The United States women capped a highly successful start to the 2014 World Cup campaign, leaving Finland after three days of racing as the fourth ranked squad in the world.
Kikkan Randall kicked things off on Friday with a second in the classic sprint. The next day Sadie Bjornsen placed seventh in the 10k classic, before the women wrapped up the weekend with yet another strong showing in the 10k skate pursuit.
Randall led the way once again, moving up from her start position of 7th to finish 5th overall, outsprinting Norwegian Astrid Jacobsen and Russian Yulia Tchekaleva at the end.
She told FasterSkier that she skied with the two women most of the race after they closed up from a few seconds back. A large chase pack formed, but the trio broke away with a strong move at the beginning of the third 2.5k lap.
They skied clear, switching off leads and continuing to stay ahead of any chasers. According to Randall, Jacobsen attacked on the second-to-last hill, but the two others were able to hang. All three tried to get clear on the final steep ascent into the stadium, with Randall gaining the edge over the top.
“All three of us fanned [on the final hill] out and really went for it,” Randall said. “I took the lead on the climb and by the time I got to the top, I had moved from second into the front, but my legs were definitely pretty tired…Astrid was able to of hang on the back when we came off the final turn.”
Matching up with Randall in the final 100 meters of any skate event is not for the faint of heart. The best skate sprinter in the world, she pulled away from Jacobsen, tired legs or no.
Overall, Randall was positive about her performance, especially in comparison with the 5k classic the day before. While her result in that race was a none-too-shabby 15th, she described herself as a different person.
“When I classic ski, I feel like I’m focusing so hard just to try to use what I have, and in skating today, it just felt so natural and my body felt really good,” Randall explained. “I just got in a good pack and felt really strong through the whole race.”
The last two years, the final day of the Ruka Triple has been a classic race, and Randall, along with a number of her teammates, was happy to finish up with a skate leg.
In both 2012 and 2013 she entered the final pursuit in good position, but said with the classic, she had just tried to hold her pace. Today was a different story, and Randall added that ” I love the confidence I have in skating right now.”
US Ski Team head coach Chris Grover also pointed to Randall’s execution of strategy as a key to her success. She stayed patient, and sticking to the plan of “not trying to go out too hard too early, not trying to bite off too much in terms of trying to climb the ladder too far too fast.”
If Randall was pleased to finish up the Finnish junket with a freestyle event, Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen would have to be termed ecstatic. While both women have improved their classic skiing, they still prefer skating, and their results were there as a clear demonstration.
Diggins bounced back from a tough start to the weekend, when she crashed in the sprint, and crashed hard again warming down, to ski all the way up to 24th form a start position of 46th.
“I was just happy to finally have a distance skate race,” Diggins responded when asked about her day. Her early season racing and time trials have all been classic, so the chance to take some names in her preferred technique was welcome.
But if passing 22 skiers on the up-and-down Kuusamo course wasn’t hard enough, Diggins partially reprised her famed World Championship gold medal performance when she lost a pole just four kilometers in.
Another skier stepped on her basket, pulling off not only the pole, but her entire glove as well. She picked up a new shaft half a kilometer later, not one of her own, but roughly the right height, with a biathlon style strap. But Diggins was not willing to stop to get a new glove. She told FasterSkier that she didn’t want to risk losing contact with the pack.
The result? A heavily frostbit hand and the 8th fastest time of the day. Diggins said that the pain of racing six kilometers in frigid Kuusamo actually added fuel to the fire.
“I was just kind of pissed off about it, because it was really messing with my mojo, freezing my hand,” she explained.
That energy was channeled into the final sprint, and capped an impressive comeback.
Grover saw her initially slip back after losing the pole, but was impressed to see her rally and get back into the top-25.
She was also happy to stay on her feet after the crashes on the sprint course. She entered the 5k classic “really scared” of the fast downhill corner.
“I was truly terrified for the first time in a longtime about a downhill,” Diggins said. “There’s this right hand pretty fairly fast corner in the 5k course that shouldn’t’ve been a big deal but because I crashed so hard on it the day before in cool down, I had to go visualize that corner like 20 times and actually walk down it the morning of.”
She made it through unscathed, and felt confident on the 2.5 k skate course, which featured a different decent — one that is plenty fast but fairly straight.
“If you’re in the tracks it’s a straight shot, so you just get in your tuck and you’ll be ok,” Diggins described.
And as a skier who feels she needs to “work her way into the season,” she is pleased to get a strong race under her belt.
Stephen started the day with even more ground to make up, but she was still gunning for the top-30.
She headed out on course in bib 67, well over two minutes down on the leaders. But she told FasterSkier she likes to be hunting.
“I absolutely love pursuit starts,” she said. “It’s actually really fun to start in 67th because there’s a lot of people out there racing, and you’re pretty much passing or working with somebody to pass people the whole time. And that’s a pretty fun way to ski for me.”
And with a course well suited to her strengths – had V1 climbing – the day was set up for success.
She ended up making up a remarkable 35 places before the finish, and while she just missed her goal of the top-30, was still pleased with her performance.
With so many skiers to get by, she didn’t end up skiing with anyone else for very long.
“I was kind of on a mission…and I wasn’t about to wait around with anyone for so long. I was just going,” Stephen said. She joined Randall and Diggins near the top of the time of day rankings, placing 9th, giving the US 7th, 8th and 9th in those standings.
Despite her strong race, Stephen was still only the fourth American across the line. Bjornsen, who started right behind Randall in 8th, did a fine job in race that does not play to her strengths.
A better classic skier, especially in the distance events, Bjornsen stayed in the top-20, placing 17th overall.
“It was a little bit intimidating going into it, both the course and the people I was surrounded by in the start,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier. “I went into it trying to stay positive the whole time and do what I could do. It went well with all things considered.”
Grover was a bit more effusive, saying “A great job by Sadie. She really held some ground there to stay up in 17th. She had fallen back to about 21st at one point and then she came rallying back and passed two or three ladies right at the end.”
With World Cup points awarded for time of the day as well as the overall mini-tour standings, the US did quite well. Like Stephen, Holly Brooks just missed getting into the top-30 in the overall, placing 34th, but her effort was good for 26th on the day.
The team is now looking ahead to Lilllehamar, where for the first time in recent memory, and perhaps ever, the US women will field two full relay squads, with Ida Sargent, Sophia Caldwell and Rosie Brennan all ready to go.
“To see everybody ski so well today, with Sadie’s strong performances the last couple of days, I think we’re in a good place to have a good performance next weekend,” Randall said. “We look forward to the relays more than anything else, so we’re definitely fired up.”
Diggins said her hand should be fine. After the race it was swollen and painful, but no dangerous black. She should be ready to go next weekend, and the team is hoping to keep rolling.
“Everybody has confidence like we belong, and it feels good for us because all the other teams are here with their big wax trucks, and their army of support staff, and you know as a smaller team we’re just right in there, holding our own,” Randall said.
— Matt Voisin and Pasha Kahn contributed reporting
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.