Just four races into the 2014 World Cup season and American Sadie Bjornsen already has two top-10 results, and the recognition that comes with it.
“It is fun to get a compliment from the people you are racing with … to get Bjørgen [Norwegian star Marit] to come and tell you ‘good job’,” Bjornsen said after placing seventh in the 1o-kilometer classic in Lillehammer, Norway.
She skied to the same place in the 5 k classic a week ago in Kuusamo, Finland, and has quickly served notice that last year’s strong results were no fluke.
Several years ago after the annual Holmenkollen marathon in Oslo, Norway, Bjornsen remembers Bjørgen telling her that she “would be fast some day,” training with teammate Kikkan Randall and other promising Americans. At the time, Bjornsen was shocked that the Norwegian knew who she was and who she trained with. Now she is a threat on the race course.
On an extremely challenging course, pacing was critical, and Bjornsen executed with aplomb.
Pointing to splits of 17th, 10th, and ninth at 2.1 k, 5.8 k and 7.1 k, US Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb described her performance as “a really well-crafted race.”
Bjornsen pointed to the need to go out slowly and mix her tempo.
“I had to be aware of switching my striding up,” she explained. “Not just long striding. There are so many different grades here. It is important to be clued in the whole race.”
She ended the day 1:18.3 behind winner Justyna Kowalczyk, of Poland, and has now more than doubled her distance World Cup points from last season.
While she received at least one split on the course, Bjornsen didn’t pay too much attention. Starting with bib 43, most of the fastest skiers were behind.
“I never listen to splits too carefully because I go out so slow,” Bjornsen said. “I would almost rather not know where I am … “Splits are just a reminder ‘keep going harder, ’cause there is still more ground you have to make up’.”
The only split that truly matters is the one at the finish line, and her strong race, coupled with a middle of the pack start position gave Bjornsen the opportunity to settle into the leader’s chair, replete with warm blankets and a personal television screen to watch the remaining racers.
“I was afraid it wasn’t going to last that long,” Bjornsen said of her time in the veritable throne at the finish. I tried to dress really fast so I had time in there.”
She ended up with an estimated five minutes and an experience that she said “just adds another component of excitement.”
Whitcomb was unsurprised with the result, pointing to good fitness and a course that suits Bjornsen.
“Huge hard hills, but really skiable hills too. Just a perfect course for Sadie. She can really dig in and stride out,” he said.
Bjornsen was followed by Randall in 16th, the second straight classic distance top-20 for the leader of the U.S. team.
“Just great consistency, sending a good message that she is strong,” Whitcomb said of Randall, who placed 5th in the Kuusamo mini-tour. “Probably like everybody else, she is still under a little bit of load of training, which is by design.”
Randall was pleased with her overall performance, but in hindsight wishes she had been more aggressive.
As she was starting, a Finnish skier, who was skiing well, came through the lap after completing the first of two 5 k circuits.
“I kind of sat on her tails for a little bit, but I think that maybe started off things a little too gradually,” Randall explained. “So at about 2 k I took my own pace and tried to wrap everything up. But I just still didn’t feel like I was in that final race gear.”
While the steep climbs called for caution early in the race, Randall also felt it was necessary to get her body firing hard so she could get to top speed later on.
Bjornsen and Randall were joined in the top 30 by teammate Jessie Diggins.
“Any day we have three in the points, particularly in classic for this group, we are really excited,” Whitcomb said.
Despite sitting in 37th at 2.1 k, before finishing 30th, Diggins felt she did not pace well. Excited with excellent kick and glide that allowed her to feel like she was “actually classic skiing like a classic skier not like a runner,” she said she got carried away.
“I went out a little too hard and just kind of flooded at the end of my first lap … The second lap I was trying to pull it through but I was definitely losing some time.”
A stronger skater, Diggins has been working on her classic skiing, and was pleased with her technique on sections of the course.
“It felt good to have a race where there were definitely sections of the course where I was getting on top of my ski, getting quick kick and longer glide,” Diggins said. She feels like she is on the right track with her classic skiing, improving efficiency, but knows she still has much work to do.
It was a mixed bag for the rest of the U.S. squad.
Neither Ida Sargent nor Holly Brooks was satisfied with their performances.
Brooks described her day as “the roughest race I’ve had in awhile.” After hitting several of the steep hill too hard, she had trouble recovering. “My legs flooded, and I was toast,” she wrote.
Sargent, a strong classic skier, felt the course would suit her, but after starting slowly, she was unable to pick it up. She speculated that she wasn’t fully recovered from last weekend’s mini-tour.
Sargent, gunning for a top 30, finished 39th, while Brooks was back in 65th.
Both women are looking forward to Sunday’s relay. With the U.S. able to field two women’s teams, all eight skiers in Europe will be able to start.
“I’m really looking forward to changing gears and going 5 k skate tomorrow,” Brooks wrote. “I’m really hoping that I can turn it around and have a good race tomorrow — I need it!”
Randall will scramble for the first team, followed by Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, and Diggins.
Whitcomb said the choice to run Bjornsen second was made based on today’s results. According to Whitcomb, that second leg is where the race often breaks apart, and the decision was to send whomever was skiing fastest in classic.
Sophie Caldwell, Sargent, Brooks and Rosie Brennan will make up the second American team in the race.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.