The “Ruka Triple” is a three day, three race mini-tour held in Kuusamo, Finland. The excitement started today with a classic sprint, 1.4 km for the men and 1.2 km for the women. The tracks were icy and fast, the kick a straightforward klister, and both men and women’s top finish times posted in the 2:40’s.
In the women’s sprint, Vibeke Skofterud of Norway took the top qualifying time, less than one second ahead of Katja Visnar of Slovenia and 3.5 seconds ahead of teammate and Norwegian super-star Marit Bjoergen.
But in the finals all of that changed. Marit Bjoergen showed she had saved her energy in the qualifications, taking the win in the final in the same manner as she is used to: by charging out of the gate and pulling away on the last uphill, putting enough distance on the field to show she owned the finishing stretch.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE), who qualified in 21st, battled Skofterud for the last two podium spots, and it was Kalla who took silver. Kalla was surprised, saying “I didn’t expect this good race when I woke up in the morning”.
Randall, who had a bad start in the final and found herself gapped by the lead pack as she began the final ascent, had a terrific sprint finish, pulling up behind Skofterud in the last 100 meters and missing the podium by just one half second.
Skofterud, whose only individual world cup podium in the last year was last weekend’s third place (today Bjoergen and Skofterud mimicked their 1st and 3rd podiums at Sjusjoen) was excited for her result.
“I am surprised and very happy because this is my first victory in racing in senior class,” Skofterud remarked after her race. “I am stronger than ever and I have more control on my skiing this year.”
Bjoergen said she was “surprised” at her speed today, but she may have been the only one.
“I am happy with today’s race,” said Bjoergen. “I didn’t know my sprint shape before this but I see it is good. Tomorrow I want go very fast and reach the podium again. Everything is possible.”
Today’s surprise oust was Kowalcyk. She won this year’s sparsely attended early season races in Muonio but did not show her podium form in Sjusjoen, where she took a respectable 10th. Again, today, she could not find the kick she needed, and did not advance out of the quarterfinals.
Randall, who hadn’t even made the qualification round in her last three attempts in Kuusamo, said she “was really psyched to get that monkey off my back” by qualifying 15th. Randall had quite the tough quarterfinal, battling Bjoergen, Kowalczyk and Saarinen, but was able to hold off Kowalczyk to advance. In the semifinals Randall was sitting in the middle of the pack until the final climb, where she was able to pull up to third, and then sprint ahead of Skofterud for second, finishing second behind Kalla.
Today’s best-ever classic sprint result, and first time classic sprint final, marks an important turning point for Randall. She has always been strong in skate sprints but has only recently improved her classic results. Her best classic sprint up until this point was last season’s 10th in Stockholm.
US Sprint Coach Chris Grover remarked, “She’s obviously made a step forward, not only in her technique but also in her fitness.”
Randall voiced the same sentiment when interviewed by fasterskier after her race today. Though she has been working on the endurance of her double pole and has had the opportunity to polish her striding by training on Eagle Glacier this summer, Randall attributes much of today’s classic success to her improved fitness.
“I think overall, the biggest credit I can give is just to the training base I’ve been building up over the last couple years, and then this year I added a little more volume into my plan and I think it’s just given me a really strong platform to work with.”
US Head Coach Chris Grover said that yesterday’s warm snow transformed over a cold and clear night to result in “rock hard, really fast, great track”.
“Everyone liked their skis right from the get-go,” said Grover. “ I think the service team did a really nice job of finding the type of wax for a peak performance such as the one Kikkan had today.”
Randall said her skis were great, and that the toughest part of the race was trying to maintain control through the icy ruts in the downhill tracks.
“With the tracks being so glassy and unstable, it just kind of made for a wild ride out there. I thankfully navigated the downhill pretty solidly each time, so it didn’t end up being a problem, but it definitely made it exciting.”
Randall explains that she lost ground during the final as a result of a poor start, which left her off the back in the downhill and put her out of touch with Bjoergen and Kalla.
Randall was then able to bridge back up to Skofterud and Kylloenen over the top of the final hill. She said she lost her momentum when she tried to stride at the start of the finish stretch instead of double pole, but was still able to overtake Kylloenen.
“Looking back you always know you could do things better and I think, tactically, I could have done a couple things differently, but I’ve never been in the final for a classic sprint so it was just good to be in and close to a podium.”
The Canadian women also saw some success today. Chandra Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova qualified 13th and 10th. Gaiazova was then able to secure a 14th in the heats, Crawford finishing with 22nd.
A strong sprinter, Gaiazova has seen several top-twelve finishes before, and her previous best has been an 8th place print in Otepaa. She was happy about both her skis and her strategy.
“The kick was super-solid and I enjoyed hammering up the main steep hill, having no problem at all with kicking my skis. I remember in some previous years when the snow conditions were so tricky that I had to nearly tip-toe on my skis up this same hill.”
Though she just arrived on Sunday, Gaiazova said that the race pace was much more of an adjustment than the time zone.
“Today I was reminded how aggressive the World Cup sprint races are, as I saw many girls cutting right in front of each other in my heat. It was really fun to race and I am quite happy with my debut race of the season.”
Crawford tweeted that she was psyched with her race because she had succeeded today in what she has been trying to do for the last five years in Kuusamo: qualify in the top 30.
Canadian Coach Justin Wadsworth was surprised that Perianne Jones did not qualify, but was very happy for Gaiazova and Crawford. Wadsworth pointed out that one of Crawford’s goals since May has been to qualify in Kuusamo.
“And she did more than that,” Wadsworth points out, “a tenth place qualification for her in classic is fantastic and it really shows all the work shes done with her classic skiing.”
Though the next highest US result after Randall’s came from Ida Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen, in 43rd and 47th places, Liz Stephen a distant 85th, Grover points to the fact that this sprint race far from determines the overall standings of this mini-tour.
“Because there are two distance races, the small deficits that the sprinters have gained on the distance skiers today gets erased. . . .by Sunday, its almost like a distance race, because the sprint is a distant memory at that point.”
1. Marit Bjoergen, Norway 2.51.1
2. Charlotte Kalla, Sweden + 2.1
3. Vibeke W Skofterud, Norway + 3.9
4. Kikkan Randall, U.S. + 4.5
5. Anne Kyllonen, Finland + 4.8
6. Natalia Matveeva, Russia + 13.8
Other U.S. finishes:: Ida Sargent 43rd, Sadie Bjornsen 47th, Holly Brooks 70th, Liz Stephen 85th
Other Canadian finishes: Dasha Gaiazova 14th, Chandra Crawford 22nd, Perianne Jones 44th, Alysson Marshall 50th
Standings of the Ruuka Mini-Tour after 1st stage:
1. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) 1:51.2
2. Vibeke Skofterud (NOR) + 4.5
3. Charlotte Kalla (SWE) + 8.5