Three Americans made the heats on Saturday, and all of them felt basically “meh” about their races.
“If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again,” Sadie Bjornsen wrote in an online message after placing 15th in the women’s 1.2-kilometer classic sprint in Otepää, Estonia.
In some ways, she found a good deal of success: Bjornsen qualified in 18th, 6,76 seconds behind Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who won the qualifier and went on to win the women’s final. Then the 25-year-old Bjornsen, who was coming off some of her best results of the season in her first Tour de Ski 10 days earlier, nearly secured a spot in the semifinal.
But she was three-hundredths of a second short. In a photo finish for second in her quarterfinal, Bjornsen finished third to Sweden’s Magdalena Pajala, and was 0.34 seconds behind the heat’s winner of the heat, Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes of Norway.
According to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, Bjornsen executed her tactics almost perfectly.
“She skied great and of course she is not that happy with it because she has had a lot of qualifiers, but she has struggled to get through the quarterfinals this year,” he said on the phone Saturday. “She really wanted to get through there and man, did she come incredibly close.”
In six sprints this season (two of which have been classic sprints), Bjornsen has made the quarterfinals in four of them, but yet to advance to the semifinals. Her best result this season has been 13th in the Tour de Ski freestyle sprint in Val Müstair, Switzerland.
Out of the start, she challenged for the lead, but tucked behind Russia’s Anastasia Dotsenko after the two bumped slightly while vying for the same track. Pajala led the group out, with Gjeitnes coming up alongside the Swede at the base of the lone climb on the women’s course.
Bjornsen skied hard to get directly behind Pajala, and with five women bunched together at the apex, she was fifth heading into the descent. Sweden’s Evelina Settlin went down moments later, slipping out of contention, and Bjornsen moved into fourth next to Gjeitnes.
She rode her skis even with the Norwegian, tucking while Dotsenko had to stand up and double pole over the last rise, and Gjeitnes and Bjornsen caught Pajala rounding the corner into the finishing straight.
While it looked to be a double-pole showdown for first between Bjornsen and Pajala, with Bjornsen slightly ahead early, Gjeitnes caught them both before the finish, and Pajala outlunged Bjornsen at the line.
“Sadie knew she wanted to be in the top two and she put herself in position with a few meters to go where she was actually second, but she just couldn’t hold off Pajala there at the end,” Grover said.
If she could do it again, Bjornsen explained she would want more of a push at the end.
“I was double poling against one of the finalists [Pajala, who ended up sixth]… so I think I was in there,” Bjornsen wrote. “It was one of those days where the weather was making each heat slower and slower, so maybe on a different day, it could have been a lucky loser position.”
Her heat was the fifth-and-final quarterfinal before the men started. Temperatures hovered above freezing, but it started to rain lightly before the heats. Later on in the rounds, that turned to snow.
Soon after Bjornsen’s heat, two other U.S. Ski Team members — Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton — started next to each other with four others in the first men’s quarterfinal on a 1.5 k course with a second, steeper climb.
Newell pushed to get in front and lead up the first climb with Norway’s Pål Golberg, while Hamilton skied behind Newell at the back of the pack. Another Norwegian, Ola Vigen Hattestad worked to get in front of Newell at the base of the second hill, which required the not-so-pretty herringbone technique to get up in the softening conditions.
Golberg stayed ahead over the top and Hattestad trailed him by a few meters in second, while Newell skied in third ahead of Hamilton and Switzerland’s Gianluca Cologna. None of the men were quite close enough to get a draft, leaving Newell and Hamilton to race the clock in third and fourth into the finish.
“They [Hattestad and Golberg] had good skis today,” Hamilton said on the phone afterward. The two went on to place second and fourth in the final. “Not that we didn’t, but [the Norwegians] have the resources and the people to make great skis every day and that really showed. I was really psyched on my skis for sure, but having great skis, it’s hard to bridge that gap, especially with such a long hard downhill on the second part of the course.”
In the finishing lanes, both Hamilton and Newell realized it was faster outside the track and skied alongside each other. Hamilton came from behind to finish 0.42 seconds ahead of Newell and 3.26 seconds behind Golberg, who won the quarterfinal, and Hattestad, who was 0.3 seconds back in second.
Their quarterfinal was the third slowest, and neither Hamilton nor Newell advanced to the semifinals.
While Hamilton, who narrowly qualified in 30th and went on to place 16th overall, hadn’t felt great in the qualifying round, he noted some improvement in the quarterfinals — and some of his weaknesses as well.
“Up the gradual climb from 400 meters to a ‘k’ or so, I felt like I kind of lost some energy there and that’s something I need to work on for the future,” he said. “I wasn’t able to relax as much there.”
However, he felt he regrouped on the second half of the course.
“I was happy how I skied that,” he said, after putting in a surge up the last climb. “I knew that [Cologna and Ueli Schnider] were fading behind me and I wanted to put a gap on them so they couldn’t get a draft off me.”
Hamilton was pleased with his double-pole finish and his ability to maintain good technique and a high tempo in that stretch, which he’s been working on. He also knew the conditions on Saturday didn’t suit him: “It was kind of soft and sloppy … I think it takes really good balance, something that I’m always working on, but I definitely like it when it’s super-icy and fast and firm.
“I know there’s a lot more,” he added. “I still have some work to do before world champs, but that’s what this time of year is for — keep the train going and trust the coaches and know that in just a few weeks we’ll be at the top of our game.”
