While she may not be back to her winning ways, American Kikkan Randall still put together a solid performance during the women’s Tour de Ski 1.4 k freestyle sprint in Val Müstair, Switzerland.
“It was fun to return to Val Müstair where I had a great performance two years ago. We didn’t get to compete under the lights this time but it was sunny and beautiful,” she wrote in an email to the press. Randall won that Tour stage, a freestyle sprint on the first day of 2013, over Weng and Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg.
Randall took care of business during qualifying, finishing 13th and +8.77 behind Norwegian Marit Bjørgen (3:38.62), who would win the final heat and earn her third straight Tour victory. The 32-year-old then finished third in the final and fastest quarterfinal heat of the day to earn a lucky loser spot, +1.95 behind Norway’s Heidi Weng (3:36.35).
“[The Norwegians] set a hard pace the whole heat and I did my best to stay in close,” Randall wrote. “I tried to come out of the draft off the final turn but didn’t put together a great final sprint … Thankfully it was good enough for lucky loser.”
In the semifinal, Randall maintained a position in the back of the pack throughout the race, but Østberg set a pace that prevented her from making a decisive move. She finished the heat in fifth, 3.20 behind Østberg (3:35.84), and ended up tenth overall.
While Randall was disappointed that she did not have the strength to keep up with the Norwegians, she wrote that she was happy to be close to advancing to the final.
“I still haven’t quite found all my gears yet but it’s good to keep getting in hard efforts and inching my way back to top form,” she explained.
Meanwhile, American Sophie Caldwell had a fine day of her own. The 24-year-old qualified in seventh (+7.16) before winning her quarterfinal heat. In a moment reminiscent of her semifinal heat in Sochi, when she defeated Østberg in a photo finish by 0.01 seconds, Caldwell narrowly outlunged Italy’s Gaia Vuerich to win by 0.05 in 3:42.25.
Caldwell explained over the phone that she made the tactical decision to remain behind Norway’s Therese Johaug, who “is not known for her sprint finishes,” and Vuerich, who Caldwell has often competed against in sprint finishes. She made her move on the final stretch, setting up another exciting battle with Vuerich.
“I think one of my strengths has always been the final stretch in sprinting for as long as I can remember, and I’m not sure why that is; I just find an extra gear there and have a pretty quick sprint finish,” Caldwell said.
United States Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover expanded on Caldwell’s race over the phone, saying that during one of the major turns on the first lap she took a less icy, outside line while all the other skiers took an inside line. He said Caldwell’s line was not the ideal one for carrying momentum.
However, “to her credit, she saw that preferred line during the race and the second time down when she came to the finish she just nailed that [corner], and was able to catapult into a position where she was able to go and win the quarterfinal,” Grover said.
Grover said Caldwell has the unique ability to preserve and create speed through a transition instead of gripping or locking up and losing speed.
“She really sets herself up to carry a lot of momentum out of the corners and I think that is really one of her strengths,” he continued.
Caldwell explained her tactics for the semifinal, saying she wanted to stick with the leaders for as long as possible. She stayed true to her tactics and spent most of her semifinal behind the leaders, though failed to challenge Bjørgen or Sweden’s Stina Nilsson down the stretch – “they opened up a bit of a gap on me on the uphill,” Caldwell said. She finished in third, 1.24 seconds behind Bjørgen (3:39.04).
Unfortunately, the fast pace of the second semifinal prevented Caldwell from moving on as a lucky loser. She finished seventh overall, which is her best World Cup result of the season. Especially after a summer during which she broke both of her elbows, she is happy about where she is.
“I’ve been really psyched about how things have been going lately. I feel like I’ve been taking a big step each weekend, and doing a little better and a little better in sprints, and I think physically I’m getting stronger,” she explained.
American Sadie Bjornsen is in ninth place on the Tour after finishing 13th overall on Tuesday. She had a strong qualifier, finishing in 12th (+8.64), before being outsprinted for the second-place spot by Norwegian Ragnhild Haga at the finish of her quarterfinal heat. She finished 3.44 seconds behind Østberg, who comfortably won the heat in 3:39.58.
Grover said it was a great qualification for Bjornsen, especially after the frustrations of the last sprints in Davos, where she failed to qualify in two consecutive weekends.
Meanwhile, American Jessica Diggins qualified in 26th and ended up 23rd overall after finishing fifth in her quarterfinal heat (+4.66) behind Nilsson. She skied off to a fast start and was in first place until about halfway through the race, “but by her own admission I guess she ran out of a bit of gas,” recalled Grover.
Tour de Ski overall standings