OBERHOF, Germany – Kikkan Randall (USA) picked up right where she left off before the holiday break, notching another top-10 result in the opening stage of the Tour de Ski.
Randall placed tenth in the 3.1km skate race with teammates Liz Stephen and Holly Brooks in 37th and 53rd respectively.
For Randall this is merely a continuation of a stellar season. She was just 7.2 seconds behind winner Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and will be in perfect position for Thursday’s classic pursuit.
Her goal entering the race was to crack the top-10, a mark she achieved while continuing to show the consistent improvement that she has all year. Last season in this same event, she was 16th, while tackling her first Tour.
Randall may have been a rookie last year, but Stephen did her one better this time around, not only starting her first Tour de Ski, but also her first ever prologue.
US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Groverv said that Stephen was satisified with her performance, “but not ecstatic.”
“This is nice for her,” Grover said of the effort. “It takes awhile to figure out how to ski fast [in a prologue].
Grover pointed out that both Randall and Andy Newell struggled mightily in their first prologues and have steadily improved as they figured out the unique pacing needed for a race that is not a sprint, but is only seven to eight minutes long.
Stephen is generally stronger over longer distances, performing better in 10k’s than 5k’s and even better still in 15k’s. But according to Grover, she has been working hard to improve her all-around skiing, so while she may not be mistaken for a short distance specialist, Grover could easily see her cracking the top-30 a year from now.
Of the trio of American women, only Brooks had a race that can be termed subpar.
Also competing in her first Tour, Brooks has jumped a significant level this year in an extended World Cup sojourn. She has regularly been in the points and is within striking distance of the Red Group.
With that as a measuring stick, placing well outside the top-30 is not what the Alaskan is looking for.
Grover was unconcerned, telling FasterSkier that experience is a big part of the picture—both with the prologue distance and the World Cup venues.
One goal of the USST has been to help skiers like Brooks, Stephen, and the young group of Ida Sargent, Simi Hamilton, Noah Hoffman and Tad Elliott build familiarity with World Cup race courses—the key being several years in a row at the regular stops on the circuit.
For the Tour racers, the matter was not helped by the fact that the full prologue course was not available for preview yesterday due to poor snow conditions.
Brooks is also dealing with a wrist injury that she incurred in a fall while running over Christmas.
She said that it felt better today in the race than in training yesterday, and that she is treating it with anti-inflammatory medication on the advice of the Norwegian team doctor.
Fast Tracks and Sketchy Corners
Sub-freezing temperatures overnight allowed the course to set up hard—a big improvement over the 12” of sugar that greeted athletes on Wednesday.
This made for fast skiing and an exceptionally hard downhill corner, a 180-degree turn set where the shorter women’s course split from the men’s loop on a significant descent.
Brooks said she skied the corner “really conservative,” and was “a little embarrassed” by her tactics.
But she felt burning speed was critical as a fall would take a skier out of contention in the tightly packed field, and that it “would be like falling on concrete.”
Several women did fall, including Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) who was second at the top of the climb, and slipped to 18th after her crash, and Brooks was certainly not alone in playing it safe.
Randall approached the turn on the tails of a Russian woman who was vigorously snowplowing, and opted for aggressiveness. She was almost undone when the Russian, Anastasia Dostenko, an unseeded skier who started 30 seconds up, veered suddenly, leaving Randall on the verge of crashing.
Other than the icy corner, the course did not break down, much to Randall’s pleasure.
“I like it when it’s hard and fast like this,” Randall said, noting that the conditions were vastly superior to the previous day.
Brooks on the other hand found the hard pack somewhat challenging.
Her skis slipped out on the steeper climbs, and she said “It’s hard to go hard. If you’re too aggressive, you just flail more.”
Despite not having her best day, Brooks was still only 33 seconds off the winner, and will have plenty of opportunity to move up in the pursuit.
Overall she felt “ok” and saw the prologue as an opportunity to get the engine firing on all cylinders after the 10-day break from racing over the holidays.
Most elite skiers race practically every weekend, so it sometimes takes a hard effort get going after an extended rest.
Randall, however, was ready to go from the gun, and is being looked at as a potential challenger for a top-5 result in the overall Tour. Such expectations do not seem to faze her.
“My goal this season has just been to just approach every race, and be ready to race with everything I have, so that’s the way I’m going to continue,” Randall said following the prologue. “I definitely have some good targets of what I want to chase after, but mostly I just want to go out every day and ski my hardest.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.