Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic individual start at the Toblach World Cup provided a few takeaways exactly one week out from the first Olympic competitions in Sochi, Russia:
- Marit Bjørgen and her most competitive Norwegian teammates are on top of their games.
- Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk is beatable in a classic distance race, especially on a brutal waxing day — like Saturday, with fresh powder turning to mush in above-freezing temperatures and rain topping it off in Toblach, Italy.
- The U.S. women’s team, while generally known for freestyle sprinting, can rank with the best of them in any race — as proven by five U.S. women in the top 22 on Saturday.
Bjørgen got down to business in her first World Cup since the third stage of the Tour de Ski on Dec. 31. Stricken with a stomach virus, the 33 year old officially pulled out of the Tour on New Year’s Day, took some time off to recover, then ramped up the training for the rest of January.
She tested herself once before Saturday’s World Cup, racing against her teammates Jan. 16 at Norwegian nationals and placing third in the 10 k classic individual start. Therese Johaug won it by more than a minute over Heidi Weng in second (+1:00.2) and Bjørgen (+1:11.2), respectively.
“I was not so strong at Norwegian championships so I was not sure of my shape,” Bjørgen told FIS after Saturday’s race.
A 36.7-second victory over Johaug in wet-and-snowy conditions in Toblach confirmed she’s right where she needs to be.
The 40th starter out of 52, Bjørgen posted the fastest time through both checkpoints at 2.1 and 6.7 k. And no one came close: at 2.1 k, Kowalczyk was more than 5 seconds off the pace after starting 30 seconds behind Bjørgen. Early in the second of two laps, Bjørgen clocked a split that ended up being 29.9 seconds faster than Kowalczyk, still in second at the time.
With snow falling at the start and flip-flopping between mixed precipitation throughout the race, Bjørgen told NRK she considered a couple options for skis. Torn between no-wax and klister, she recalled not having much luck with hairies before, but her wax technician Perry Olsson persuaded her to use them.
His decision gave her confidence going into what could be similarly damp conditions in Sochi, as did her 63rd World Cup victory the last distance race before the Olympics, with a win in 26:54.2.
“Where there wasn’t optimal skiing, I just had to [go with] my bodily sensation,” Bjørgen said of the individual start, according to a translation. “I had great skis. It was my day.”
She told FIS that she’s aiming for at least one individual gold at the Olympics and plans to compete in all six events.
While Weng helped the Norwegians put three in the top four, Kowalczyk slipped from second to fifth over the last few kilometers, leaving the stadium without speaking to the press, according to NRK.
The winner of almost every international classic race she’s entered in the last three years, Kowalczyk has shared the top of the podium with Bjørgen in all 11 World Cup 10 k classic races since the 2010 Olympics, excluding Tour stages; no one else has won since. Kowalczyk hasn’t been off the podium in a 10 k classic race (excluding stages) since 2009, when she was seventh in Kuusamo, Finland.
“She may have had bad skis,” Bjørgen told NRK. “She’s probably on the podium again at the Olympics.”
“Marit was very strong today, but I am happy with my result,” Johaug said to FIS. “This course has a lot of double poling so I didn’t know how well I could do. Second place is good for me here.”
With one pair of no-wax skis, Johaug said she was “lucky” they were enough.
Kalla was glad to be back on the World Cup as well after skipping the Tour and not having raced on the circuit since Dec. 15 in Davos, Switzerland. The 26 year old competed in two races at Swedish nationals from Jan. 16-18, winning both the 15 k skiathlon and 10 k classic.
“It’s very nice to be back on the World Cup,” Kalla told FIS. “I had some good racing at home in Sweden but being on World Cup allows me to push even harder. Therese and Marit were very strong, and I am happy with third place. It has been a good season so far for me and my shape is high heading into Sochi.”
Stephen Leads U.S. in 11th
The 32nd starter, American Liz Stephen went out more conservatively then some of the top finishers, clocking what was eventually the 14th-fastest time through 2.1 k. By 6.7 k, her time ranked 12th, and she continued to speed up to place 11th, 1:32.6 back from Bjørgen.
“The day was good. Tricky conditions,” Stephen said. “It’s a great course and the crews have done a great job making sure it was up to par for us. It was hard tracks, and our wax techs kicked [butt] on skis so it was great.”
Stephen chose traditional no-wax skis, “handmade hairies,” she said.
“I’m really excited to go to Sochi and make sure that I’m rested and as fit as I’m going to be at this point,” she added. “Now it’s just making sure the body is ready to go.”
Stephen was the first of four U.S. women in the top 20 and five in the top 22. Kikkan Randall placed 15th, 12.6 seconds behind Stephen, after rising from 27th at the first checkpoint to 14th early in the second lap.
