There’s something to be said for skiing like you’ve got nothing to lose. Ask Kikkan Randall, who locked up the World Cup sprint title for the third year in a row last Wednesday in Drammen, Norway. Or Sadie Bjornsen, who’s been plagued with bouts of illness for the better part of the last three months.
Both U.S. Ski Team members later said they felt relatively good before the start and during most of the world-famous Holmenkollen 30-kilometer classic mass start on Sunday in Oslo, Norway.
It was still a dang-tough course, with an initial 5 k lap followed by a larger 8.3 k lap containing two smaller loops (at least the skiers kept it straight). After getting off to a strong start, Bjornsen said she was a little frightened with the tempo of the women she was skiing with.
“At four k, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to maintain this pace, but I’ll hang on until I explode,’ ” she recalled.
Bjornsen did her best to hold her position just outside the top 10, first testing her grit with some Finns, including Krista Lahteenmaki and Anne Kyllönen. The American quickly found their classic style didn’t match hers and she opted to ski with several Norwegians, including Tuva Toftdahl Staver, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Kristin Størmer-Steira, and Martha Kristoffersen for the first several kilometers.
Bjornsen said the Norwegians’ “really big strides,” matching hers, made the difference. “I was appreciative of that,” she said.
Kyllönen’s stride was simply too big, she said, and “Lahteenmaki, I felt like I was in a sprinting running race; she has a very short tempo. I followed her for a couple k and my legs were flooded.”
By 10 k, Norway’s Martine Ek Hagen was right there with Bjornsen as well, and Randall was just off the back of their seven-person chase pack, which at the time, was about a minute and 30 seconds behind eventual winner Marit Bjørgen.
With Norwegian fans lining the entire course, Bjornsen said the atmosphere brought her back to her international debut at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo.
“It was World Championships loud,” Bjornsen said. “I kept hearing my name in the mix, but more than anything, I could hear them yelling, ‘Kikkan.’ She’s a national hero here. She’s huge.”
The crowd and endless cheers fueled Bjornsen to staying within the top 15 throughout the race, with Randall close behind for most of it. Ultimately, Randall shot to the front of the pack and continued to pick off places with 1.5 k to go, finishing 12th for her career-best 30 k, just 10 seconds ahead of Bjornsen in 14th, also her best distance race.
Two years ago — the first time Bjornsen raced in Holmenkollen — she placed 40th in the 30 k classic. She did not race there last year.
“I couldn’t have picked a better way to ski it with four Norwegians,” Bjornsen said after going head-to-head with Heidi Weng, Østberg, Hagen and Kristoffersen to the line. She beat all but Weng, who took 13th by 0.4 seconds, and edged Østberg by one-tenth of a second for 14th, 4:27.8 back from Bjørgen. The top Norwegian became the first woman to win four Holmenkollen titles in what doubled as her 100th World Cup podium.
Randall finished 4:17.7 after Bjørgen, without anyone within several seconds of her. She recalled being 100 meters behind the pack for most of the middle part of the race, with skis that were “a little slick” on the first lap sending her in for a fresh pair at 13.3 k.
Bjornsen changed there as well, where she said everyone was switching. Skiing on her “B-pair” until that point, she said her skis were great — gripping on the uphills and fast enough on the downhills. But she wasn’t about to second guess what everyone else was doing, and changed to her A-pair. That was the first time a ski change worked out in her favor, she said.
The group she was with never switched again (out of a possible three times), and while most struggled with kick on the icy last lap, Bjornsen said it was the same for everybody.
The turning point for Bjornsen and Randall’s group came with 5 k to go. Bjornsen and Staver fell off the pace slightly around 20 k, but worked their way back up by the top of the long climb known as Frognerseteren. By then, Bjornsen and Randall racing with five Norwegians and Japan’s Masako Ishida.
“We came down the hill and suddenly [the Norwegians] started sprinting so hard,” Bjornsen said. “Suddenly, they’re in sprint pace and I was like, ‘Wow, are they going to do this to the finish? This is gonna be really hard.’ ”
About a kilometer later with 4 k remaining, the pace slowed. Randall then took off before the 28.5 k checkpoint.
