TOBLACH, Italy – Another day, yet another top-10 for Kikkan Randall.
Randall skied to fifth place in Stage 7 of the Tour de Ski on Thursday—her sixth time in the top 10 in seven stages, and a result that leaves her in fifth place in the overall Tour.
There was a time when a top 10 on the World Cup by an American would be cause for great rejoicing back home. But Randall has made such big improvements over the past few years that such finishes now feel almost routine.
“It’s amazing. Once that bar starts rising, it’s hard to keep that perspective,” she said after her finish on Thursday.
Randall started fourth in Thursday’s race, a 15 k freestyle handicapped by the overall standings of the Tour.
With third-placed Therese Johaug (NOR) more than a minute ahead, Randall was more concerned about the women behind her—a group that included Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) and Charlotte Kalla (SWE)—and she said she set a fairly fast pace out of the start to force them to work to close the gap.
When Lahteenmaki finally caught up, around the six-kilometer mark, Randall said she’d hit a bit of a wall, and couldn’t keep up.
But by the time Kalla came by a few minutes later, things had improved, and Randall dropped in behind. And when Norwegians Marthe Kristoffersen and Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg joined the train headed into the last of three laps, things really picked up.
“They had a really good pace, so then it kind of sparked it and got it going,” Randall said. “I felt the best on the last lap, actually, so that’s when it really got fun, just racing with those guys.”
Oestberg eventually dropped off, but Randall headed into the stadium with Kristoffersen and Kalla on her tails. The Alaskan won the sprint for fifth place, which leaves her in that position in the overall Tour standings heading into Stage 8 on Saturday in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
The Tour’s final two stages—a 10 k classic mass start, then a 9 k freestyle hill climb up a local alpine ski area—will be tough for Randall, she said.
“They’re races I like, but they’re probably the two most difficult races of the Tour, for me personally,” she said. “Last year, I wasn’t as strong as I would have liked to have been in Val di Fiemme on the first day; the hill climb was decent for me. But I feel like my fitness is at a new level this year, so hopefully I can just keep hanging where I’ve been.”
The Americans made the 2.5-hour drive to Val di Fiemme on Thursday evening, after the race, and Randall and her teammate Liz Stephen said that they’d be trying a new strategy for Friday’s off day: a light interval session.
While the idea might seem downright ridiculous following some 45 kilometers of racing over the last week, Randall said the workout is intended to avoid a “flat feeling” after the rest day—something she said she noticed in Tuesday’s stage, which came on the heels of a rest day on Monday.
She’ll have her work cut out for her to hold her fifth-place position, with Kristoffersen and Kalla less than a second behind her in the overall standings. Both of those women were more than a minute faster than Randall in the final climb last year, with Kristoffersen cracking the podium in the stage.
Still, barring a disaster, she should make her goal of cracking the top 15 in the overall. Given that Randall also collected her fourth podium of the year in Wednesday’s skate sprint, it’s hard to consider her results at the Tour so far to be anything less than a huge success—even though people are starting to get used to them, including Randall herself.
“Yesterday, I was really happy to be second, but it was kind of a ho-hum after having a couple wins this season,” she said. “It’s funny how expectations go.”
Stephen had her own success in Thursday’s stage, moving up seven spots, from 41st to 34th.
On the day: “It was great. It was a real turn around for me from the last couple of days. The body was much better. I had a blast out there. I even had one of our friends from Slovenia who was in the race, Barbara [Jezersek]—she was cheering for me like there was no tomorrow [while] racing against me in the race, and that was super awesome.”
“My body was really tired the last couple of days, and to have it show up again today, [it] just goes to show you that it’s not over…Each day’s a new day, and today was a good day for me.”
On how her race unfolded: “I had a typical me start, where I was in the back right off the bat. I’m pretty used to it, so I just try and keep my eyes up and look at the front of the pack, and if there’s a gap, go for it. But it certainly would be in my advantage next year to be able to get to the front of those, because you do spend quite a bit of energy and flusterization trying to figure it out.”
“We were with three Italians. Our group was pretty good. It was really fun to ski with [Swedish skier] Anna Haag, who Kikkan and I trained with this summer. Hopefully I didn’t step on her skis too much and piss her off, but it was awesome to ski with someone you know, you know?“
On the interval workout she had planned for Friday: “[It will be] probably short, probably sparky stuff, maybe more like a couple of five-minute, level three intervals.
And maybe some starts and speeds and stuff, just to sharpen and get ready for the last few days.”
The third American in the race, Holly Brooks, moved up from 55th to 46th.
–Topher Sabot and Jen Mygatt contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.