In the space of one minute at the World Cup Finals, Kikkan Randall (USA) went from contender to collateral damage.
Randall had had a great start to Saturday’s 10 k pursuit in Falun, Sweden—the third event of the four-stage mini-tour that ends the cross-country World Cup season—and she was among the leaders, looking for another personal distance best after her 11th-place in Finland last weekend. Enter Therese Johaug.
“She decided she wanted to be right in the middle of the action,” Randall said.
The tiny Norwegian skied straight into Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter, setting off a large collision that ultimately felled Randall, leaving her on her face in the snow as the sharp end of the race continued on at a blistering pace.
“All of a sudden, I was at the back,” she said. “It was hard to work back up.”
With tricky waxing conditions hindering her chase, the crash essentially quashed Randall’s chances at a good result before she even got started, and she ended up 21st.
Randall’s result was the best of a three-strong North American contingent at the World
Cup Finals. Her teammate Holly Brooks, in 37th, was next, while Canada’s Perianne Jones was 43rd.
As Randall’s experience testified, the classic portion of the women’s race was messy. Brooks chalked that up to the fact that many of the athletes had opted for skis that were slicker on a sunny, gradual climb out of the stadium. That was to avoid icing up in the woods, where things were more powdery.
“It was definitely one of the more chaotic mass starts I’ve been in all year,” Brooks said. “I think most of the people in the field didn’t have much kick, and people were just all over the place—skiing out of the tracks, up the sides, and pile-ups and stuff like that.”
Both Randall and Brooks said that they struggled a bit with their kick on the first part of the course, but as Brooks put it, “if we had gone with something stickier, you would have had stilts in the trees.”
Randall, sitting in 10th in the overall mini-tour standings, had had a good start position in the second row, but her crash left her with a lot of work to do.
At 2.5 kilometers, she was back to 30th; at the exchange to skating, she’d moved up to 26th, in the second pack of women chasing Bjoergen and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL). A “pretty strong” skate leg left her in 21st, just over two minutes down to Bjoergen—respectable, but it wasn’t quite what Randall was looking for. She said that she had been skiing at the same level as a group of women that finished 25 seconds ahead of her, led by Germany’s Katrin Zeller in 11th.
Brooks’s start left her even farther back than Randall at 2.5 kilometers—she was sitting at the tail end of the group, in 45th of 47 starters. Brooks hadn’t crashed; she just got held up by the chain reaction set off by Johaug, and was also trying to ski at her own pace after a tough pursuit in Finland last weekend.
“I just wanted to make sure not to go out too hard,” she said.
The strategy worked. By the exchange, Brooks had picked off four women to move up to 41st, and by the finish, she was fighting with Slovakia’s Alena Prochazkova and Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla for 35th.
In Finland last weekend, Brooks had been out-sprinted by a group that she led into the stadium, and in Falun, she resolved not to make the same mistake again. But coming around the final corner behind Falla, the Norwegian pushed Brooks to the far outside, and she lost some momentum.
Brooks’s last chance came on Falun’s uphill homestretch, but Falla, who has been on the World Cup sprint podium, took the sprint decisively. Brooks and Prochazkova were just behind, with the Slovakian taking 36th, and Brooks finishing in the same tenth of a second to take 37th.
“We had some good jump skating going on,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to jump skate into a lunge.”
In the overall mini-tour standings, Randall is currently sitting in 17th and Brooks in 37th heading into the final day of competition.
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.