“Now I’m kicking myself for not trying to go with her,” Bjornsen said. “But she was so impressive.”
After changing her skis, Randall said her arms started cramping on the second lap, but she double poled with her legs and core as much as possible, and was able to latch back on by the top of the course on lap three.
“It’s kind of a nice feeling when you get to the top of the course on that third lap — now you know some of the big hills are done and … see whats left in the tank,” she said.
With two climbs remaining, Randall knew she had the speed and energy to knock off a few places in the standings. She jumped in her own track and skied her own tempo, then simply “ran out of room toward the finish,” she said. “It’s aways fun having people to catch.”
The result was something she could be pleased with, especially in a distance classic race that isn’t typically her bread and butter. Going into the 30 k, Randall said she didn’t have to worry about her mind wandering off to the upcoming sprint at World Cup Finals on Friday. Had the pressure been on to win that sprint, she might have approached Holmenkollen differently, especially as the race got tougher.
“It was kind of nice to be able to wrap up the Sprint Cup and go, ‘Now I just get to race,’ and not worry about whether it’s a smart decision or not,” she said.
While Randall was aiming for a top 15, Bjornsen said she wasn’t sure what to expect for a result. She had come down with one of her worst colds yet after the Sochi Olympics, and went for her first 30-minute walk/ski last Tuesday. She raced Wednesday in Drammen (qualifying in 21st then placing 30th), then focused on getting healthier each day until the 30 k.
“I would say now I’m 100 percent,” Bjornsen said.
Reflecting on her second Holmenkollen experience, she said this one will definitely be among her most memorable races.
“Holmenkollen has such an incredible atmosphere,” she said. “I was trying to take in the noise level at the top of Frognerseteren, so that helped and also skiing with a bunch of Norwegians.”
Three other U.S. women made the top 40, and Ida Sargent was close behind in 42nd.
Liz Stephen placed 32nd (+8:30.2) after two crashes. Sophie Caldwell finished 35th (+8:48.1) in her first Holmenkollen 30 k, and Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) was 39th (+10:15.3).
“Tough day for me with a couple of crashes early on, but nothing serious like Astrid [Jacobsen] experienced,” Stephen wrote in a message, referring to the Norwegian’s scary crash off a ledge that sent her to the hospital. She suffered a blow to her head, shoulder and hip, but was not seriously injured, according to NRK.
“The atmosphere here at Holmenkollen is definitely something special, with fans chanting your name, and campfire smoke billowing in the air and sausage smells and fresh waffle smells wafting throughout the race,” Stephen wrote. “Someday I am going to have to come camp out and be one of the fans out there, for sure.”
Caldwell explained that it was a long enough race that she had “multiple highs and lows throughout it, but overall I think it went well,” she wrote in an email.
She switched her skis once at 13.3 k because everyone else was doing it, not necessarily because she needed to.
“I got to ski with Liz a bunch which was fun and then otherwise kind of hopped between a couple groups,” Caldwell wrote. “The race atmosphere was insane. There are people lining the entire course who have been camping out all weekend and they all know your name. They have start lists, so as long as you aren’t skiing with any Norwegians, they start chanting your name as you go by. I think the extra cheers definitely helped motor me around the course.”
According to Gregg, who was especially confident in her skis and stuck with the same pair throughout the race: “no matter how you are feeling, the spirit of the crowds lift you up.” While the classic race wasn’t her specialty, she enjoyed the length.
“My result was solid but certainly not outstanding,” Gregg wrote. “Some of girls had awesome races today so that was really cool! I found the pace right off the gun to be ridiculously fast and it kind of caught me off guard. I was in last place from the end of the stadium. This is something I obviously need to work on. Throughout the race I continued to move up steadily as other racers got tired.”
Gregg with travel with the U.S. team to race at the three-day World Cup Finals in Falun.
“This will be my first time racing there and I am very excited about the format!” she wrote.
Bjornsen said making it to World Cup Finals has been her major goal since last season.
“It’s going to be fun because it’s a lot of different races,” she said.
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.