Sadie Bjornsen very specifically stated that she didn’t wanted to start the season as hot as in year’s past, like last year when she was seventh in the 5-kilometer classic in Kuusamo, Finland.
On Saturday, the 25-year-old U.S. Ski Team member made it into the points and the quarterfinals of Kuusamo’s classic sprint in 29th, which she said at the time was on par with how she hoped to perform in the first race of the season.
Imagine how she felt after placing 17th in Sunday’s 10 k classic.
“Sometimes how you did in the past can dictate how you feel about a result on a specific venue,” Bjornsen said on the phone after Sunday’s race. “So it would be easy to be like, ‘Oh, I got seventh last year. I wish that I did better.’ But I was actually just as satisfied today as I was one year ago. You just have different goals each year.”
Bjornsen finished 1:53.6 minutes behind the winner, Norway’s Therese Johaug, and about 29 seconds out of the top 10. She had the best American result of the day, followed by Jessie Diggins in 39th (+2:50), Ida Sargent in 51st, and her brother Erik Bjornsen in 52nd in the men’s 15 k classic.
Liz Stephen placed 55th in her first race of 2014/2015, Kikkan Randall was 57th, and for the men, Simi Hamilton finished 69th, Reese Hanneman was 82nd and Andy Newell 83rd on his birthday.
And while Bjornsen said she had a good race, in which she started faster than usual and left it all on the line on the women’s two-lap course, she didn’t consider it overly special.
“When you’re having spectacular races, you don’t notice that it’s hurting, but today was one of those days that I really did notice that it was really hurting,” she said with a laugh. “Normally, I have a tendency to have a kick at the end, and today I was just very exhausted and I didn’t have that extra gear. That’s maybe the difference between a good race and a spectacular race, but that’s often the feeling at the beginning of the season anyway.”
“When you’re having spectacular races, you don’t notice that it’s hurting, but today was one of those days that I really did notice that it was really hurting.” — Sadie Bjornsen, top American finisher in 17th on Sunday in the first World Cup distance race of the season
The 35th starter out of 77 women, she didn’t have much to work with in terms of splits, but that ended up helping her.
“When you’re out there not really knowing what’s going on, then you just rely on your own pacing,” she said. “I generally start slow and speed up, and today I was generally just excited because it was the first distance race, so I started I think harder than I normally do.”
She jumped out to the 21st-fastest time by 3.1 k, and by the halfway point, Bjornsen was up into 17th — a position she held until the finish.
“I think more impressive than last year’s race was the fact that she just looked good today and she was able to slip in the top 20,” U.S. Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said. “[We’re] entering the season maybe a little bit more softly than we have in the past, and it has played out a little bit that way, but for Sadie to just lay down a solid race and be in the top 20 is incredible. I think it speaks a lot to where she can go this year.”
Bjornsen noted that the race felt much harder than it did in Kuusamo last year, but that was because she had more races behind her at this point last season. This was only her second this year.
“Last year, I came into the beginning of the season with some more time trials under my belt and in a different sort of a fitness place, and this year I tried to not come in quite as hot early on,” she said. “So I was quite happy with today.”
Whitcomb pointed out that Diggins also had a “very solid race” for the first classic-distance outing of the year.
“My race was OK, but not great…about how I thought I’d be feeling right about now!” Diggins wrote in an email. “I’m putting in a fairly large training week as a goal of mine is to be skiing faster later in the season and not coming into the races too hot.”
She explained that she didn’t pace her 10 k to perfection after getting too excited and catching her 30-second woman, Slovena’s Nika Razinger, who started just ahead of her, around 2.5 k.
“I paid for it later! Good lesson to learn,” Diggins wrote. “But my skis were good and I didn’t fall on the sketchy corner, so with my track record that’s actually a pretty awesome thing!”
She crashed in Saturday’s sprint qualifier and finished 64th, and fell in last year’s Kuusamo sprint qualifier as well.
“Matt joked, with my rate of falling down during the sprint yesterday I should have fallen 9 times out there today, but I improved a lot with no falls at all!” she added.
Diggins reflected that her technique on the gradual climbs had improved since last season, but she made a few mistakes on the steepest hills.
“Everyone was hopping out of the tracks and herringboning, and I tried to stay in the tracks too long because I have a pretty inefficient herringbone,” she explained. “So I was kind of stalling out and wasting energy out there! But overall, it was a great ‘training race’ and good to get the first distance race out of the way, learn some things about pacing again and get in a really hard effort.”
Sargent, who finished a career-best fifth in Saturday’s sprint, wrote in an email that she was very excited after that race and looked forward to the first distance race.
“I was hoping for a top 30 result but I was pretty far from that but that’s okay,” she wrote. “I was tired from yesterday and felt really flat. … After [Saturday’s] race, I know my fitness is good so I’m not too worried … I haven’t done a 10km since last winter so I wasn’t totally ready for today.”
Whitcomb observed that Sargent was simply tired, and Stephen and Randall were “well off their mark” after struggling on the climbs and herringboning to get up them.
“That’s not something that we necessarily worry about,” he said. “The results certainly weren’t where we can be. In Toblach [Italy] last year, I think we had five girls in the top , and today we were messing around in the 50s a little bit, and that’s fine. We had some athletes feeling pretty good.”
Like he alluded to, Randall wasn’t one of them.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t quite able to capitalize on the momentum from yesterday’s classic sprint and had a tough day in the 10km classic this morning,” Randall wrote in an email on Sunday. She finished 16th in Saturday’s sprint.
