Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) bided her time, letting Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR) lead the final in the skate sprint in Szklarska Poreba, Poland before using a strong finish to take her second victory of the season.
The trail to the top of the podium was hardly easy, packed with star power despite the early exits of Marit Bjørgen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL). In addition to Ingemarsdotter, Falla and Kikkan Randall, the final featured the always dangerous Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), Russian Natalia Matveeva, currently second in the overall Sprint Cup, and the lone upstart of the bunch, Laure Barthelemy (FRA).
Perhaps with the exception of Bathelemy, it would not have been a surprise to see any one of those women lead the field to the line. What did turn heads, however, was the aforementioned absence of both Bjørgen and Kowalczyk.
The pair has been locked in a tight battle for the overall World Cup lead, and are clearly established as head and shoulders above the rest of field—at least in distance races. But despite having eight sprint podiums combined this season, both were knocked out in a stacked quarterfinal, a heat won by Randall.
For once, that is enough about Bjørgen and Kowalczyk. The woman of the day, Ingemarsdotter notched her first sprint victory since besting both Falla and Randall in downtown Milan in January.
The Swede didn’t make it easy for herself, struggling in qualifying with just the 22nd fastest time before grabbing the final lucky loser spot in the semis to advance.
Randall, who was also uncharacteristically slow in qualifying, won both her quarter and semi with poise, looking in control after sitting out the previous World Cup weekend as she recovered from illness.
The Szklarska Poreba sprint course, at 1.6k is long, yet relatively flat, with just a single climb that barely kicked skiers from V2 to V1.
The result was a tightly packed field over the first part of the loop with just the on opportunity to attack coming later.
Several skiers used the crest of the hill, with the subsequent plateau before the descent, as the spot to make a move.
Jacobson executed this perfectly in the quarterfinals, gapping the field, and holding on for the top spot.
Such tactics, however, were not without risk as the extended technical descent provided plenty of opportunity for closing.
Given her performance in the first two heats, and her tendency to increase speed throughout the day, Randall entered the final as the favorite.
She was unable to clear the start line at the front however, and headed out of the stadium in the middle of the pack—finding herself in a similar position to the sprint in Slovenia earlier this year.
In that race, she crashed, and was out of the race before it started. Potential disaster struck this time around as well when Matveeva skied over one of Randall’s skis, taking both out.
The Russian went down hard, completely turned around. But Randall was back on her feet in moments, and with Falla taking the race out at a conservative pace, all was not lost.
By the time the group reached the climb, Randall was back on board. She immediately went wide, moving up on the hill, and gaining position to counter any attack over the top.
“I knew I still needed to move up so I tried to make a move up the outside,” Randall wrote in an email following the race.
When Falla accelerated into the downhill, she was unable to get away, and Ingemarsdotter took the lead into the hard left turn above the stadium.
“Towards the top of the hill, the others responded and we all pushed hard over the top,” Randall continued.
She maneuvered into third, and as the race gained the finish stretch, Randall hit the gas and moved into the lead on the inside.
Over the last two years, as Randall has established herself as the top skate sprinter in the world, this position has been as good as gold, and it appeared that the American was on-track for a stunning comeback and her third win of the season.
This time, however, as the meters ticked away, Randall began to falter. She looked tired, and unsteady on her skis. Ingemarsdotter gained slowly, and then more quickly, driving by in the center, with Falla moving up on the outside.
The Norwegian used a superior lunge to take second, flip-flopping the lower podium spots from Milan.
“When I went to switch into my finishing gear, I didn’t have my full power left and I couldn’t fight off Ingemarsdotter and Falla who were closing hard,” Randall said. “I think that early surge to catch back up drained my finish power.”
Randall was satisfied with third despite entering the race hoping for the victory, Her body felt good, and she was able to come back from a potentially race-ending crash.
Ingemarsdotter’s attack in the downhill was no coincidence. In a post-race interview, she said she planned the move, hoping to surprise her competitors with a tactic she did not employ in the earlier heats.
With Matveeva straggling across the line in 6th after the crash, Randall still picked up valuable ground in the Sprint Cup. She is now 129 points up on the Russian, and 178 ahead of Falla.
Ingemarsdotter is moving up, and has won five of the last seven head-to-head sprint meetings with Randall. But her absence in two early races that Randall won have put her in a big hole.
Only three sprints remain on the docket, all of the classic variety, and with the lead, Randall’s destiny will be in her own hands.
“I am getting quite attached to the red bib so I hope I will keep until the end,” Randall said at the post-race press conference.
– Barthelemy set a career-best with her 4th place result, a performance that catapulted into the Red Group for next period.
– Kowalczyk ended up in 16th, her only finish outside the top-7 since placing 24th in the Rogla, Slovenia sprint in December.
– Bjørgen was even further back in 22nd, the only time she has been outside of the top-7 all season, and amazingly just the second time she has missed the podium in a World Cup race in 2011-2012.
– Eight different nations were represented in the top-12.
– Agnieszka Szymanczak (POL) scored her first career World Cup points in front of a boisterous home crowd, placing 27th in her 13th World Cup start. The 27-year-old qualified 21st.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.