Four weeks training at home without a race did not slow Kikkan Randall. The defending World Championship silver medalist in the freestyle sprint picked up where she left off a month ago, and found herself in the same spot – standing on the top of the podium.
Randall scored her third career World Cup victory, and second in a row when she powered to the front on the tough finishing stretch in the Konnerud Ski Stadium outside of Drammen, Oslo. Top qualifier Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR) led the heat all the way to the finish stretch, but couldn’t hold off Randall and settled for second.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE) left the finish pen thinking she was fifth, but ended up on the podium when video replay showed her winning a three-way photo finish with Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Arianna Follis (ITA).
Following a successful first run through the Tour de Ski and a victory in the skate sprint the next weekend in Liberec, Randall headed back to Alaska to regroup and focus her training on the World Championships. The big question for Randall and her coaches was how would her body respond after nearly a month without a World Cup race effort.
“It was a bit of an unknown,” US Ski Team head coach Chris Grover said of Randall’s form. The decision was to hold her out of Saturday’s 10km classic, and after she qualified in sixth, all signs pointed to a good day.
“When she qualifies that fast you know she is feeling good,” Grover said.
Falla set the pace on the flat and fast course, ripping around the 1.2km loop in 2:16, just under a half a second ahead of Magda Genuin (ITA). Randall was 2.63 seconds behind Falla, while posting her second-best qualification place of the season – behind only a third in Liberec.
It was quickly becoming clear that the training block in Alaska and subsequent camp in Sjusjoen, Norway had worked.
“We had a really good training camp before we came here,” Randall’s coach with APU, Erik Flora told FasterSkier. “It looked like she was in good form the last few weeks,” Flora continued, and once she hit the course, and doubts were left in Randall’s tracks.
“Watching her climb today – she is in good shape,” Flora said.
In each heat, Randall got out in good position and bided her time until the long gradual finish stretch before making her move. Prior to this year, she has generally attacked on steeper terrain, using a powerful V1 to control the race – her first World Cup victory in Rybinsk three years ago, and her World Championship silver in 2009 both came through this tactic.
This season, however, Randall has expanded her repertoire and is now just as much a force on the gradual terrain.
“I have had some good workouts at home in Alaska where we practiced flatter terrain like what we will see in Oslo,” Randall said. “I was happy to ski well on this course [in Drammen].”
There was only one climb on the women’s sprint course, and while most did V1 the steeper section in qualifying, the heats were a different story – maybe a few V1 strokes, but according to Randall it was “99 percent V2.”
After a twisting descent into the stadium, skiers were met with a long gradual 200 meter run to the finish line, capped with a steeper pitch right before the line. Despite the short and fast course, this finish made for a challenging run, and factored into the results all day.
Position over the top of the hill was not critical – heats were won with attacks from the back of the pack in the homestretch. It also made for exciting spectating as the lack of hills made it impossible for anyone to break away, and the drawn out finish added plenty of drama and extended battles.
Randall took her quarterfinal, skiing toward the front and powering away at the end. Her semi was a different story, however, as she entered the final descent in third, but the result was the same. Her plan, rehearsed over the past several days with Flora, was to “come in, ski relaxed and make a gear change half way” down the homestretch.
“With the tight corner that spits you out onto the finish stretch, you just get excited and you just want to start sprinting, but you have to remember that you have a long way to go, and it kicks up right at the finish,” said Randall.
The final was another test of patience, and Randall relied on experience gained from over 60 individual World Cup starts. The key lesson?
“Knowing where to use your energy,” Randall said. “It worked out well that someone else wanted to take the lead today, and I tucked in behind her on the climb and I was able to save it and stay relaxed.”
That someone was Falla who tried to win the final wire to wire. The 20-year-old sprinting phenom has been getting faster and faster as the season has gone on, and skied with an aggressiveness today that belied her tender age.
But in the end, she was no match for Randall, and had to be content with her third World Cup podium, and first above the third step. With the usual Norwegian modesty, Falla said she won’t consider herself a favorite for World Championships until she is actually standing on the starting line for the final.
Flora was not surprised that Randall could put away the field over the last 200 meters. “The gradual finish is good for her – where she has good power,” Flora said. “She has really good finishing speed and a really strong kick.”
The race for the podium was hotly contested behind Randall and Falla, with Kalla riding Randall’s wake to the line – a position the Swede said helped her relax. Follis ended up fourth, and Bjoergen fifth.
Randall moved back on top of the Sprint Cup standings, leading Follis by eight points with two races remaining. Given Follis’ superiority in classic sprinting, Randall will be hard-pressed to maintain the position, but will have several weeks to enjoy it.
In the overall World Cup standings, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) clinched her third consecutive title despite a disappointing day. She tangled on the lead up to the climb, twisting around before falling to the ground and breaking a pole.
Another pre-race favorite, Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), also fell in her quarterfinal and headed to an early exit.
After finishing third in Saturday’s classic race, Petter Northug (NOR) told press that “after Holmenkollen, no one will remember who was on the podium in Konnerud.”
This is likely untrue in the case of Randall, who continues an unprecedented American run through the World Cup circuit, and is in position to field questions on whether the thrill of winning diminishes with repetition.
“It has definitely changed a bit in the feeling of it,” Randall said. “But every time it becomes a new experience too. You go from being surprised when you make your first final, to surprised with your first podium, and then the with the win in Rybinsk. [the site of Randall’s first World Cup victory].”
The success has bred confidence. “To come into a race knowing ‘ok if I execute my tactics right and set myself up then I can win this race’ is pretty cool, and it is still an incredible feeling when you cross the finish line first,” Randall said.
For the first time, Flora was on hand for a Randall victory. “This is great, this is unbelievable!” he told FasterSkier, clearly thrilled with the day. He doesn’t see the win adding any pressure to Randall.
“I think this is just positive energy for her,” he said. “This just gives her another boost coming into the Championships.”
Grover agreed, describing Randall’s demeanor in the face of expectations and competition as “ice cold.”
In addition to the sprint, she is scheduled to race the 10km classic, the relay, the team sprint and potentially the 30km freestyle in Oslo.
While Randall was the story of the day, she wasn’t the only North American in the heats. Canadians Chandra Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova both advanced out of qualifying.
Gaiazova squeaked through in 30th and was eliminated in the quarters, finishing a still-respectable 20th. A year ago Gaiazova would have marked that result as one of her top finishes ever, but with an appearance in the semifinals, and consistent point-scoring performances, she has raised her game a notch.
Crawford qualified in ninth, and just missed out on the semifinals, ending the day in 14th. At best she heads to Oslo as a dark horse, but on the right course, she could surprise. After losing an entire season due to injury two years ago, she finally appears to be headed back to the form that earned a gold medal at the 2006 Olympics.
“I think Chandra is in really good shape right now,” Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth said. “I think the course for her today was not her best course, but I think the course in Oslo is going to be really good with the downhill finish.”
Crawford’s day didn’t end with quarterfinal elimination. She headed right back to the trails, skiing two hard intervals to simulate a full set of rounds.
“I wanted her to go through the whole session like she would a normal World Cup day,” Wadsworth said.
Crawford described her race as “super fun.” She said she stiffened up a bit in the finish of her quarter. “I really wanted to make it through, but all in all it is nice to be out there skate sprinting.”
“She has that speed and that killer instinct – she can finish it off if she has the chance,” Wadsworth said.
The World Championships open on Thursday with this same event – the skate sprint. The US and Canadian teams are headed to Oslo, as are many others. Some of the Scandinavian athletes will grab a few days at home before joining the party.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.