At the far end of a fjord in southwest Norway, a handful of the world’s best cross country skiers gathered on Thursday to race each other up 7.5 k of winding road on rollerskis. Hundreds of spectators lined the last few meters of the Lysebotn Opp with to cheer on their favorite athletes in the first race of the 2012 Blink Festival.
In the women’s race the Norwegian fans were not disappointed. Therese Johaug (NOR) won the senior competition by 59 seconds; she clocked in at 32:34 to beat Marit Bjoergen’s winning time from last year by three full minutes. Heidi Weng (NOR) took silver for the home team and fended off American Liz Stephen by two seconds.
“I took it easy on the [flat], it’s on the slopes to be determined,” Johaug said to Sandnesposten at the finish. “And then I just grew slowly but surely on the way up. I got feedback that there were more and more seconds to the field behind.”
Though Johaug was untouchable, second place came down to a sprint between Weng and Stephen. Weng managed to pull away by two seconds at the end, but Stephen was happy with third.
“No matter what the race, getting on the podium you have to be happy,” Stephen said. “We had an awesome day, definitely.”
Stephen and teammate Kikkan Randall, who finished sixth, took the race out cautiously at the start and gradually made their way through the field. The Americans are in Norway without a support crew, and decided to stay out of trouble and hope they wouldn’t need a replacement pole.
“The start was really crazy, and rollerskiing is even crazier. It’s so easy to break things out there,” Stephen said. “Kikkan and I were pretty careful…and as a result didn’t have great starts, but it’s a long uphill race so we could make up time.”
Randall finished sixth (+3:32) behind Kaisa Makarainen (FIN) and Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR). The 2012 World Cup sprint champion is working on her climbing, and was satisfied with the effort.
“I know hill climbing is not usually my strength, so I looked at it as a chance to jump in and try some things out,” Randall said. “It was fun to ski with Liz for a little bit and push myself. I’m happy with the way I felt; hopefully this experience will come in handy down the road when we’re doing the final climb in the Tour de Ski.”
The climb was a new experience for the Americans in many respects. Before the race on Thursday, neither had taken part in a rollerski event the size of Blink. They took a ferry across the fjord to get to the start, where they strapped on standardized Swenor rollerskis along with the rest of their competitors. The course briefly went through a dark tunnel and finished on a 10% grade amidst spectators who ran after the athletes with the kind of energy usually seen on a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
“It was pretty fun to finish with everyone cheering on top of you, cheering really loud as you’re pushing your limit,” Randall said. “That was a really cool feeling, a little bit like what the Tour de France must feel like.”
The Blink organizers invited the Randall and Stephen to the festival and took care of their flight and lodging expenses. They are taking this three-day skishow as an opportunity to do something new and get back in racing action in the middle of the off season.
“It’s so cool to be over here and be around all the World Cup athletes in the summer,” Stephen said. “I think Kikkan and I are having a blast.”
Manificat and Gaillard Go 1-2 in Men’s Race
After 7.5 k, the men’s field was still close at the top of the climb, but only one color was visible as the racers neared the finish: the neon yellow of France’s OneWay suits. Although Norwegians Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Simen Andreas Sveen were near the front early on, it was Maurice Manificat and Jean Marc Gaillard sprinting against one another for the win.
“I felt refreshed and nice up the whole hill, and tried to run away from the field just before the finish,” Manificat told Romsdals Budstikke, a Norwegian daily paper. “It was wonderful to be able to cross the finish line first… it is fantastic to be here with so many people cheering us up the hill.”
Gaillard finished just 1.8 seconds behind Manificat, with Curdin Perl of Switzerland five seconds back and Sveen another five. Sundby placed fifth, followed by Norwegian biathlon star Emil Hegle Svendsen and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna.
Racing resumes on Friday evening with a 10/15 k criterium-style race. See the complete Blink Festival schedule here.
Chelsea Little contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.