Despite an uncertain start to the morning of the second stage of World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden, on Friday, the day ended with a very familiar name at the top of the results. Marit Bjørgen (NOR), one of the last starters to leave the line, resumed her usual position on the podium and won the 2.5 k freestyle prologue by 4.4 seconds over Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in a time of 6:03.2. Kikkan Randall (USA), who spend the better part of the last 24 hours engaged in debate with FIS over the safety of the race course, finished a comfortable third in the individual start race.
“It was a race that suited me,” Bjørgen told the NRK after finishing the short event. “I felt fine and could press. I was a bit cowardly down [the hill], but could run again when I got into the stadium.”
The downhill Bjørgen referred to has been at the center of heated debate recently about the safety of Falun’s new trails, and something that threatened whether race would happen at all. Athletes were concerned enough for their safety on a few new twists to the Mördarbakken’s downhill section that they submitted a petition to FIS, threatening to boycott the final three stages of the Finals if governing body and the organizers didn’t eliminate the dangerous sections.
The race jury initially resisted changing the course but ultimately compromised with the athletes’ demands late Thursday evening. Athletes and coaches seemed happy with the outcome, but it put the entire weekend in flux the day leading up to the second stage. After athletes agreed at a 9:00 a.m. meeting Friday morning that they were satisfied with the course adjustments, they were still unable to preview the changes to the downhill. Bjørgen was not the only one who consequently felt she had to ski the descent “a bit cowardly” during the race.
“I probably didn’t gun it as much as I normally would have just because I didn’t know how much speed I’d be coming out of the turn with, and it’s a pretty tight turn,” Randall said. “I figured being a little conservative was probably a better bet than going crazy and falling. It’s definitely a loud corner and it’ll be pretty crazy to do it in a mass start on classic skis.”
Randall, as the only athlete representative present at World Cup Finals, had the responsibility of organizing athlete meetings, communicating with FIS and handling questions from a strong media presence until 11:30 p.m. the night before the race. Though the running around wasn’t the ideal way to prepare, her body must have handled the extra stress well.
“It’s been an interesting 24 hours and it didn’t feel great to warm up today, but once I got out on the course in the race it felt pretty good,” Randall said. “It was definitely different race prep than I normally do.”
Randall started a few bibs numbers in front of Bjørgen on Friday and initially finished with the top time in the field. She recovered a sluggish feeling in her warm-up to feeling well enough to post one of the top splits to the top of the course an was an early race-leader as the 31st starter.
“I felt kind of drained after yesterday and felt that, well I’ll just have to go out there and go for it,” Randall said. “But once I got on course I actually felt a lot better. I could find some good zip in my stride and was able to lay down a really good effort. I got a slight indication up the hill that things were going pretty well so, yeah. I’m glad I could re-find my energy again today.”
With a strong late-season effort from Kalla, Randall was soon demoted from the leaders chair. The Swede hasn’t been on the podium since the 15 k freestyle stage of the Tour de Ski, but on Friday she found some of her old spark to post what would end up being the second-fastest time.
Bjørgen quickly overtook the lead and the eventual win, but Kalla was happy to be on the podium again.
“It was really wonderful to get a podium here in Sweden at the end of the season,” she told the NRK. “The crowd was good and supported us. 2.5 k is a bit strange distance and you have to press all the way.”
Kowalczyk, who led the World Cup Finals mini-tour after the first stage in Stockholm on Wednesday, dropped to second behind Bjørgen after finishing fifth in Friday’s race, 10.8 seconds behind the winner.
“I am happy with my result today,” Kowalcyzk told FIS. “It is the same position I was last year so it is ok with me. I hope to ski really well tomorrow. I think the Norwegians will be very strong and it will be a good competition.”
Bjørgen, who was also present at the many athlete meetings preceding the prologue, thinks her fitness is in top shape in Falun.
“I was 100% today,” she said. “My shape is good. I was curious to know how it was but it was also 100% in Stockholm and I felt really good again today. I have not competed that much this season so I would be happy if the season went a few weeks more. Tomorrow I think Justyna and Therese [Johaug] will go fast and I hope that I can go with them.
The third stage of World Cup Finals on Saturday is a 10 k mass start classic.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.