Kikkan Randall (USA) won her second-ever World Cup race on Saturday in Liberec, Czech Republic, adding yet another feather in a hat that is already the most adorned in the history of US women’s skiing.
It is only mid-January, but Randall has already had quite a season. She has stood on the World Cup podium three times, earning a spot on each step with a second in Dusseldorf, and a third in Davos in addition to her victory.
Those results have all come in her strongest event – the skate sprint – and she missed out on an opportunity for another podium finish when she got tangled with Swede Britta Norgren in the final of the Tour de Ski freestyle sprint. She still placed fifth in that race.
All of these results have added up to place Randall at the top of the Sprint Cup standings – the world rankings based on the season’s World Cup sprint points.
After the Liberec win, Randall holds a narrow three point lead over Italy’s Arianna Follis.
“Leading the sprint cup is quite an honor, especially now that we’re midway through the season,” Randall wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It shows that I can be consistently one of the best (at least in skate), which is a big improvement from those first couple of podiums.”
It is highly improbable that Randall will be able to maintain that position. She will race just one more World Cup skate sprint this year – there are two left, one to be held in Rybinsk, Russia on February fifth. But Randall will be at home in Alaska preparing for World Championships at that point.
“It was a little tempting [to stay in Europe and race in Rybinsk], and a situation I didn’t really expect to be in,” Randall said. “However, my main goal of the season is World Championships, and coming home for a break and some training is what I feel I need to do to be best prepared for Oslo.”
Added USSA Nordic Director John Farra in an email, “The FIS World Cup Sprint leader position is a terrific honor for a well deserving athlete, but it is just that. It is not important enough to change one’s goals and planning/preparation mid-season.”
The last opportunity for a skate sprint falls just before World Championships, in Drammen, Norway and Randall will be there to tune-up for the big event.
The World Championship sprint is freestyle, giving the American an excellent opportunity to defend, and possibly improve on, her silver medal from the 2009 World Championships in Liberec.
At this point, Randall is a clear medal favorite, and the only woman who is more dangerous in the event right now is Marit Bjoergen (NOR). Bjoergen got boxed out on Saturday, and was unable to advance to the finals, ending any chance of a pre-Worlds face off with Randall.
Last season Bjoergen bested Randall on the World’s course in a late season World Cup.
But World Championship races do not score World Cup points, so Randall will need to rely on her classic sprinting to maintain a high ranking in the Sprint Cup.
Randall did not qualify for the heats in her first classic sprint of the year – an early-season affair in Kuusamo, Finland, but she did place 17th in the Tour de Ski classic sprint. At this point in her career, it is unlikely to see Randall challenging for the podium in a classic sprint, but appearances in the heats, and even the semis would not be a surprise.
But with the likes of Follis, Petra Majdic (SLO), and Bjoergen capable of winning classic sprints, Randall will likely drop down the overall standings, even with a strong performance in Drammen.
Regardless of where she ends the season, Randall has already had the best World Cup season since Bill Koch, with her three podiums and four top-5 finishes.
Even more impressively, she is ranked 10th in the overall World Cup standings, a testimony to her continued improvements in distance racing.
“To be sitting 10th overall is pretty sweet and over the next few years I would like to improve upon that,” Randall said, noting that she looks at the overall rankings as a broad measurement of success.
“Since our sport is so variable and you can’t really compare split times like you can in track, the rankings give you an idea of where you stand in the field and whether or not you are improving,” she said.
Impressively, Randall has scored World Cup points in all but three events staged so far this year.
The only skiers to better that? Follis, second in the overall World Cup, skipped the 10km classic in Davos, the only race in which she did score points.
Her teammate, Marianna Longa, fourth in the overall has been outside the points twice, as has Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), the Tour de Ski Champion and overall World Cup leader.
Longa did not race the sprint in Dusseldorf, and placed 32nd in the Davos sprint. Kowalczyk did not travel to Liberec last weekend, and also skipped the Dusseldorf sprint weekend.
Randall missed the points when she placed 42nd in the classic sprint in Kuusamo, and 47th in the 10k classic in Davos. She did not start the 15km mass start in La Clusaz.
For the season, Randall has scored World Cup points in 16 of 19 events, and 16 of 18 starts.
Her previous best rank? She finished the 2007 season 30th in the overall standings and 12th in the Sprint Cup. Even if she did not score another point this year, she would likely improve on those marks.
“The Sprint Cup has definitely been a long-term goal of mine for a while,” Randall said. “I haven’t been specifically focused on it this season, but it has been exciting to be in the mix so far.”
And watching teammate Andy Newell receive a medal for his fourth in the Cup last season has been “inspiring and motivating” for Randall.
But with World Champs the current focus, Randall will put her Sprint Cup aspirations on hold. “Every year I seem to get a little stronger and more consistent, so I can always chase after the Sprint Cup next season.”
Unfortunately, because she will not be at the next World Cup sprint in Estonia, Randall will not have the opportunity to actually wear the Sprint Cup leader’s bib.
“It is super cool to have an American in a leader bib of any color,” said Farra. “Of course she won’t enjoy the honor of wearing it this weekend, since she is home now, but as a fan of XC Skiing I am incredibly proud of her performances.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.