After taking third in the prologue at OPA Cup Finals on Friday in Toblach, Italy, Sadie Bjornsen (USA) followed up on Saturday with an outright win in the second stage of the mini-tour, a 5 k individual classic. She completed the course in 14:37, 5.1 seconds ahead of runner-up Sandra Ringwald (GER).
“I just tried to ski right under sprint speed the entire time, because I knew it was going to be fast out there,” Bjornsen said of her race. “At about 3 k I started to get scared as my legs really began to flood, but I managed to hold on.”
With another day in Italy under her belt after a long day of travel from the Drammen World Cup, Bjornsen said she felt more adjusted to the new venue on Saturday.
“I felt a lot better today,” she said. “Much more like a racer in control of my feelings and effort.”
As the race-winner, Bjornsen leads OPA Finals going into Sunday’s pursuit and will start the 10 k freestyle being chased down by the rest of the field.
“We start the season chasing the Euros. Now I get to end running from the Euros,” she said. “It should be a good race. I have limited energy left I can feel, but I will give it all and see what happens. I am of course nervous. It is always nerve-racking when you are the rabbit.”
Bjornsen led six other American women in the 5 k classic. Kate Fitzgerald finished twelfth, 42.6 seconds back, Caitlin Patterson was 24th, Becca Rorabaugh placed 25th, Erika Flowers was 29th, Lauren Fritz finished 25th and Anna Van Der Rhee was 36th.
According to Fitzgerald, conditions were “perfect” for classic skiing in Toblach.
“It was pretty much some of the best snow conditions I have seen all season!” she said. “Cold hard track and fresh snow. The course had some really great gradual striding sections so my plan was to just ski big and strong.”
Though it’s late in the season and many athletes are starting to feel fatigued, Fitzgerald said she is still feeling good.
“It is a very long season but I am still excited to race!” she said.
The two collegiate athletes in Italy led the U.S. in the men’s 10 k; Sam Tarling (Dartmouth College) took 21st, 46.7 seconds behind Basen Poirrier’s (FRA) winning mark, and David Norris (Montana State University) was 28th (+57.1). Both athletes made their plans to race in Europe this weekend knowing OPA Finals fell just after NCAA Championships and also coincided with spring break.
Tarling, despite feeling “flat” in the prologue, felt recovered and more confident on Saturday.
“I went out to test classic skis in the afternoon and finally felt much better,” he said. “I was hoping mostly just to have good skis and good feeling and I felt confident if it all went well I’d be able to get in the top-30.”
Relative to the warm conditions the East has been experiencing lately, Tarling said the Toblach conditions were a welcome change.
“It was textbook classic skiing, perfect course with long skiable hills and bulletproof tracks,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with some pretty warm and variable conditions in the East lately and it was nice to get back to skiing real solid tracks.”
Norris, who says he’s struggled this season to put together good races, felt good about his 10 k.
“I was really conservative and then just tried to rock the last lap,” he said. “I’m happy today and would love to have a very good one tomorrow.”
Four other U.S. men competed on Saturday. Matt Gelso was 30th, Erik Bjornsen took 33rd, Pat Johnson finished 34th and Mike Sinnott tied a Spanish skier for 51st.
Tarling and Norris’ decision to race at OPA Finals was a deliberate one. Not many college skiers choose to keep racing after NCAAs, much less in Europe, but both ambitious student-athletes believe strongly in continuing their athletic development while demonstrating that international competition is possible while going to school.
“We looked at the schedule while we were at U23’s and thought it would fit really well,” Tarling explained. “It was great to get good feeling back today for both me and David, since we weren’t sure how we’d be able to adjust after NCAAs and traveling to Europe the next day. We both believe strongly in college skiing, so we want to help prove that international races and college races are not mutually exclusive, and more importantly that college skiers can compete at an international level.”
Norris and Tarling both plan to compete at SuperTour Finals in April as well.
“My class load is a little easier this semester so I figured I would try to get over seas more this season,” Norris said. “It probably didn’t help my NCAA performance, but it motivates me to train harder and I think it’s important to work within the US Ski Team pipeline while doing NCAAs and pursuing an under grad.”
OPA Finals also features junior races, and the U.S. has two men competing. Paddy Caldwell and Kevin Bolger finished with 20 seconds of each other in 10th and 14th, respectively. For Caldwell, it was one of his best results of the season.
“I’m really excited about today’s race,” Caldwell said. “That was one of the best classic races I have had all year. Going into the race I was really focused on skiing techniquely well and trying to improve my start position for the pursuit on Sunday. I am feeling really good right now. This is my last race series for the year; it’s great to finish off the season on a high note here in Italy.”
Beginning with National Junior Championships in Lillehammer, Norway, in early February, Caldwell has been racing in Europe for five straight weeks now. The primary purpose of his stay has been to accumulate international experience.
“My main goals were to feel good racing and to try to mix it up with some international junior fields,” he said. “Another big focus of this trip was to get more comfortable racing in Europe. I have learned a lot about what works best for me for travel and on the road training. This has been an amazing trip and learning experience.”
OPA Finals concludes on Sunday with a 10/15 k freestyle pursuit.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.