At the final showdown of the OPA Cup circuit on Sunday in Toblach, Italy, Sadie Bjornsen closed out her European season in a close battle with Germany’s Sandra Ringwald in the 10 k freestyle pursuit. It was a tough way to round off six races in nine days — “my very own Tour de Ski,” Bjornsen called it — and after 10 k of close racing Ringwald just nipped the American in the final meters to take the OPA Cup Finals victory by exactly one second. Bjornsen claimed silver in 26:51.7 to lead the sizeable U.S. team in the results.
“I was happy with the result,” Bjornsen said. “I gave every last drop of energy, and it was a great way to the end the season feeling tired, happy and knowing I finished my season giving my best.”
Based on her accumulated times from the previous two races Bjornsen began the pursuit five seconds in front of Ringwald, a strong skier who competed at World Championships last month for Germany and reached the podium at U23s in January.
“Five seconds isn’t much, so Sandra caught me maybe 15 seconds in,” Bjornsen said. “I wanted this though, so that we could work together and stay ahead of the rest of the field. Sandra is in good shape right now, so I knew that I needed to stay with her and hope to outsprint her at the finish.”
Bjornsen and Ringwald switched leads on and off for most of the race, but at 3 k from the finish Bjornsen began to fatigue.
“My goal was to just hang on for dear life,” she said of the later kilometers. “I knew it would come down to a sprint finish and I didn’t have hardly any gas left. We both surged on the final climb and crested the top of the hill into the stadium even with each other. Her skis were very fast though, so I lost contact down the final hill into the finish. Again we sprinted for the finish, but I just wasn’t able to get back up to her. It was a hard effort though, and I gave every last ounce of energy left in my body.”
The pace that Ringwald and Bjornsen set together created a 16.2-second gap to the bronze medalist, Alenka Cebasek (SLO). After Bjornsen, Kate Fitzgerald (APU) finished 16th for the U.S., 1:08.7 back, Caitlin Patterson (CGRP) was 19th (+2:02.8), Erika Flowers (SMS T2) finished 25th (+2:32.4), Becca Rorabaugh (APU) was 30th (+3:03.8), Lauren Fritz (APU) took 33rd (+5:15.4) and Anna Van Der Rhee (MWSC) was 35th (+8:17.1).
With nothing but SuperTour Finals left on her schedule, Bjornsen will stay in Europe for a few more days to catch her breath before heading to Truckee, Calif.
“As I collapsed at the finish for maybe five minutes, I was laughing in my head thinking about all the hard efforts in the last week,” Bjornsen said. “I ended my season truly challenging myself. It is not often I have had to dig so deep as I did this weekend, but it was also a great feeling!”
Bjornsen could have raced in the Olso World Cup 30 k on Sunday, but chose the shorter distances of OPA Cup Finals instead thinking they would better suit her current strengths.
“I knew that my fitness was in a better place for some shorter quicker racing than a 30 k skate, so I wanted to challenge myself at the end of the season and test myself against the top OPA athletes,” she explained. “I have never even been close to winning an OPA race, so it was fun to compete this time.”
Tarling Leads U.S. Men in 15 k with 23rd-Place Finish
Thomas Bing, a 22-year-old German skier who podiumed at U23 Championships in January and has two complete Tour de Ski finishes under his belt, won the men’s OPA Cup Final by 0.1 seconds in a sprint finish with Sebastian Eisenlauer (GER) and Fabio Clementi (ITA). Bing began the 15 k pursuit with a one-second lead but held off a hungry group of seven to take the mini-tour title.
Sam Tarling (Dartmouth College) led the American men’s squad with a 23rd-place finish, 1:42.4 back from Bing. He entered the pursuit as the 26th starter with a 1:08.0 handicap, and in the process of picking up a few places he skied with two other Americans, Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST) and Matt Gelso (SVSEF).
“Today was a blast,” Tarling said. “I think all our guys were feeling pretty sore from the classic race but I feel like we all skied really well and managed to make some jumps in the overall standings.”
Bjornsen moved up from 31st after the classic race to 24th, 11.9 seconds behind Tarling, and Gelso climbed from 34th to 25th, 4.1 seconds behind Bjornsen.
“We had a pretty good group of us go all within maybe 10 seconds so we had some nice pack tactics to nip some guys ahead of us struggling alone,” Tarling said. “There really isn’t a ton of rest on that course, and you learn a few things skiing with these guys. It seemed like you could make or lose serious chunks of time just from really pushing it over the crests of hills, which has been something I can definitely improve on.”
Gelso had hoped for a top-ten overall finish prior to arriving in Toblach and was ultimately disappointed with his performances, but he managed to overcome some pre-race fatigue on Sunday to compete with the pack that eventually formed around him in the pursuit.
“Erik and I started about ten seconds behind Sam and skied hard early on to catch him,” Gelso said. “A sizeable group formed around us and provided some good skiing. The pace was fast but not outrageous. Being a little tired heading into the day it was very helpful to be skiing around people in that it kept you focused and pushed you harder.”
The three Americans all finished within fifteen seconds of each other to lead their compatiots in the final standings. Mike Sinnott (SVSEF) placed 32nd in a photo finish with Mario Roncador (ITA) 2:33.5 back from the leaders, Pat Johnson (SVSEF) finished 37th (+2:55.2) and David Norris (MSU) was 40th (+3:12.9).
In the junior men’s division, Paddy Caldwell (SMS) led the way for the U.S. in 12th place, 1:54.1 behind Clement Parisse’s (FRA) winning time. Caldwell skied the sixth-fastest freestyle time of the day after starting the pursuit in tenth with a 1:00.0 deficit. Kevin Bolger (SVSEF) maintained his starting position to finish 15th, 3:00.0 back from the leaders.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.