“Despite the weather, the tracks were in really good shape and my energy felt good,” Randall said. “This is exactly what I wanted to do today.”
After winning the last two World Cup skate sprints, Randall will have a shot at making it a trifecta in Sunday’s last World Cup race before the Olympics.
“It’s been fun to have so many skate sprints so far this season,” she said. “Looking forward to good competition tomorrow and then getting the party on in Sochi.”
In her first race back since the Dec. 21-22 World Cup in Asiago, Italy, Sadie Bjornsen finished 17th for the U.S., 3.2 seconds behind Randall. After starting 21st, Bjornsen made up considerable ground between the first and second laps, rising from what ended up being the 38th-fastest time at 2.1 k to 15th by 6.7 k.
“My energy felt really good today,” Bjornsen said. “I’ve been away from racing now for almost six weeks. I had a training camp over Christmas and then I had the flu for two weeks so it just feels really good to be able to come back.
“I was working really hard trying to find some kick, which was a bit hard, but I’m really happy with how I’m feeling body-wise,” she added. “It’s cool for next week; it’s one more week to find even more fitness so I’m definitely on the uphill slope.”
Two more U.S. Ski Team members, Ida Sargent notched 20th (+1:54.3) and Holly Brooks was 22nd (+2:00.4).
Sargent started 51st and posted the 17th-fastest time through much of the race.
“I tried to go as hard as I can and work all the different sections,” Sargent said. “There’s not a lot of steep climbing, but you’ve really got to work it to the end.”
The 12th starter, Brooks sped up over the last few kilometers to put her well in the points for the first time since the Davos World Cup in December.
“I haven’t raced in a really long time so today was kind of my first really hard effort with a bib on,” Brooks said. “I had no expectations going into it and I felt good; really happy to be in the points and definitely some promising feelings going into Sochi.”
During her interview with FasterSkier, U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb informed Brooks she was starting Sunday’s sprint. “That’s really good news,” she said with a laugh.
Randall, Sargent, Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell and Jessie Diggins were also on Sunday’s start list.
“I’m feeling better than I have been in a while,” Brooks explained. “It’s been a little bit of a tough year, but I took a break, I went back to the states for two weeks and … and did [last week’s] training camp in Seiser Alm [Italy] with the team. It’s been a long leadup to Sochi and I think we’re all ready to get there and do it.”
“Feeling good, psyched to go, really excited for what’s gonna come,” Sargent said.
Stephen summed up the team’s consistent success with a story from a recent team meeting.
“Simi [Hamilton] brought up the point that we never even gave Jessie a round of applause for her awesome race at U23s,” she said.
Diggins, 22, had placed a career-best second at U23 World Championships on Wednesday in the freestyle sprint, after qualifying in first.
“It’s just become such a part of what happens with our team,” Stephen said. “So we had to kind of bring it back and say, ‘This is really awesome. Sorry to have even forgotten how awesome it was.’ ”
“Five girls in the top 22, that’s a really good day, especially for classic for the U.S. and it was a tough day out there,” Brooks explained. “I went to the start line with klister and zeroes and I really didn’t know what to pick [she went with zeroes]. It was kind of raining and then snowing and then nothing. It worked out and it was a good time.”
Canada’s lone racer in the 10 k, Emily Nishikawa (Alberta World Cup Academy) finished 40th for her second-best World Cup result. Chandra Crawford did not race because she lacked enough distance points to meet the seeding criteria.
“Turns out I don’t have the FIS points to race distance,” Crawford tweeted. “No probs, I’ll do my sprint prep. Good luck to Em Nish, our Classic Skiing Queen!”
“It was tough. I pushed super hard so I’m happy with that,” Nishikawa said, adding that her skis were slippery at times, particularly the climbs. “I struggled a bit in the middle of the race, but then I felt better towards the end.”
“I’m in good shape, I had a good training camp and I’m healthy,” she added.
Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) was the sixth American on the start list, and started third in some unfavorable conditions to end up 45th.
“The conditions were pretty crazy; I haven’t raced in this yet this year, but my skis were awesome,” Gregg said of her no-wax skis. “I thought they were great, maybe a little slow the first lap on the downhills, but as more skiers went through it kind of sped up a bit.”
Gregg said she felt best on her last lap, especially coming toward the finish.
“Those last hills just felt awesome,” she said. “Feeling really strong on the ups and as I roll through the race, better and better and better every k.”
Canada has more starters lined up for Sunday’s women’s race, with Crawford, Dasha Gaiazova, Perianne Jones, and Heidi Widmer.
— Gerry Furseth contributed on-site reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.