“I attempted to start aggressively but already within the first few kilometers I could feel the fire wasn’t quite there,” she added. “I struggled to kick up the climbs and wasn’t very satisfied with my technical skiing. I like the course here in Ruka but wasn’t able to take full advantage of the terrain like I have in past races here.”
According to Whitcomb, the wax wasn’t necessarily the problem for Randall.
“It was tricky snow and I heard Kikkan say she had good grip on her skis, she was just struggling to make them work,” he said. “It was still slightly unstable snow today. It wasn’t that hero skiing out there, which is what you hope for with Kuusamo because the courses are so hard anyways.”
While Randall summed up her weekend as a “mixed bag to start the season,” she explained she was glad to see Bjornsen, her Alaska Pacific University (APU) teammate, have a solid race.
“I owe my teammates for brightening my spirits after the race,” Randall continued. “I am encouraged by the feelings in yesterday’s sprint, but can tell my distance form still has a ways to go.”
“The results certainly weren’t where we can be. In Toblach last year, I think we had five girls in the top , and today we were messing around in the 50s a little bit, and that’s fine.” — U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb after Sunday’s 10- and 15-kilometer World Cup classic races
Erik Bjornsen Leads U.S. Men
Erik Bjornsen, the top American man in 52nd, started 13th of 96 men and posted one of the slowest times through the 3.1 k checkpoint.
“I guess I was a little gun shy this morning,” he wrote in an email, explaining that he purposely started extra conservatively after blowing up in a U.S. Ski Team time trial last weekend in Muonio, Finland. “It’s all about finding the sweet spot, I thinking I’m narrowing down on it. I haven’t done much racing in the last six months and the body feels a lot different then the last time I raced.”
Regardless, he was able to push hard on Sunday and recover on the downhills.
“Last year I made the easy mistake of training way to hard in November and this year I tried to be a little more conservative,” Bjornsen wrote, adding he felt fortunate to start the season in Europe. “I want to make the most of all the [World Cup] starts I get. Coming into it I knew that these first two World Cup weekends were going to be some of the hardest for me. Not only are they in Scandinavia, which means lots of fast national group skiers, but I also tend to start off the season a little slow.”
The conditions in Kuusamo were a bit tough for him, and he found himself running outside the tracks and double poling hard to make up time on Sunday.
“I was surprised with the race feelings the last couple of days,” he added. “The body has felt pretty good even though it has been a little flat the last couple weeks. I can tell that the fitness gains I made this summer are going to pay off.”
Also a rookie at starting the season in Europe, Hanneman, the 2013/2014 SuperTour winner, explained he was mostly excited rather than nervous for Kuusamo.
“Usually, it takes me a couple of races at the start of every season, even last year, to really get going, just because of the way I train,” Hanneman, also an APU skier, wrote in an email. “So I guess there might have been a tiny bit of that, just knowing that the consequences of not being peaked can be huge on the World Cup.”
Hanneman fell on the same downhill Noah Hoffman crashed out of contention on, but felt fortunate he was able to finish and didn’t break anything.
“I was being caught on the monster climb as we approached this downhill by a couple A seed guys including a Finn,” Hanneman explained. “The crowd was going nuts for him, and then when we started sending it down the downhill, he started yelling at me from behind and I wasn’t sure what side he wanted me to go on. I didn’t make across the trail it to the best line, which is riding the powder berm, so I just washed out on the crazy ice on the inside.
“Ruka is insane; this is my first time here,” he added. “I think people in the US who haven’t seen World Cup courses really misunderstand how hard they are; I know I did before I started racing them. The climbs here are so big, and especially so steep, there’s really nothing like them in the US. And that goes for the downhills too. Any time people say downhills in the US are too fast or too technical, I’m like… “No…” These ones here are so, so fast. TV doesn’t do them justice at all.”
One position and 2.7 seconds back in 83rd, Newell described his race as “pretty awful.”
“I really try not to be negative but there wasn’t a whole lot of positive things for me to take away from this race,” he wrote in an email. “Maybe it’s not the course for me but I always struggle with kick here and was doing a ton of slow [herringbone] out there today.”
His fitness felt good, he added, but he didn’t feel like he’d shown it in his first two World Cup races.
“I think in the future I’ll need to re-think my strategy in preparing for these races or just skip them altogether and focus on starting the season on the 2nd or 3rd weekend,” Newell wrote.
On Sunday night, even without teammate Hoffman, who was on his way to the airport 400 kilometers away to seek treatment in the U.S. for his lower-leg injury, the Americans celebrated Newell’s 31st birthday with reindeer pizza. On Monday afternoon, they planned to fly to Norway to prepare for next weekend’s mini tour in Lillehammer.
Notes: Caitlin Gregg was listed as a DNS (did not start) after waking up Sunday morning and deciding to take the day off racing.
“I am racing a little more strategically this year,” she wrote in an email. “I wasn’t feeling like I was going to be fighting for World Cup points this morning when I woke up so I decided to save my energy for next weekend’s skate races! At this level, feeling a little ‘off’ can put you waaay back in the results!
“The only way I will make World Championships is if I score World Cup points in this first period,” she added. “So I am really being careful with my energy and race decisions. I am happy to report that my decision not to race didn’t take a start spot from anyone else, just let me get in another solid day of training before next weekend!”
— Lander Karath contributed 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.