The Lahti Corner — the notoriously sketchy 180-degree downhill hairpin that stumps many experienced World Cup skiers every season — lived up to its reputation on Sunday in the third-to-last sprint of the year. If it wasn’t taking out several athletes at once, it was otherwise dictating tactics and forcing skiers into awkward snowplows around its icy arc.
For Kikkan Randall, who led the Americans in fifth, the corner’s penchant for carnage necessitated extra attention in preparation. The sprint specialist scouted out potential lines around the turns during her warm up, which in competition translated to her using the corners to make up ground on her competitors.
“I was really enjoying them,” Randall said.
After notching the fifth-fastest qualifier, Randall skied a flawless quarterfinal. She pulled away from a field before the corner, opening a gap on Charlotte Kalla (SWE) before dropping into the stadium.
In the semis, Randall closed down the early lead that Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) put on her competitors, again making up ground around the technical corners to come in second and advance to the last round.
When it came time for the final, Randall said she was simply too fatigued to hang with the leaders, and crossed the line in fifth 7.1 seconds behind the winner, Marit Bjørgen (NOR).
As the top-ranked sprinter on the World Cup with multiple podiums this season, anything outside the top three might seem like a let-down by comparison. But Randall said that overall, she’s satisfied with her race.
“I felt strong all day — got a little tired in the final,” Randall said. “But overall I think it was very important for overall standings.”
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover agreed.
“She went out and did exactly what she needed to do,” he said.
Randall now sits 138 points ahead of Natalia Matveeva (RUS) at the top of the World Cup sprint standings, but as she moves into the final two sprints of the season — both classic — she said she’s trying not to think too much about rankings.
The rest of the U.S. women didn’t fare quite as well. Ida Sargent was the next American across the line in 52nd, Holly Brooks was 54th and Jessie Diggins finished 66th.
“I don’t think Ida felt her skis gave her enough kick,” said Grover. “She liked them warming up, but not during the race.”
He said Brooks still isn’t feeling totally “on” since arriving back in Europe after winning the 50 k American Birkebeiner.
As for Diggins’ uncharacteristic 66th: “My head just wasn’t in it at all,” she wrote in an email. “I don’t have any excuses; the wax was great, skis were great, I just wasn’t having a good race today.”
On the men’s side, the U.S. showing was headlined by Simi Hamilton’s 11th-place finish, a career best in classic sprinting.
“It was a great day,” Hamilton said. “I don’t really have much experience classic sprinting at this level so I’m really psyched to have qualified well, and the conditions definitely suited me.”
The snow in Lahti was “fast, icy, and hard-packed” — conditions in which Hamilton feels he usually skis best.
After posting the 13th-best qualifier, Hamilton lined up for the quarterfinals against what ended up being one of the fastest fields. The group, which included Swedish sprinters Simon Persson and Robin Bryntesson, was tightly packed even through the stadium.
Hamilton appeared boxed out as they came around the corner into the final straightaway, but a strong final double-pole surge and lunge for the line gave him a photo-finish for second with Bryntesson. His lunge wasn’t quite good enough to automatically advance him, but Hamilton’s was the fifth and final quarter to run, and he made it through as the lucky loser.
“I worked a lot this summer on really steep striding — quick, light on my skis — and there were points on the course I really had to do that,” said Hamilton. “I made the most of that climb.
The sprint course in Lahti starts with a long ascent that forced many to break into a herringbone for the final few strides.
Grover said Hamilton had been striding the climbs well all week.
“He’s been really flying up the big steep hill, and that’s what he did in his quarter,” said Grover.
For his semifinal, in which Hamilton finished sixth, “I just ran out of gas,” he said.
Up the long, gradual climb out of the start, Hamilton was positioned on the inside. A 180-degree turn waited at the top, and skiers cut to the best line in anticipation, squeezing Hamilton until he was practically on top of the course barriers.
“I definitely got caught on a V-board, but it wasn’t an important part of the course,” he said. “I wasn’t too worried.”
But the effort of his quarterfinal minutes earlier had him spent for the remainder of the round.
“I was definitely feeling the effect of skiing so hard right before,” he said.
It had initially been unclear whether Hamilton had the first- or second- fastest lucky-loser time, which determined the semifinal he skied in. He soon learned that his time was fastest, and had the duration of the women’s semis to get ready to go again.
“It was a really quick turnaround between my quarter and my semi,” said Hamilton.
Regardless, he was happy with 11th, which is a classic sprint career-best.
“It was definitely one of my big goals to not leave Europe without having qualified for one classic sprint, so I’m psyched to get that done especially after so many close calls early in the year,” he said, alluding to the two other classic sprints this season in which he finished outside the rounds in 33rd and 34th.
Andy Newell was the only other American to make the heats, and he got knocked out in the quarters to finish 15th overall. He and Kent Ove Clausen (NOR) fell victim to Lahti Corner and took each other out, each falling on the ice. Newell managed to recover and finish third in his heat, 2.6 seconds behind Nikolay Morilov (RUS).
“It was a bummer, but I felt good climbing and double poling,” said Newell.
Newell was in third coming into the corner right behind Clausen. When Clausen put on the brakes for the hairpin, Newell made the split-second decision to try to ski on his inside rather than go wide, and didn’t quite make it.
“It was just as much my fault as his,” Newell said.
Behind Hamilton and Newell, the U.S. entered every man they could have. Sylvan Ellefson was 62nd, Mike Sinnott was 81st, Noah Hoffman finished 84th and Kris Freeman was 85th.
Sinnott and Freeman both fell in their qualifiers.
“I fell right in the stadium at the start,” Sinnott wrote in an email. “As the start track joined the heat tracks, I changed lanes, put my pole between my legs, and fell. Super classy.”
The World Cup moves to Norway next week, beginning with the Drammen classic sprint on Wednesday and distance races in Oslo the following weekend.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.