MILAN, Italy – The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, runners circle the Parco Sempione in shorts, on benches couples stare lovingly into each others eyes—just another Saturday morning in the center of Milan.
Or is it? Among these scenes of urban tranquility, in the shadow of the looming Castello Sforzesco, the fastest skiers in the world engage in ritual battle, competing for a one of 30 spots in the sprint heats.
The World Cup continues this morning in Italy, with the second Sprint Weekend of the year. Men and women skied two loops around the park for a total of 1.3 kilometers on rapidly softening snow.
There is not a hill of note on the course, but nor is there a second of rest.
“It’s deceivingly hard,” American Simi Hamilton said of the course after qualifying. “You have to pin it the whole way…there is no recovery. You are just skiing the whole way.”
Hamilton qualified in 23rd, just under six second behind the fastest man, Matias Strandvall (FIN).
Hamilton was forced out of the Tour de Ski early due to illness, but says he is feeling strong.
Hamilton was joined in the heats by fellow American Andy Newell, who qualified eight, and Canadian Len Valjas, who was 17th.
Kikkan Randall led North American women in 11th. The favorite entering the race, Randall was 4.65 seconds behind Anne Kylloenen (FIN), who gave the Finn’s the fastest male and female in qualifying.
“You just gotta find a good rhythm and just really work, and pace it right so you can be strong at the end,” Randall told FasterSkier.
the flat course does not mean it is easy by any means. Skiers were still collapsed in the finish area, a fact Randall attributes to skiing “the same motion all around.”
The course held up relatively well for the women, but by the time the men hit the track, the snow was rapidly softening. With six skier heats to start in less than an hour, the corners will be serious mush.
According to Randall, there are not many places to pass, and getting out quickly will be key this afternoon.
“Especially on the backstretch it kind of weaves a little bit, “ Randall said. “So if someone is taking the best line there are not going to be a lot of places to pass.”
But she pointed to two spots that will give “room to move”—past the wax cabins and in the lap/finish stretch.
One of the three Candian women to advance, Perianne Jones, agree with Randall on the rhythm front.
“You can really just get into your one-skate [V2 alternate] and just go for it,” Jones said. “I have definitely never skied anything so flat in my life.”
In qualifying, after the first skiers went through, there was some strategy through the corners.
American Ida Sargent felt she lost time by taking the more skied inside line, as opposed to the firmer wide route.
Hamilton opted to go wide, citing the speed, but men’s Sprint Cup leader, and second qualifier today, Alexei Petukhov (RUS) took the turn out of start/lap area tight each time through.
The same cannot be said for Oystein Petersen (NOR), who along with his countrymen, all moved well to the outside
Norway placed four in the heats, with three qualifying in the top-9, so the strategy clearly worked.
Not for Petersen, however, as the charismatic sprinter managed just the 35th best time.
Also on the outside is Tomas Northug (NOR), brother of Petter, who was 32nd.
All four Canadians who started qualified for the heats, with Chandra Crawford in 18th, Jones in 28th and Dasha Gaiazova in 29th for the women in addition to Valjas.
The US advanced Newell, Hamilton, Randall, and Jessie Diggins, just over from the US.
Diggins qualified in 21st.
Mike Sinnott was the lone American man to miss the top-30, catching a tip in the soft snow, and crashing.
Sadie Bjornsen, sick since she headed back to the US after her first World Cup stint of the season, appears back in form, but was disappointed to miss te heats. She finished 31st, .14 seconds out of 30th.
Ida Sargent, also newly returned to Europe, rounded out the American women’s squad in 43rd.
Overall both fields are somewhat watered down compared to most World Cup races. With the Tour de Ski wrapping up less than a week ago, many skiers are in recovery mode.
There is plenty of firepower at the front, but not quite the depth.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.