Kikkan Randall (USA) has three more races before her 2011 World Cup campaign comes to an end, and given her career-best distance finish of 11th last weekend, there is no reason that she couldn’t be in contention for a strong result in the World Cup Finals mini-tour.
But at this point, such a performance would merely be icing on the cake. With another strong classic sprint in the Stockholm city sprint, Randall sewed up the first US podium finish in the season-long Sprint Cup, placing third, just seven points behind Italy’s Arianna Follis.
The podium result was not guaranteed entering the final short distance competition – a classic affair on the streets of Stockholm. Randall began the day in third, but with the always-dangerous Marit Bjoergen breathing down her neck, and Follis and Petra Majdic (SLO) within reach ahead, every point mattered.
“Coming into today I knew I had to lay down a really good result and fight for every point,” Randall said in an interview following the race. The battle for the Sprint Cup “added another exciting element” to the annual event held on the doorstep of the King of Sweden.
According to US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover everyone was well aware of what was at stake, but “before the race, we’re not talking about it. We’re just focused on the things we can control.”
The day started well for the American star – she qualified in 13th, a ranking not quite on par with the fifth she turned in last weekend in the Lahti classic sprint, but plenty good for a skier for whom classic qualification has not always been guaranteed.
She drew a tough quarterfinal, including Bjoergen, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), Celine Brun-Lie (NOR) and Follis. With Bjoergen and Follis on the line next to her, Randall held her Sprint Cup destiny in her own hands.
Bjoergen took the lead right out of the gate – no surprise. The winner of five medals, including gold in the sprint, at the Oslo World Championships, Bjoergen looked in control off the front. But the rest of the pack remained tight.
Randall sat in fourth through a majority of the race. The Stockholm course features a climb shortly after the start, and then is exclusively double poling until another significant ascent to the finish.
“I tried to stay relaxed where I was and then make sure to put a really solid punch in that last climb,” Randall said of her strategy.
The tactic worked out as planned. With plenty of room to move on the last hill, Randall drove up into third, getting clear of Follis, and staying within striking distance of Kowalczyk in second.
“When I was hanging pretty solidly with the group through the double pole section, I didn’t try to make any moves to move up because I knew that the final climb would be a strong point for me,” Randall said.
She would not be able to catch the Pole – one of the best classic climbers on the circuit, and guarantee a spot in the semis. But with Bjoergen pushing at the front, the heat clocked in as the fastest quarterfinal and Randall was through as a lucky loser.
“Usually Bjoergen and Kowalczyk push the pace from the beginning so it is nice to know that even if you aren’t in the top-2 you still have a shot to move on,” Randall explained of her heat.
But she didn’t spend much time worrying about who she matched up with, saying “I wasn’t concerned with who I drew because I knew it was going to be a fun good hard fight, and I could still do it.”
And while the tough heat provided the advantage of the fast pace and a good shot at the lucky loser, Randall liked her chances regardless of whom she skied against.
“I would like to think I could have been competitive in all the other heats to be in the top 2,” she said.
Not only did she advance, keeping pace with Bjoergen, but her effort knocked Follis out. With only half points awarded for the race – it is the first stage of the World Cup Final mini-tour, making up enough ground on the Italian would be difficult, but not impossible.
More importantly, with advancement to the semis, Randall locked up the Sprint Cup podium. If Bjoergen won, Randall would need at least a 19th place finish to stay ahead. Advancement out of the quarterfinals guaranteed a top-12.
There was no time to celebrate and still the possibility of moving up to second, with the semifinal still to come. Randall employed the same approach, but was unable to hold the position she needed through the double pole.
“The strategy worked well in the quarter but I needed to keep a little closer touch in the semi to use the same strategy but overall it was pretty good,” she said. “There were a couple key moments in the double pole where maybe I got bogged down a little bit and kind of lost touch with the group.”
She described her striding in the heat as “really good,” and did make up ground on the last hill, but was too far back to get into position to advance.
The day came to an end with a 10th place finish – matching the best World Cup classic performance of her career, and the first time, racing that technique, that she made the semifinals in a full European World Cup field.
Randall would have needed to make the finals to pass Follis in the Sprint Cup standings, and with Petra Majdic (SLO) winning the race, the overall win was out of reach.
In Lahti last weekend, Randall qualified fifth in the classic sprint, a performance that would have been a good day in her preferred skate technique. She had some issues with her skis in the quarterfinals, and did not advance, but with back-to-back strong races, she feels she has raised her classic sprinting to a new a level.
“I would say I have definitely taken a step forward,” Randall told FasterSkier. She said she was not surprised, however. “It’s just been something I have been constantly working toward, and it is nice that it is finally clicking.”
She also noted that her fitness is excellent right now and she is carrying significant momentum from a record-breaking season.
The Sprint Cup was not even on her radar coming into the World Championship year. She and coach Erik Flora identified the 2012 season as a good time to target the season-long rankings, what with no major Championship event.
“We kind of planned our racing around racing well in Oslo,” Randall said, but when she won the post-Tour de Ski sprint in Liberec and took over the red sprint leader’s bib, she wasn’t going to back down.
“While I wasn’t expecting to do it, once I got the bib and was up there, I really wanted to stay on the podium,” she said.
Her training and racing plan called for a long block of World Championship preparation at home in Alaska following Liberec. So she never had an opportunity to actually race in the red bib at that point. She missed the next sprint, and Follis moved by her.
But in the last race before Oslo, in Drammen, Norway, Randall won yet again, and retook the top spot.
She is already looking ahead to next year, and sees the overall Sprint title as well within reach.
“If I can continue to improve my classic skiing and keep getting on the podium and winning some skate sprints, I think I have a really solid shot for the overall and that would be pretty darn exciting,” Randall said.
The previous American best in one of the “small globe” competitions – the informal name for the distance and sprint World Cup rankings – was Andy Newell’s fourth in the sprint version last year. Newell entered the final competition within striking distance of the podium, but came up just short.
He still received an award at the season-ending ceremonies in Falun, a moment that Randall remembers well.
“I kind of thought ‘I would like to do that to.’ He definitely inspired me so it is great to have that come true this year.”
She saw Newell’s performance as “a statement, to be solid all season,” and that the “belief and confidence” of the US Ski Team is on a steady upward trend.
The current World Cup Finals mini-tour standings mirror the Stockholm results – until Friday’s classic prologue. Randall is in good position and skiing fast.
“The way that the distance skiing is going, it could be a really good little mini-tour here for her,” Grover said.
“I got the taste of a good distance result last weekend and today is starting off the tour really strong,” Randall added. Sometimes these mini-tour events can be very good for me, so I’m really just looking forward to fighting up there and trying to keep pushing the level up a little higher.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.