It’s not easy being the person who has to say when. But that’s Erik Flora’s job, as head coach and director of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Team, which includes three U.S. Ski Team members and a fleet of top domestic skiers.
In the middle of the pinnacle event of the season for stateside racers — U.S. Cross Country Championships in Houghton, Mich. — Flora had to take the time to check in with his World Cup athletes, including Kikkan Randall, Sadie Bjornsen and Erik Bjornsen, who competed in the Tour de Ski earlier this week.
The Bjornsen siblings raced through the fourth stage of the Tour, the 5- and 10-kilometer classic races in Toblach, Italy, and Randall went one stage beyond to end her run with the 15 k freestyle pursuit, also in Toblach.
When each would stop the Tour and move on to a training camp in Ramsau, Austria, had been predetermined before the seven-stage series began. But when someone like Sadie was having some of the best races of her career, and leaving her first-ever Tour in seventh overall, it made actually withdrawing harder than expected.
“Man, that was a hard decision, sitting in seventh and her coach to advising her to keep with her plan,” Flora reflected inside APU’s wax trailer at the Michigan Tech Trails in Houghton. He was finishing up his duties for the day at nationals on Thursday, shortly after the end of the last junior mass start.
However, the decision was calculated, he said.
“Sadie is in good form — really good form,” Flora began. “She has made a big step this year and we can see that all the way through the summer … training went better than it has ever gone.”
She and the rest of the U.S. team got through Period 1, the first four weekends of World Cup racing, and that was “a long bat of racing,” he said. Most top World Cup racers plan breaks in advance during the season: “As far as recently, we don’t really see any of the top ladies racing all the way though the season,” he added.
For Sadie, Flora said they reasoned it made sense to have her compete throughout Period 1, then train over the holidays before embarking on her first Tour de Ski.
“That would be a pretty substantial stress and then she could take a break now and then race the next two weekends in the World Cup,” he added. “I think it is important for a lot of the young athletes to get the experience of racing a lot of the different venues and learning about the different venues and that was the goal for Sadie.
“I think she can be one of the top skiers here over the next few years and to be able to learn each venue while she is young and still up-and-coming is very important,” Flora said. “The Tour is also one of those goals this year, mainly to get a feel for how the Tour works and obviously she got the hang of that pretty quickly, but when she called me and the question was, ‘Should I keep going?’ I thought that it was good.”
They could have encouraged her to continue, then sit out the next two World Cup stops in Otepää, Estonia (Jan. 17-18) and Rybinsk, Russia (Jan. 23-25), “or pull out of the Tour now and have a chance to race the next two World Cup weekends. You know she had met all of her goals up to this point and she would have done well had she stayed in the Tour, but next year we will make another run at that again,” Flora said.
“It’s definitely really hard to have to drop out – or not have to, but I’ve chosen to drop out just to save some energy because I’m going to race in Estonia next weekend,” Sadie said on the phone on Wednesday. “But it’s gone better than I expected, and I think it’s so much fun. … I can’t imagine what you would feel like after doing seven, or nine races next year, I feel like you would feel so accomplished just finishing it. Four days is extremely hard, so I definitely respect the whole Tour de Ski so much more after this.”
While she’s headed to Ramsau, Randall is going home to Anchorage, Alaska, before flying to Sweden at the end of January to prepare for the last World Cup before World Championships (Feb. 14-15 in Östersund, Sweden). Later that week and into early March, she and the team will compete at World Championships in Falun, Sweden.
According to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, Randall planned to leave Friday for Alaska, where she’d spend about 16 days trying “to kind of take a break from the World Cup and just get re-centered,” he said. “That is a new plan for her; she was never really planning on finishing the Tour.”
Flora explained he talked to Randall on Thursday morning about it.
“It was something that I suggested a few days ago,” he said. “Kikkan has spent a lot of time racing over in Europe over the last few years and she has gotten very good at it. [I’m] always really impressed with the way that she races and trains and travels.
“Period 1 this year hasn’t gone that well for Kikkan and so we wanted to just take a little bit of time,” he added. “We made a plan to just race through this [fifth] stage in the Tour, that was always the plan, race the first five stages and then again take a training break and prep and get ready for the World Championships.”
Considering her trends in training and racing, and how much of both she’s done over the last few months, “we decided it would be smart to just take a break and get some rest,” Flora said. “When racing is going well and you’re in a good place in Europe, it is much better to stay there and race. Sometimes it makes sense to take a little break and refocus, and that was my recommendation, to come home take a training break and refocus and go back over for a camp and get ready for World Championships.”
While Randall could not be reached for comment on Friday, she wrote in an email to members of the press after Thursday’s stage, “With 5 races now under my belt I am leaving the Tour and taking some time to recover and rediscover my top form. The big focus on the season is still the Falun World Championships and I am focusing all my efforts on being in the best shape in February.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.