On a clear, cold morning in Muonio, Finland, time marched one step closer to the World Cup and turned up mounting anticipation for it’s commencement by a few degrees. Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) claimed his second victory of the weekend in the 10 k classic, though the rest Kazakh team was not quite as dominant as it was in Friday’s sprint. Lukas Bauer (CZE) was less than five seconds back from Poltoranin in second place and Germany’s Jens Filbrich (+13.18) took the third spot.
Kris Freeman (+18.3) led the U.S. squad with a fourth-place finish. The American won this very race two years ago, and was satisfied with the effort this time around.
“I was hammering the whole time and had consistently fast splits, so it’s a great starting point,” he said. “I knew I’d have to have a really, really good day to [win], and instead I just had a really good day.”
Freeman’s splits were right in the mix with the top three finishers for much of the 10 k.
“He was very much in contention the whole race and the splits that we had on him had him really neck-and-neck with Bauer and Poltoranin and Filbrich for a long time, so he felt good about that,” said U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover.
The transition to the European time zone is sometimes a rocky one, but Freeman thought he has adjusted well thus far.
“This was a better race than last year, so it’s a good start,” he said.
Noah Hoffman crossed the finish line 30th for the U.S. (+1:00). Like many of his teammates, he noted that it’s always hard to gauge expectations and takeaways from the first race of the year.
“I am a little disappointed with the result because I believe my fitness is better than I showed on the results sheet today,” he said.
Nonetheless, “I am glad to have worked the cobwebs out and am looking forward to another opportunity tomorrow… I believe this is a good result to build from tomorrow and next week,” Hoffman said.
Fellow Coloradoan Sylvan Ellefson was 44th on Saturday, 13.6 seconds behind Hoffman.
“My game plan was to find a good rhythm and start possibly a little slower than usual, then build until I felt I was at a pace I could sustain and even push at certain spots. That’s exactly what I did, so I was happy with 44th,” Ellefson said.
Racing resumes in Muonio on Sunday with a 10/15 k freestyle.
“I am very exctited for the 15 k skate tomorrow,” Ellefson said. “Super…excited!”
Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) finished the 5 k classic with 29-second gap over Yulia Tchekaleva (RUS). Masaka Ishida of Japan skied to an impressive third place (+35.96). There were again an sizeable number of women (141) competing, but with parts of the World Cup field scattered between throughout Sweden and Norway this weekend, Kowalczyk’s winning margin merely piqued interest for the true season opener next weekend in Gaellivare, Sweden, where she’ll go head-to-head against Therese Johaug (NOR), Charlotte Kalla (SWE), and the rest of the international field.
For now, though, there was plenty of racing to be had in Muonio. Liz Stephen led the way for the U.S. in 13th (+1:00) in her first race back on European snow.
“It’s always good to get the first one out of the way,” Stephen said. “The cobwebs have built up a bit during the summer months and it’s good to start to brush them off with the first race.
Grover noted that Stephen’s performance was a particular highlight, as he could see evidence of her off-season classic work.
“Liz had a really good race for her and she was excited about that,” he said. “I think she’s made a step forward in her classic skiing. The 5 k classic traditionally hasn’t been her favorite event, and she had a good race and was right in the mix.”
As to how valuable feedback is from Saturday’s results, Stephen wasn’t putting too much store by it.
“I think it is always tough to judge fitness off of one race, much less the first one of the season, but I am happy with how I felt today and psyched to kick the World Cup season off in Gaellivare next weekend,” she said.
Sneaking into the top 30 behind Stephen was Jessie Diggins (+1:21).
“I was focusing on process goals like smoothly testing skis and making sure I focused on technique during the race instead of getting sloppy,” she said. “The game plan was to not worry about results or placing but to get in a really good workout, zone in on what race-pace needs to be, and work out the kinks of racing again.”
At the end of the day, Diggins felt that 5 k had gone by faster than expected.
“I think I could have gotten in a sharper warm-up and pushed much harder sooner. But I guess that’s why we’re doing this — to remember what a 5 k pace is really like!” she said.
Holly Brooks put a bib on for the first time on Saturday and finished 34th, 6.3 seconds behind Diggins. While she “wasn’t ecstatic” with her result, Brooks was satisfied to have gotten the first race effort of the year out of the way.
“The course has a huge climb on it in the middle, and I got to the end kind of wishing I could do another lap,” she said. “It’s early season and I had a hard time reaching that top end.”
Ida Sargent, who produced the top American finish in Friday’s classic sprint, ended up less than half a second behind Brooks in 36th. Sargent was experiencing stomach problems on Saturday and wasn’t “super psyched” with her race.
All the same, “I feel a little more prepared for the first World Cups next weekend,” she said.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.