As Italy’s Federico Pellegrino and a contingent of Russian skiers shined in the 1.3 k freestyle sprint in Rybinsk, Russia, the North American skiers attempted to keep. While three Americans and Canadian Alex Harvey qualified for the heats, no North American skiers made it into the semifinals.
American Simi Hamilton had a strong qualifier, qualifying in sixth and finishing 5.29 seconds behind top qualifier Sergey Ustiugov of Russia (2:41.10).
Hamilton – who placed eighth in the Tour de Ski freestyle sprint in Val Mustair earlier this month – said in a phone interview that he was pleased with how the qualifier went and that the sixth-place result was encouraging.
“It was one of those days where the snow was super soft, and I think in the past I haven’t been able to ski in conditions like that too well … but I think I’m definitely getting better at skiing in those softer snowy conditions,” Hamilton said.
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said in a phone interview that it had snowed “quite a bit” the night before and the morning of the race. Even though the snow tapered off before the competition began, it made for challenging conditions.
“They re-groomed the course an hour before the competition but it was a really dry snow so and didn’t really bond. It was pretty soft for qualification,” Grover said.
American Andy Newell qualified in 16th (+7.59) and said in a phone interview that he felt decent during the qualifier. However, he was hampered by a neck injury that developed during the World Cup races in Otepää, Estonia, where he finished 17th overall in the classic sprint.
“My neck was all jacked up and I was racing with hot packs taped on there to loosen it up, but it still wasn’t feeling great, and especially across the flats it was hurting a decent amount,” the 32 year old said.
The highlight for the Americans on Saturday was Erik Bjornsen posting his best sprint result ever on the World Cup, taking 20th (+8.64) and reaching the heats for the first time.
The 23 year old wrote in an email that he believed his fitness allowed him to push hard from the start and maintain a consistent pace throughout the race.
“The track was soft so I didn’t feel like I was Superman, but I kept the tempo up and tried to keep it light. It seemed to really work! I was pretty close to some guys I’m usually several seconds behind,” Bjornsen wrote.
Grover was also excited for Bjornsen, saying he beat several sprinter specialists to get into the quarterfinals.
“He looked great in qualifications. People were really struggling but he was really powering so that was really cool. He was stoked, and it’s exciting to get another skier in the men’s sprint points besides Simi and Andy,” Grover explained.
Bjornsen landed in the first quarterfinal heat, and found himself up against eventual finalists Ustiugov, who would take second overall, and Norway’s Emil Iversen.
Bjornsen was never competitive in the heat, writing that he was “a bit of a spectator from the back of the pack.” Iversen won the heat in 2:40.36, with Bjornsen finishing 2.30 seconds behind in fifth. He was 24th overall.
“I see that you have to be … aggressive in the World Cup heats. Not a surprise but something that I will learn from experience,” Bjornsen wrote. “Next time I will be a little less shocked to be there and a little more hungry for a semifinal spot!”
Meanwhile, Harvey — coming off a 10th-place finish in Friday’s 15 k freestyle individual start — qualified in 25th (+9.44).
Three other Canadians also raced, but failed to qualify. Lenny Valjas was 42nd (+13.00), 1.89 seconds behind the final qualifier, while Jesse Cockney was 47th (+15.57) and Patrick Stewart-Jones was 52nd (+21.29) out of 53 finishers.
Newell, Hamilton, and Harvey all raced in the same quarterfinal, in addition to eventual finalist Nikita Kriukov of Russia.
Hamilton said he felt like he had a great start to the heat, skiing just behind Kriukov. However, he said that he was not aggressive enough on the long flats before the steep climb and let other skiers pass him on both sides.
“Once that happened, I knew that to stay in contention I had to get back by a couple people before the steep climb,” Hamilton explained, adding that he tried to pass France’s Paul Goalabre on the right but was prevented by the soft, powdery snow.
At the start of the climb, Hamilton said that Goalabre accidentally knocked his left ski, causing him to fall on his knees. He got up quickly, but was not able to catch up with the leaders, especially on the fast downhill going into the finish.
Kriukov won the heat in a time of 2:43.77, and Hamilton finished fourth (+1:39), ending up 17th overall.
“I kept my effort up all the way through the finish … but it’s a tough finish, just super soft all the way through the finish lanes which makes for an interesting last 20 or 30 seconds. You ski as hard as you can but you still feel like you’re skiing a 30 k or 50 k because you’re not moving that fast,” Hamilton said.
Grover said Hamilton’s slip was unfortunate, as he was forced to play catch-up and “wasn’t able to demonstrate really where he is.”
Meanwhile, Newell took fifth in the heat (+2.12) to take 22nd overall.
Newell said that he tried to put himself in a good position while ascending the hill, and was in third at the top. He tried to get in position right behind Kriukov but was unable to secure his position.
“I just got gassed a little bit over the top … I don’t have much power with the way I’m skiing right now,” Newell explained.
He also said his injured neck played a factor in the quarterfinal heat.
“I don’t like to make excuses but I’m not 100 percent when it comes to racing right now … it’s hard to heal and it’s just getting worse some days; sprints and stuff make it worse. So I need to try and heal it up so I can get some hard training in,” Newell said.
Harvey finished just behind Newell to take sixth in the heat (+2.24) and ended up 28th overall.
“It was not a good sprint for me today. I wasn’t in the greatest spot before the climb and got stuck behind a fall. I am now focusing on tomorrow’s 30 kilometer,” Harvey told Cross Country Canada.
As for Sunday’s skiathlon, Bjornsen wrote that it is the race he was most excited for going into this weekend.
“I’m definitely a little tired from the last two races and intervals in the cold on Thursday, but I have nothing to lose out there! Tomorrow is just another opportunity to ski with the fastest guys in the world,” Bjornsen wrote.
However, Newell is planning to sit out the race in order to heal his neck, and Hamilton said his status depends on the conditions.
He said if the recent snowfall sets up before the race and the snow becomes firmer and faster, there is a chance that he will race, but if the snow remains soft and slow he will probably opt out of the race.
After leaving Rybinsk, the American team will have a training camp in Davos, Switzerland, then head to World Cup races in Oestersund, Sweden, before World Championships begin in Falun on Feb. 18.