A large contingent of US skiers took part in a classic sprint event in Beitostolen, Norway as World Championships approaches.
The races featured large fields, consisting mainly of Norwegians, including several members of the World Championship team. The Americans fared well right from the start, sending four women and three men to the heats.
Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins, and Ida Sargent placed 4th through 6th respectively in qualification, while Liz Stephen was 30th for the US women.
Maiken Caspersen Falla, who will start the sprint for Norway at Worlds, set the pace, ahead of Kari Oyre Slind, and Astrid Jacobsen.
Falla was clearly a step ahead of the rest, besting the field by two seconds, and while the US skiers placed well, Bjornsen was a full 5.74 seconds in back of Falla, and over three behind Jacobsen.
In the heats the three top American women all advanced to the semis, with Diggins and Sargent placing first and second in their quarterfinal, and Bjornsen advancing behind another Norwegian World Cup veteran, Ingvild Flugstad Ostberg.
According to Bjornsen, the course was a major factor in the heats.
“Today’s race was all about being the first one off the line,” Bjornsen wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Once you made it past the first straight away, there was literally no passing. Heats always came in the same order they went out.”
Bjornsen had a strong start in her quarter, making it to the first corner in the lead, but in the semis she was a bit slower off the start.
“My semi was not the best – just a little stutter made a difference out there. So I came out of the stadium in 5th, tried about three different times to get by, but couldn’t get it,” she said.
That semi was the fastest, and produced both lucky losers, one of whom was Sargent, just ahead of Bjornsen at the line. Diggins placed sixth in the second semifinal, and joined Bjornsen on the sidelines for the last round.
In the finals, Sargent placed fifth, but US head coach Chris Grover noted that the course was a factor in her race as well
“Ida may have had the strength to pass at least one more person, but there just wasn’t space to get by,” Grover said.
Sargent has been looking to regain the form that made her a contender for the World Cup heats early in the season, and was pleased with her day.
“It was a fun day of racing and really great to have four American women in the heats,” she told FasterSkier. “Any time we get to race heats against these women, who can be competitive on the World Cup, it’s really good experience.”
Bjornsen was also happy to get some more high-level racing under her belt. She told FasterSkier that this was her first international skate sprint.
“This is a good confidence boost going into the Champs…If any of us put together good or exceptional qualifiers, I think it is a realistic goal to make it into the heats [in Oslo],” she said.
And like Sargent, Bjornsen saw the race as an opportunity to hone skills against a tough field.
“I think that the qualifier showed where I could ski,” she said. “The heats maybe didn’t play out as I would hope, but the more practice I can get skiing varied types of heats as far as tactics, speeds, and skills, the better.”
Grover was cautiously optimistic with the day’s results, and happy that the younger skiers had the chance to race the heats. He did note that the gaps in both qualifying and the heats demonstrated that there is still some ground to make up on the top skiers.
The US women are clearly hungry for more however, with Bjornsen summing up the day: “Skiing fast in the qualifier is great and all, but skiing fast until the end of the day is the magic.”
Overall Sargent placed fifth, Bjornsen ninth, Diggins 11th, and Stephen 30th. Morgan Arritola also competed for the US, missing the heats, and finishing 42nd.
Grover said that he was “impressed” with the performances, but not surprised as these women had been skiing fast at Scandinavian Cup races in Latvia and Estonia.
The men’s race also featured a number of top Norwegians, including World Championship sprint team members Oystein Pettersen and Anders Gloeersen.
But despite the Scandinavian firepower, and the presence of Andy Newell, it was Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain who set the pace in qualification. Gloeersen was second, just over a second back, with Newell third less than one tenth behind the Norwegian.
Fellow American Torin Koos qualified fourth, and Simi Hamilton tenth.
Musgrave, who is currently living and training in Norway, skied well at the U23 Championships, with a best finish of sixth. But he is working for more, and today’s qualification was a good sign.
Unfortunately he was missing the magic Bjornsen spoke of, and was eliminated in the first quarterfinal, as was Hamilton.
Koos advanced to the semis, placing behind the younger Northug, Tomas, in the second quarter, and Newell also advanced, placing second in the final heat of the first round.
In the first semi, Koos matched up with Northug again, with the same result – the two men took the first spots and moved on to the final. Newell placed third, behind Gloeersen and Eirik Brandsdal,, but moved on as a lucky loser.
Gloeersen and Brandsdal took the top spots in the final, with Northug rounding out the podium. Koos placed fourth and Newell fifth.
Newell arrived in Europe just a few days ago, and viewed the race as a tune-up, noting that a hard effort right after travel can “suck,” but may also help with jet-lag.
“Today felt a little tough because I have been on an extreme rest/taper period so I haven’t done anything hard in about 10 days,” Newell wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “So I really need races like this to jump start the system before the next World Cup.”
Grover noted that many of the US veterans hadn’t raced in some time.
“This was a chance for them to get some starts on, and start warming up for Drammen and the Worlds,” he said. “And for the younger guys, coming over from U23s and World Juniors, this was an opportunity for them to get some more experience at this level.”
Musgrave ended the day in 21st, and Hamilton in 26th.
Tad Elliott just missed qualifying for the heats, placing 31st, just .11 seocnds out of 30th.
Junior Skyler Davis also competed for the US, finishing 46th in the 131 skier field.
Koos reportedly dislocated his shoulder when his pole was stepped on in the final. There is concern that he may have partially ruptured a tendon, though with the swelling it is too early to tell.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.