“His fitness is there,” Grover commented. “He skied really relaxed during his quarterfinal on the back … but then just got stronger as the round went on and actually passed Andy in the final stretch. He had a great finish and double pole [which] he has been working on it a lot and it is really coming.”
Newell, who qualified 21st and placed 17th overall, said on the phone Saturday that it was fun, but “weird” to be classic sprinting again after not having raced that format since the first World Cup of the season in Kuusamo, Finland.
“This was the first time we had raced this [course], and I think if I’m feeling 100 percent, this is a really good course for me … one I hope to make the finals in,” he said. “But I’m still kind of working into things.”
This season, Newell has been struggling to manage an allergic reaction that comes out in the form of hives and elevated heart rates, and seems to intensify with hard workouts. While his heart rate had normalized this week, Newell took it easy leading up to Saturday’s sprint, Grover explained.
“We’ve been just trying to figure out what’s causing that by trying different diets and different medicines,” Newell explained. “It’s more like there’s something suppressing my system … in a way that’s making me hive up when I’m under stress.”
This week, he started eating gluten-free, following the lead of teammate Liz Stephen, which he said he’d try for a couple weeks despite it being hard to do in Europe.
“Until I figure out my allergic reaction, my racing’s not going to be at my potential,” Newell said. “I think if I felt 100 percent, it would’ve been a better day. I was in there and I knew Hattestad and Golberg would be tough in the finish. … I would’ve been happy trying to lead over that hill and gap them a little bit.”
While he knew Golberg and Hattestad would be tough to beat and even more difficult to catch in the finishing stretch, he didn’t realize Hamilton was right behind him.
“I think for both Simi and I, the race was finished at the top hill,” he said.
In the final straightaway, Newell recalled feeling “draggy; a little fatigued for sure. You just have to try to get across the finish line quickly in hopes that you’re going to get a lucky loser spot,” he said.
But after a long break from racing, he was ready to get back at it again.
“I think my body and my energy are feeling good for sure. I don’t think the result showed that,” Newell said.
On Sunday, Newell and Hamilton will team up in the freestyle team sprint, while Erik Bjornsen and SuperTour leader Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) start on the second squad.
On the women’s side, Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell will team up, and Ida Sargent and SuperTour leader Rosie Brennan (Alaska Pacific University) will form the second team. Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins are taking a break after the Tour and training in Seiser Alm, Italy.
Caldwell started first on Saturday and placed 31st in the qualifier, 0.9 seconds out of the top 30 needed to make the quarterfinals in her first classic sprint of the season.
“Even though the result wasn’t anything spectacular, I am not disappointed,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I knew that classic sprinting was going to be more difficult for me because I’m naturally a better skate sprinter and it requires more upper body strength, which I’m still working on. The course was pretty broken down and the women’s course in particular had a lot of double poling. I don’t mind the soft conditions, but a gradual classic course is probably not my strength.”
She felt like she had good skis — a sentiment echoed by her teammates — and Grover agreed.
“I think our skis were actually pretty good for the day,” he said, explaining they used straight klister. “Norway had smoking-fast skis during qualification. I think probably they were probably just better than everybody else’s. I mean, they had ten guys make the rounds.”
Brennan placed 38th in her first World Cup of the season, 2.8 seconds from 30th. It was her first time back on the circuit since December 2013, and her best result since finishing 38th in the World Cup skiathlon two seasons ago in Canmore, Alberta.
Straight off U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich., seven time zones away, Brennan and Gelso arrived in Estonia on Wednesday night.
“There is always some amount of jetlag and shaking the travel out, but I feel like I have been faring well all things considered,” Brennan wrote in an email. “It felt good to go hard again, but I feel I don’t have the turn over I would like after a long week of really slow snow in Houghton. I have to say, the course even felt really short after Houghton, which is not the usual reaction when coming from the U.S.”
At nationals, Brennan won three out of four races.
“I was hoping to just feel like I was skiing well today and I think I accomplished that,” she explained. “I have found from my previous experiences over here that putting some sort of results goal in front of you is often counterproductive and that you can’t beat yourself up over results here. It takes a lot of patience. Weaknesses are often inflated when you go against the best so I already have a good idea of what I need to work on to get the result I believe I am capable of. I’m happy to be here and trying to take each day on its own to make the best of my time here.”
Sargent finished 43rd after falling in the qualifier on the downhill corner into the stadium.
“It is kind of a high-speed corner and it was a little bit tricky … you kind of went from an icy track to loose snow,” Grover explained. “I think her klister just grabbed a little bit as she was going around the corner and the skis were on edge. … It was the worst place on the course to lose your momentum because it is absolutely the place where you are going the fastest. … She is obviously bummed out because it is basically the same thing that she did in Val Müstair.”
“Another sprint another fall…Ugh!” Sargent tweeted afterward. “Practicing patience and getting psyched for the next one!”
Erik Bjornsen finished 57th in the men’s qualifier, 15.19 seconds behind Golberg.
In terms of the team on the whole and what they’re working on in the weeks leading up to World Championships next month, Grover said it breaks down on an individual basis.
“Everybody’s got their thing that is holding them back a little,” he said. “For some it is perhaps fatigue, for some it is that they haven’t fine tuned their fitness, for some it is a double-pole finish, for some it is how they are herringboning compared to some of these others. … I think going into our two-week camp in Davos following Rybinsk [next weekend] everybody is going to have their list that needs to get accomplished if everybody is going to take a step forward.”
— Matt Voisin 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.