It’s a race of “threes” between three Norwegians in the World Cup Finals this weekend in Falun, Sweden, and it’s hard to know which is closer: Marit Bjørgen’s race today where she edged her teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg by just under three-tenths of a second in the classic sprint, or her race for the overall World Cup Championship, where she now trails teammate Therese Johaug by only three points.
The outcome of the overall point race will have to wait until the end of the weekend, but the sprints are all wrapped up – Østberg led out of the start with Sweden’s Stina Nilsson and Bjørgen in hot pursuit. By the top of the first big hill the race had split into two groups: the Norwegians and Nilsson battling it out for their order on the podium, and Americans Kikkan Randall and Sophie Caldwell racing Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki for fourth place.
The front group had a tough fight in the rollers after the big hill: Bjørgen made a move on Østberg, with Østberg double-poling hard to catch up. They were neck and neck, but Bjørgen held her small lead into the finish, besting her teammate by 0.29 seconds. Nilsson crossed in third (+1.39), Randall fourth (+6.84), Lahteenmaki fifth (+8.49) and Caldwell sixth (+9.86). This was Randall’s second-best World Cup classic sprint finish, following a second-place finish in Kuusamo earlier this season, and she also officially won her third-consecutive Sprint Globe, although she already had that locked-up in the points after last week’s racing in Drammen, Norway. For Caldwell’s part, this was “by far” her best ever classic sprint finish and her first time advancing beyond the quarterfinals in a World Cup classic sprint.
“Neither Sophie nor I got a very fast start and were chasing the pack right off the bat,” Randall wrote in an email. “[This is] something we need to work on for sure. But once we got onto the climb we worked our way solidly into the chase pack behind the top three. Each time up the steep climb I felt like I wasn’t able to nail the technique well enough to use all my power. I was able to carry my speed off the downhill well but there was too much of a gap up to the top three for any draft. I just hammered as hard as I could the rest of the way.”
“It was exciting [to be in the final],” Caldwell said, “because I’d never even been in the semifinal of a classic sprint. My strength is classic sprinting is probably striding over double poling, so I was psyched to see a course with some good striding hills in it. The only problem with that is that it’s a really hard course, so by the time the final came around I was pretty exhausted.”
Each of the top four women, Østberg, Bjørgen, Nilsson and Randall, won their quarterfinal heats. Randall was third in her semifinal, behind Bjørgen and Nilsson, but moved on to the finals as a lucky loser along with Lahteenmaki, who was in the same semifinal heat. Caldwell was second in her heat behind Østberg, managing to edge German sprint powerhouse and overall sprint points runner-up Denise Herrmann.
U.S. Women’s coach Matt Whitcomb weighed in on his athlete’s performance.
“Sophie was a little tired in the final and Kikkan couldn’t find the climbing gear today, but Kikkan was one of the best in the field from the top of the course to the finish line, which included some descending and cornering and fast paced double poling.”
“We had exceptional skis out there, both kick and glide,” he continued, “and Kikkan just thought she couldn’t find that peak striding gear today, which some times she can and sometimes she can’t, and today that was a challenge.”
Which isn’t to say he was disappointed.
“To put four girls in the heats at World Cup finals is a big accomplishment. [The Falun sprints] have traditionally been a pretty big day for the women’s team and it was again today, with I guess four in the top 20 and two girls in the finals. It was pretty exciting to have Sadie, Sophie and Kikkan go 1, 2, 3 in their quarterfinal heat. But overall just such a tremendous end to a really successful year for Kikkan; grabbing the third consecutive sprint globe is such a big accomplishment and to finish it with a fourth place in a classic sprint is really big. I’m so proud of Kikkan and Sophie and the whole team – it’s a team accomplishment.”
The Unlucky Quarterfinal
American Sadie Bjornsen had a bit of bad luck when she found herself seeded in the same quarterfinal as her two teammates, Randall and Caldwell. In that quarterfinal Randall took first, Caldwell second and Bjornsen third.
“It’s always unfortunate when you get more than two [of us] in the same heat, because only two people move on” Caldwell said of their quarterfinal. “Our goal was just to finish top three in our heat and hope it was fast enough to be lucky loser. Unfortunately, some of the other heats were faster, so Sades [Bjornsen] didn’t get to move on.”
“It was really tough,” Caldwell continued, “because she had an amazing qualifier (she qualified fifth), her fitness if definitely there, she’s an amazing classic sprinter and she led basically the whole heat, but we just sneaked by her in the final.”
For her part, Bjornsen’s strategy had been to go for broke.
“I went out there with no strategy in mind, other than to look for openings… and that found me in the front most of the race,” she wrote in an email. “I had a good start, felt strong on all the climbs, but just didn’t have the extra gas at the end. I think it was challenging to race from the front with so much drafting out there, but again, you have to learn from every race.”
“That’s part of ski racing,” Caldwell said of her friend and teammate’s race. “She was there congratulating us after and happy for us and being a great teammate. Even though it was tough that she didn’t move on, I think she was happy for us.”
Ida Sargent also made the quarterfinals, where she finished fifth in her heat for 20th overall. During her quarterfinal she allowed a gap to open between her position in fourth and third place coming into the technical downhill.
“She missed the draft,” explained Whitcomb. “That was pretty critical if she wanted to advance to the semifinal. So she was disappointed but she was skiing fast, she’s in good shape and we’ll look forward to the pursuit tomorrow.”
A Points Race for Randall
Some other dramas will play out this weekend in the points races. Bjørgen and Johaug are just three points apart in the competition for the overall World Cup title with 1295 and 1292 points each, respectively. Astrid Jacobsen has a solid grip on third place with 974 points, but Randall is in a close race with Norway’s Heidi Weng for fourth; Weng has 791 points and Randall, with 790, is only one point behind, making Randall the top non-Norwegian in the world.
Good Day for U.S. Women
Seven American women started and four qualified (Randall, Caldwell, Bjornsen and Ida Sargent, who finished in 20th after her quarterfinal), with Jessie Diggins less than two seconds and four places out of the qualifying time.
“I was actually pretty satisfied with my race,” Diggins wrote in an email. “This is my first race and chance to do anything really hard since I got sick after the Olympics, so it felt really good just to be racing again.”
“Classic sprinting has never really been my thing,” she continued, “but it’s also nice to have some big goals to work on for next year – I’m still looking forward to qualifying in a classic sprint!”
Distance skiers Liz Stephen and Caitlin Gregg rounded out the American squad, finishing 44th and 48th, respectively.
A former U.S. national team skier, Gregg didn’t hold back in her praise for her teammates.
“I am continuously impressed by how well our USA girls are skiing,” she said. “We had four qualify and Diggs [Diggins] was right there as well, and then two moved onto the final! It’s incredible to be in this positive atmosphere!”
— Rosalie Lipfert contributed reporting