It may have been a relatively relaxed tune-up race, but there was no lack of depth in the field that showed up for the FIS classic sprints in Muonio, Finland, on Friday. Kazakhstan produced an impressive sweep of the podium; Alexey Poltoranin, a traditionally strong sprinter, led the charge while compatriots Nikolay Chebotko and Denis Volotka (KAZ) followed close behind. American Andy Newell, who led much of the final heat, finished fourth after a slight misstep in a steep uphill finish.
Newell said he felt like he could have won the race, but simply got passed on an S-turn downhill coming into the last stretch. He skied at the front early in the final round, just as he’d won the morning qualifier and led each of his quarterfinal and semifinal heats from start to finish.
“I tried to ski in the front and control the race as much as I could. I did that for my first two heats, and in the final I tried to do the same thing,” Newell said. “I led the majority of it but got passed on the downhill… I passed one back in the finish, but then as I herringboned [at the finish] I had a major slip and [Volotka] got me right at the line. So I’m a little disappointed, but it was still a pretty good day.”
Despite jet lag from arriving in Finland on Monday, Newell said he felt fairly good throughout the day. There wasn’t much riding on the outcome, but as it was everyone’s first test of the year against a good international field Newell said he still felt some pre-race nerves.
“I think you’re always a little nervous for the first sprint of the year to see how your body responds to the hard efforts and how you recover between the heats,” he said. “With 300 men starting so it was pretty serious. I was a little nervous, but it’s not a World Cup. It’s pretty low key.”
The rounds were not without aggression, however. Mattias Strandvall (FIN) was disqualified in the quarters for switching lanes in front of Simi Hamilton (USA) in the finishing stretch. Hamilton (USA) advanced to finish eighth overall. Having just arrived in Finland on Tuesday, he thought the race went “pretty well” despite missing his top gear.
“All day, I felt like I was missing some energy during the two long double pole sections,” he said. “I felt very good on the striding sections, of which there were plenty because the course ended up going up a pretty long and steep climb twice.
“I was happy with how I tactically skied the quarter and semi, which was my goal for the day. I was able to get up front early, control the pace and take the best lines, and I was able to make aggressive moves on the sketch downhill to get into the top three in both of the heats.”
The final American competing on Friday was Sylvan Ellefson, who finished 5.98 seconds out of qualifying and placed 66th.
“I felt fast but not snappy,” he said. “Didn’t feel like 66th but I think [it] speaks to the depth of the field here.”
On the whole, U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover was happy that four of his athletes, two men and two women, qualified for the heats.
“We feel good about how [the season] started,” he said. “It was kind of a nice start to the season and it was cool to get four athletes qualified for the rounds given that it’s such a big quality field here.”
In the women’s race, odds-on favorite Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) delivered her first win of the season against a 150-plus woman field, beating Finland’s Mona-Liisa Malvalehto in a photo finish. Anne Kylloenen (FIN) took third followed closely by Evgenia Shapovalova and Anastasia Dotsenko of Russia.
Ida Sargent led the American contingent in sixth place. She qualified fifth in the morning and began her final heat nearly five hours later, a factor that Sargent said left her feeling a little drained at the end of the day.
“I felt good all the way until the final when I felt pretty tired and was just holding on,” she said. “It was a really long day with a long break between qualifying and the heats and then big breaks between the heats… Figuring out how to manage the time and keep my body well fueled through all the heats is something I need to work on.”
Because it was only a warm up race, Sargent didn’t set too many expectations for the day
“It’s the first race of the year and we just got over here, so I wanted to stay relaxed and have fun,” she said. “I’ve been feeling good during training but I’ve been struggling with the jet lag more than usual so I wasn’t sure how it would go. I’m really happy with sixth and it was cool to ski with those ladies.”
The only other American competing on Friday was Jessie Diggins, who qualified in 30th despite tripping on the uphill finish. In her quarterfinal heat she made another fall, a mistake that Diggins said was “embarrassing and didn’t feel awesome, not going to lie. Falling in sprints is something I don’t want to ever do, and it’s something I need to get better at.”
Though it wasn’t a high-stakes race, she hadn’t wanted to take the races in Muonio any less seriously.
“It’s hard for me to lower my expectations, even when I know it’s the first race of the season and at the end of a fairly hard training week and jet-lag, I shouldn’t be expecting much. So I’d been really hoping to make the rounds, which I did but I just got tired in the rounds and couldn’t hang on,” Diggins said.
Between three days of racing, the American athletes are generally competing two to three events. Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen, Holly Brooks, Noah Hoffman, Tad Elliott and Kris Freeman are also currently in Muonio, and between them will represent the U.S. along with Friday’s sprinters in Saturday’s 5/10 k classic or Sundays 10/15 k freestyle.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.