Andy Newell’s sixth-place finish in the classic sprint in Liberec, Czech Republic, brought his number of top-six showings up to three for the season and ties his best classic result from the past three years. Coming from an American team that seems to reach some new milestone every day that fact may seem routine, but for Newell it raises his confidence significantly as he looks ahead to the rest of the winter.
“I was feeling good, the fitness is good, the skiing felt great,” he said on the phone from Liberec. “When I went to the line in the final I knew I’d been working hard all day but I still thought I had a good shot at the podium, at least.”
It turned out that the earlier rounds were more draining than he expected. As Sweden’s Teodor Peterson blasted out of the gate, Newell was unable to keep up and wound up finishing 20 seconds behind him.
“It’s frustrating not to be on the podium having made three finals this year,” he said.
But he handled a few factors on Saturday that he thinks will make future bouts in the final round easier by comparison. The short running time of the women’s 850-meter race abbreviated the men’s rest in between heats by almost half, and on top of that Newell’s qualifying place put him in the worst possible quarterfinal: the last one.
“I just ran out of gas a little bit in the final and I think a lot of that has to do with being in the last bracket,” Newell said. “I qualified eighth, which means I’m in the last quarter, and pushed hard in my quarter to move on. You run the risk when you push so hard in the quarter, and you’re in the last bracket, that you don’t have much time to recover. That was kind of even magnified more today.”
Practice handling the worst-case recovery scenario, and still making it to the final, means Newell is hoping that future sprints will be a breeze, relatively speaking.
“Today was good practice because of the quick turnaround. The next time we run a World Cup sprint if I’m not in that last bracket — and even if I am — it’s going to feel like I’m recovering a lot better because today was so short,” Newell said. “It was a good workout even though it wasn’t the result it was really looking for.”
Newell was the lone American, man or woman, to make it past the qualifying round on Saturday. Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins both sat out to recover from the Tour de Ski, but the depth of the U.S. Ski Team this year means they are able to field a full team sprint team this weekend.
Four American starters — Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen, Skyler Davis and Sophie Caldwell —arrived in Liberec earlier this week for their first European World Cups of the season, and for two of them, it was their first time racing at that level across the pond ever.
Sadie Bjornsen, for what must feel like the umpteenth time, missed the top-30 by under a second and was the top woman in 34th. For the Americans who’ve been racing in the U.S. at altitude all fall, Liberec’s low elevation took some getting used to, and Bjornsen thought that might have been a limiting factor.
“I actually don’t feel bad after this big travel. I felt good, I just didn’t go hard enough,” Bjronsen said. “This is a good sign though, because I crossed the line feeling good. Today it would have been better if it was longer, because I think my adjustment from altitude may have been smoother. I just simply needed to stand in place and move my limbs really fast to remember how to move fast as sea level.”
The women raced only one lap of the 850-meter loop. Minimal natural snow cover leading up to this weekend meant that manmade snow had to be carted in for a course to exist, and the women completed a single lap to the men’s two.
“It was very short, but I wasn’t thinking of that as a bad or a good thing going into it. I just knew I wasn’t going to have to pace it — just go from the gun!” Bjornsen said.
Sophie Caldwell, in her first career World Cup in Europe, was 38th in Liberec and less than two seconds out of qualifying. Being her first classic sprint and against a much deeper field than she saw in Canada, her expectations were simply to do the best she could.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after traveling overseas,” Caldwell said. “I obviously would have loved to qualify in the top 30 and think it is possible but today wasn’t the day. It was encouraging to see that none of us were very far out of the top 30 though.”
Ida Sargent was 42nd, 2.96 seconds out of 30th. In a race as short as 850 meters everything had to go perfectly, and Sargent didn’t pick the right skis on Saturday.
“I struggled with ski testing and selection today and my race was affected by that,” she said. “The race was so short and fast that there wasn’t any room for things to go wrong.”
Sargent is optimistic about the rest of the post-holiday season, though. “I had lots of energy and I’m feeling good so [I’m] looking forward to more racing,” she said.
The men had four athletes in the classic sprint. After Newell, Simi Hamilton was 41st, 2.12 seconds out of qualifying. Hamilton spent the holiday at home and returned to Europe just after the New Year, and felt his racing legs had yet to return to 100%.
“I was a little disappointed with how the day turned out for me, personally, but the WC fields are always so tight and if you are off your game even by 1% it can be the difference between having a great day and day that ends too early,” Hamilton said.
“In the past, my best races have come after I’ve gotten some time to get into a rhythm of races, especially on the World Cup. Today was the first race back after over a month, so I’m confident that my form will come back in these upcoming weeks… My energy felt good and I’m very psyched to get my body ramping up to these hard efforts again.”
Erik Bjornsen and Davis were 47th and 55th, respectively. Liberec is Davis’ first European race of the season and Bjornsen’s first experience overseas at the World Cup level.
Bjornsen, whose start right was his reward for being the SuperTour leader at the end of Period 1, felt his race was on par with his ability.
“I’m still new to the World Cup level so I don’t have a place goal, except that I would love to ski some heats before the end of the year,” he said. “I think the field seemed a little harder then the field in Canada.”
Bjornsen and Davis both expect to feel better the further they get from their trans-Atlantic travel days.
“I definitely wanted to try to qualify in top 30 but knew I may not be feeling top notch,” Davis said. “I’m never very good at traveling but definitely felt like I’m getting better at it…I think it will take a least another week for me to be feeling ready to romp.”
The U.S. has two men’s and one women’s team entered in the team sprint on Sunday. Hamilton and Newell will pair up, as will Davis and Bjornsen. The women will again ski 850 meters each leg, and Bjornsen and Sargent will start for the U.S.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.