With many of the top women using this weekend to recover from last week’s Tour de Ski competition, Saturday’s World Cup stage in Otepää, Estonia, was not short on fast, up-and-coming talent.
The 1.2-kilometer classic course featured a flat start then into a tough 30-meter climb to the top of the only hill on the women’s course, then right back downhill to a tricky 180-degree turn. After the turn, the course still continued downhill to the finish line. Placing on the downhills was extremely important because as the races went on, the snow really started to get soft and tracks started to wash away. This made choosing the right wax extremely important. Too much wax and there would be no glide on the downhill, not enough wax and it was hard to get up the hill.
The first of five quarterfinal heats featured Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, the fastest qualifier in 2:52.93, Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter, Kathrine Rolsted Harsem of Norway, Natalia Matveeva of Russia, Germany’s Denise Hermann, and Russia’s Elena Soboleva.
Østberg showed that she didn’t lose any energy in the qualification round, taking the lead from the start and easily skiing away from the group to win her heat, crossing the line in 2:55.72. Ingemarsdotter was second (+1.62).
The second quarterfinal heat featured Norway’s Celine Brun-Lie, Hanna Falk of Sweden, Slovenia’s Katja Visnar and Alenka Cebasek, Switzerland’s Laurien Van Der Graaff, and Germany’s Victoria Carl .
Just like her teammate Østberg did in her heat, Brun-Lie took a very aggressive start into the hill and separated herself from the chase group. Falk was able to stay with her the entire time, but when qualification was certain, slowly eased up towards the finish to save energy. Brun-Lie won the heat in 2:58.32, and Falk took second (+0.86).
The third heat featured German teammates Hanna Kolb and Sandra Ringwald, Jennie Öberg of Sweden, Anamarija Lampic of Slovenia, Mona-Lisa Malvalehto of Finland and Yulia Romanova of Russia.
At the start, Malvalehto lead the group up the climb followed closely by Öberg. Leading into the downhill, Malvalehto was easily passed by Öberg and Lampic who were just waiting for an opportunity. The pair proceeded to separate themselves from the group and battle it out together for the win. It was a photo finish at the line between Öberg and Lampic. Öberg got the win crossing first in 3:00.77, and Lampic was 0.02 seconds behind in second.
Quarterfinal 4 featured the second-fastest qualifier and overall U23 leader Stina Nilsson of Sweden, Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, Evgenia Shapovalova of Russia, Anne Kyllönen of Finland, and Lucia Anger of Germany.
At the gun, Nilsson took command at the start and led the group up the climb followed by Falla. As the pack continued up the hill, Falla took an opportunity to pass Nilsson when a gap opened up. That was all she needed to win the heat in 2:56.05. Nilsson made a late pass and challenged Falla at the finish, but let up when second place was secured, crossing at 0.08 seconds back in second. Kowalczyk placed fourth, 2.22 second behind Falla and after Shapovalova in third, and did not advance to the semifinals.
The fifth-and-final quarterfinal heat featured a pair of Swedish teammates, Magdalena Pajala and Evelina Settlin, American Sadie Bjornsen, Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes from Norway, Anastasia Dotsenko from Russia and Krista Parmakoski from Finland.
Bjornsen started fast but wasn’t able to get any separation at the start and was quickly caught by the chase group. Heading into the first climb, the group was still together but Bjornsen was slowly dropping back, but still remained close to the leaders. Settlin fell just after the 180 turn and really broke the pack into two fields. Gjeitnes, Pajala and Bjornsen were in the lead group. Gjeitnes was able to double pole away, 0.31 seconds ahead of Pajala in 3:02.6. Pajala edged Bjornsen in a photo finish, after Bjornsen closed quickly in the last five meters.
The lucky losers were Harsem and Shapovalova. As the races went on, the times were getting slower as a result of the soft snow forcing many to change skis and wax. Heading into the first semifinal the question was: how much did the track soften up after the men’s quarterfinal heats?
It was a duel between Sweden and Norway for the first semifinal; three from each country were in the field with Østberg, Brun-Lie and Harsem from Norway, and Ingemarsdotter, Öberg and Falk from Sweden.
At the start, all three Norwegians jumped out front and lead the group up the hill and then never looked back, easily separating themselves from the Swedish chase group. Crossing the line first out of the Norwegian trio was Østberg who showed she is the one to beat. Her time was 3:10.45; Brun-Lie was 1.75 behind in second.
The second semifinal featured Nilsson, Falla, Shapovalova, Pajala, Gjeitnes and Lampic. Nilsson and Falla were determined to get to the final and challenge Østberg. The pair separated themselves at the start and easily skied away from the other skiers. Falla’s skis were really fast, pulling away on the final downhill to the finish. Nilsson challenged for first but when she realized she was easily going to qualify eased up and crossed second behind Falla. Falla crossed in 3:08.74, and Nilsson 1.40 seconds back in second.
The second semifinal was a lot faster than the first, resulting in Shapovalova and Pajala earning lucky loser positions.
To add more drama to the softening track, as the men were winding up their semifinal heats, the snow really started to fall. This caused many to change skis.
“Before the final I had to make the decision if I go on zero skis or klister. I chose the second option,” Østberg told FIS afterward.
Nilsson also told FIS after that she changed skis as well before the final, which gave her both good grip and good glide.
The final was set, with three Norwegians (Falla, Brun-Lie and Østberg), two Swedes (Pajala and Nilsson), and Russia’s Shapovalova.
The start was pretty even with Nilsson taking up the pace followed closely by Falla. Heading to the hill, Østberg passed her teammate Falla and closed the gap to Nilsson. As the climb continued, Østberg made her move and passed Falla at the summit. Falla then passed Nilsson making it a Norwegian in first and second. As the trio descended down to the finish, Nilsson was able to pass Falla, but lost a lot of energy in the process, letting Østberg pull away to win in 3:20.18. Nilsson finished in second (+0.60) and Brun-Lie took third (+2.29).
Afterwards Østberg told FIS that the skis were the key to her win, which was her first-ever in a World Cup classic sprint, her second victory of the season and her fourth podium of the season.
“The whole day I had perfect skis,” she said. “I felt good that nobody could keep up with me in the last 100 meters.”
This now raises an interesting question: can Østberg beat her teammate Marit Bjørgen?
“I’ve done it before and I can do it again. One must at least have faith that one can beat her,”said Østberg told NRK.
The World Championship were definitely on all of the Norwegians’ minds after the race. Brun-Lie told FIS, “I have never been on the podium in the classic sprint. Today’s result is very important for the qualification for the World Championships.”
As a result of her win, Østberg passes teammate Bjørgen in the Sprint World Cup standings to take first place. She has 385 points, and Bjørgen is 35 points behind with four sprints left. Bjørgen still leads the Overall World Cup by more than 400 points over teammate Therese Johaug. Neither Bjørgen, Johaug nor Heidi Weng raced on Saturday.
Sunday’s race is a freestyle team sprint competition.