MILAN, Italy – Eat your heart out Justyna Kowalczyk, there is a new sheriff in town — or in this case, sheriffs, and they are hanging out in central Milan.
Kowalczyk, the ironwoman of cross-country skiing, who rarely misses a race, is back in Poland, recovering from the Tour de Ski, and preparing for the next phase of World Cup racing, while Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) and Kikkan Randall (USA) are duking it out in the lovely Parco Sempione.
Ingemarsdotter bested Randall in the homestretch of the freestyle city sprint in front of a reported crowd of 20,000 boisterous spectators, a 1-2 finish by women who completed the entire Tour just six days ago — the phrase “no rest for the weary” has never been so apt.
While the likes of Kowalczyk, Marit Bjørgen (NOR) and a host of others (including a high percentage of the men’s field) are off licking their wounds, Ingemarsdotter and Randall survived the usual mishaps of city sprinting to stage a thrilling run for the line.
It is unlikely anyone from the organizing committee counted every person who strolled by the event, but if all comers are counted, from the passionate Federico Pellegrino fan club, bedecked in matching t-shirts and custom buffs, to the confused tourists wandering out of the museums of the Castello Sforzesco, there very well may have been a crowd worthy of one of the world’s great city.
The fans lined both sides of the 650-meter loop, packed half-a-dozen deep in some places, cheering raucously for everyone, though saving the most vigourous bell clanging, air-horn tooting, and cries of “die die die” (Italian for “go go go”) for the home team.
They were not disappointed on this sunny day, balmy by any measure of a ski race, with the performance of Randall, the top sprinter in the world.
The American entered the race as the clear favorite, especially with Bjørgen absent, and a victory in the November city sprint in Dusseldorf, where she flawlessly navigated the tight turns and narrow course with precision.
As become the norm, Randall was able to stay relaxed toward the front of her quarterfinal, cruising across the line behind top qualifier Anne Kylloenen (FIN), another Tour survivor.
The semis, however, presented another challenge.
While Swedish coach Rikard Grip sung the praises of the Milan course, pointing to ample opportunities to pass, advancing was no simple cone of gelato.
Each heat started tightly packed, and there was a surprising lack of carnage on the first corner — perhaps a testimony to the fine layout Grip congratulated as the turn offered plenty of space, and did not angle a full 90 degrees.
For those who enjoy roller derby, or watch NASCAR for the crashes, there was still plenty of damage, with a number of crashes and countless broken poles.
Randall was coming off a strong second place in the Toblach skate sprint, but crashed in her previous two outings, at significant cost.
Early in her semifinal, while trying to move back up after a bad start, she bumped with Swiss skier Laurien Van der Graaff, who was taking a tight line in front of Randall, and disaster almost ensued.
“I felt my weight kind of go to my heels and one ski go up in the air, and I went ‘no way, not this time,’” Randall told FasterSkier.
Whether it was force of will, or just excellent ski handling, Randall recovered and set about the task of regaining position, only to avoid a second close call when Finland’s Mona-Lisa Malvalehto, skiing to the American’s side, went down.
“It was definitely wild out there,” Randall said.
Despite the challenges, Randall was able to move through the field, taking the top spot ahead of Kylloenen, meaning the two women would match up in the final for the third head-to-head meeting of the day.
Meanwhile Ingemarsdotter was having her own wild ride en route to the finals.
The powerful Swede favors flat courses, but also skis with an Achilles heel that can wipe away any advantage that a city-sprint course might hold.
Grip attributes Ingemarsdotter’s success on gradual terrain to her height and associated power and her ability to ride her skis.
And the weakness?
“She is not that fast in the start,” Grip told FasterSkier. “When the start is really important, she is not making the best result.”
In a tough quarterfinal, with Natalia Matveeva (RUS), Riikka Lilja-Sarasoja (FIN) and Denise Hermrann (GER), among others, Ingemarsdotter suffered worse than a poor start.
Halfway through the first lap another skier hit her pole, breaking the shaft. As luck would have it, a coach stood just meters ahead, and Ingemarsdotter tossed the splintered piece of carbon aside, grabbing the replacement with barely a hiccup.
There is not a hill worth mention in the Parco Sempione, meaning no hard ups, and just as importantly, no rest. This made for a lung-burning interval, and also left nowhere to strap on a ski pole.
Ingemarsdotter said she was trying “just to keep calm and do my work as good as possible,” and stay patient while regaining position.
Impressively, she worked her way through the field to win the heat, tightly gripping the unstrapped pole for the duration.
In the semis, she had no one to blame but herself for any drama. Suffering the slow start that Grip pointed to, she was never able to regain position, but advanced as the second lucky loser.
The day may have been missing many of the big names of the women’s field, but any discerning ski fan would be hard-pressed to put together a stronger final, especially on this course.
Randall, Ingemarsdotter, Kylloenen, Matveeva and Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR), who won the skate sprint in Rogla, and now sits third in the Sprint Cup, just behind Matveeva headed to the start pen together.
The only surprise was 22-year-old Mari Eide (NOR), making her first finals appearance.
Falla, who won both her earlier heats, and appears to enjoy leading from the front, was out early, Randall tucked in behind on the inside, Kylloenen to her left.
The pack remained jammed tight, no one giving an inch, and no one appearing to suffer for the kilometers already raced.
The Finn made the first move halfway through the second lap, with Randall responding to hold second position, dropping Falla back.
It appeared it would come down to those three as the race swung into the homestretch, but Ingemarsdotter took the last turn very wide, skiing significantly more distance, but gaining harder, faster snow.
At that point it became a simple drag race between the two, and for many it may have come as a shock to see the Swede take the win.
Randall had the position to reach the top of the podium, but in hindsight made one critical mistake.
She said she knew Ingemarsdotter was coming, but said, “I think maybe I just relaxed a little too much coming off the final turn and didn’t build momentum soon enough coming into the final [homestretch] there.”
She added that it wasn’t a matter of fatigue, saying “I definitely had the energy left in my legs, so it is one of those things when you cross the finish line and go ,‘Oh I want to do it again.’”
Falla came across in third, edging Matveeva for the last spot on the podium.
While Randall may have felt her legs had everything she needed, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover saw differently from the sidelines.
“I felt like watching her ski she is still carrying some fatigue from the Tour de Ski,” Grover said after the race. “You could see she didn’t have the exact snap that she has had say in Davos or Dusseldorf.”
He was referring to Randall’s two victories this season, but that “given that big of a load [of the Tour], I am super impressed she was on the podium today.”
For her part, Ingemarsdotter pointed to the Tour as helping her find her top form.
“Maybe the Tour de Ski has been a good training session to do a lot of races, and just competing and competing and finding a good shape,” Ingemarsdotter responded when asked for the secret of her success.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.