s field, especially Brooks, through the next two stages. However, no more bonus seconds are on-offer—any ground to be made up on Bjornsen will have to be earned outright.
Saturday’s event is a 5 k interval-start skate race, while Sunday’s is a 10 k handicap start, in which racers are sent off according to their overall tour standing.
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.