Change happens. After four-consecutive seasons of the World Cup opening with the Ruka Triple in Kuusamo, Finland — all of which Marit Bjørgen won outright — Lillehammer, Norway, became the new host of the first mini tour of 2014/2015. And it opened with freestyle sprints on Friday.
Luckily for Bjørgen, skiing on home snow wasn’t a problem. It actually worked out for her quite nicely in the women’s 1.3-kilometer skate sprint. The overall World Cup leader since last weekend, Bjørgen (who won the opening classic sprint in Kuusamo) steamrolled the competition for her second-straight World Cup sprint victory on Friday afternoon.
“It is always fun to win. That’s what you train for,” she told NRK after the race. It’s a good thing it doesn’t get old.
To say she was a favorite would be an understatement — but there are never sure-things in racing. Most would put American Kikkan Randall right up there with her, after Randall’s won seven of the last 13 World Cup skate sprints, but it became apparent early on that showdown wasn’t going to play out in Lillehammer, at least not today.
Randall failed to qualify for the rounds after placing 43rd in the morning prelim. She was 12.48 seconds behind Bjørgen, the fastest woman’s qualifier, and 1.63 seconds outside the top 20.
The last time Randall missed out on the heats in a World Cup sprint was four years ago in Kuusamo— and that was a classic sprint. In 2009 in Lahti, Finland, she placed 47th in a freestyle sprint.
“My race shape is not quite 100% yet, and, in combination with battling a cold this week and possibly some tough skis for our team today, I missed advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time since spring of 2009,” Randall wrote in an email. “While this is not what we were all hoping for today, the good news is we get right back at it tomorrow with an individual start skate race. … I always love another chance to get out there and fight again!”
With Randall out of the picture (and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk out of qualifying in 37th), the next question to be answered was which Norwegian would win the day and by how much. After the morning qualifier, Bjørgen appeared primed for the heats, yet eight of the top 10 women were her teammates, or at least skiing for Norway. In total, 13 of the top 30 qualifying spots went to Norwegian women.
The quarterfinals started off with Bjørgen setting the early pace in the first heat, winning in 3:01.38. Of the five quarterfinal heats, her winning time was fourth-slowest. The fastest quarterfinal belonged to Norway’s Heidi Weng, who won the third heat in 2:59:55, 0.35 seconds ahead of Germany’s Denise Herrmann. In the fourth quarterfinal, Norway’s Therese Johaug pushed the pace up the final long climb back up to the stadium, but didn’t have quite the sprint kick in the finishing stretch and placed third, about half a second behind teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in first (3:02.94) and 0.3 seconds back from Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter in second.
The first women’s semifinal was stacked with three strong Norwegians: Bjørgen, Weng and Celine Brun-Lie, who took second in the second quarterfinal to Norway’s Mari Eide.
Bjørgen set a blistering pace in her semi, treating it more like a final than a qualifying round. She had skied similarly in the quarterfinal, controlling the pace and leading out of the start, but this time, she was out for a definitive win and the fastest time as well. She lead from start to finish and held off Weng by 0.14 seconds in 2:56.42.
Brun-Lie finished third in that semifinal, but moved on a lucky loser with a fast-enough time, along with Slovenia’s Katja Visnar in fourth.
The second heat showcased Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla, the winner of the fifth quarterfinal, and Herrmann. Falla beat out Herrmann in the photo finish in 3:01.51. Leading the race with Falla into the stadium, Østberg narrowly missed out on the final in third (+0.33). Ingemarsdotter dropped off the pace late to finish outside the top three, but nipped Norway’s Ragnhild Haga in a another photo finish for fourth (+2.12).
Of the six women in the final, four were Norwegian: Bjørgen, Weng, Brun-Lie, and Falla. Visnar and Herrmann toed the start line with them.
Now the question was how much energy Bjørgen had left after her rocket-fast semifinal. That was easily answered immediately after the start. She flew out of the gate and never looked back, as Weng led the initial chase, followed by Falla and Brun-Lie. Not far behind them on the first hill, Herrmann and Visnar appeared to conserve at the back.
Halfway through the final, it became clear that the two non-Norwegians simply couldn’t catch the four-woman train ahead of them. Bjørgen continued to lead the charge, with Falla, Weng, and Brun-Lie in tow at the bottom of the last grueling hill. By the top, Bjørgen remained in front, letting the teammates behind her duke it out for the remaining podium spots.
Bjørgen won it in 2:55.71 by 0.76 seconds over Brun-Lie, who edged Weng in a photo finish for second. Four-hundredths of a second separated the two, and Falla completed Norway’s top-four sweep in fourth, 1.43 seconds behind Bjørgen. Visnar took fifth (+4.43) and Herrmann finished sixth (+7.57).
Shortly after, FIS Media Coordinator Jeff Ellis was at a loss for words interviewing Bjørgen on camera. “We’ve done this many times. What would you like to answer today?” he said.
“I am very happy today. I was good in the prologue and also in the heats,” she responded. “Thanks to our men in the waxing cabin, it’s amazing how our skis have been in the last week and also this weekend. The shape is very good and today I feel very fast also.”
It was her 84th World Cup win (including stages), according to FIS, and Brun-Lie’s first World Cup podium since two seasons ago in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s been a long time since my last podium,” Brun-Lie told FIS. “I am very grateful for the support I got from the people around me.”
“I’ve had so many downs in recent years,” she told NRK while tearing up, according to a translation. “Now I am very happy.”
Weng said she had fun in the final with Bjørgen and Brun-Lie, despite being a little irked by Bjørgen’s repeated success.
“She’s a machine,” Weng told NRK. “That’s a bit irritating. I was thinking that if I could only hang on over the crest, I should be able to beat her. But she just puts a gap on you right away.”
“She’s a machine and difficult to beat. That’s a bit irritating.” — Heidi Weng, third in Lillehammer skate sprint on Friday, to NRK
“I tried to follow Marit so that she did not ski away too far, but she was very strong,” she told FIS. “I am very happy for the third place. I will try to have a good performance tomorrow and beat Marit.”
Bjørgen is currently first in the Lillehammer “triple” standings with a time of 2:27.5, 6.3 seconds ahead of Brun-Lie and 9.3 second in front of Weng.
Johaug, who didn’t advance past the quarterfinals, currently trails Bjørgen by 32.4 seconds. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla is 36 seconds back and Kowalczyk 41 seconds behind.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting