Russian Yulia Tchekaleva won the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon Sunday by 15.6 seconds, earning her first-ever World Cup victory and delivering her best result of the season on home turf in Rybinsk, Russia. Tchekaleva finished the 15 k skiathlon in 44:16.0, with Martine Ek Hagen of Norway in second place, trailing by 15.6 seconds. Riitta-Liisa Roponen of Finland placed third, 22.9 seconds behind Tchekaleva.
“I tried to save energy in the classic part of the race. I just tried to stay with the front group but not work too hard. When we switched to skating, I felt that I had a lot of power, so I went for the victory,” Tchekaleva said to FIS reporters.
“It was really nice to win my first World Cup here in Russia,” she added.
Tchekaleva attacked at the end of the classic portion of the competition and skied alone for the final 7.5 km freestyle portion of the course. However, she could never relax as a Norwegian was hot on her tail. Ek Hagen broke away from the chase group on the first of three laps in the skate portion. As they neared the final kilometers she chipped away at Tchekaleva’s lead, and at one point was just six seconds back.
In the end Ek Hagen unable to catch Tchekaleva. In the process of the chase, however, she put a gap on the rest of the field and skied alone to the finish.
“This is my first World Cup podium and I am very happy. It was a hard race today. When Yulia [Tchekaleva] attacked, I tried to go get her and hoped someone else would be able to come with me, but I was alone. Which I guess is good because I was able to get second place,” Ek Hagen said to FIS reporters in a post-race interview.
Behind her, a fight was brewing for third as a group of roughly six athletes were all within five seconds of each other. With only a lap to go Roponen pulled away from the chase group, followed closely by Stefanie Böhler. The others in the pack were unable to respond, and the fight for third narrowed to two skiers. As the two entered the finishing stretch, Roponen was able to hold off the German to gain her first World Cup podium since 2010.
The Finnish skier said she was very happy with her return to the podium.
“I am feeling very good right now. It has been a long time since I was on the podium for an individual result. It was a hard fight with Steffi (Böhler) to the finish, and I was hoping that I could stay ahead of her, and I did,” Roponen said after the race, adding that she surprised herself with the result. “I was not sure that I thought I would be on the podium today, so I am very happy that I was.”
U.S. Ski Team’s Jessie Diggins was the fifth finisher across the line, 25.8 seconds behind Tchekaleva and 2.9 seconds from third. She logged the second-fastest skate portion of the skiathlon – only 0.2 seconds slower than Tchekaleva. She also posted the second-fastest pit stop, but given that her 7.5 k classic split was 13th, the gap to Ek Hagen and Tchekaleva was too big to gap.
In addition to Diggins’ result, the USST also boasted a 7th place from Liz Stephen. The weekend has been largely successful for Stephen, as she placed second in Friday’s 10 k freestyle.
Sunday’s race in Rybinsk was the first regular World Cup skiathlon in almost two years, aside from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The last regular World Cup skiathlon was held in at the pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi in 2013, when Steira won ahead of Tchekaleva and Nicole Fessel of Germany was third.
Norway’s selection to the World Championships
With her second place today and her first-ever World Cup podium, Ek Hagen has made a solid bid for a spot on the Norwegian squad to the 2015 FIS World Championships in Falun, Sweden this February. The races in Rybinsk will be a significant part of the World Championships selection criteria for those who did not race the Tour de Ski. Despite the strong result, Ek Hagen doesn’t take anything for granted until the final selection is made.
“It will be difficult to make the Norwegian team for the World Championships, but I feel really good right now and I hope I can make the team,” Ek Hagen said.
Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, the winner of the women’s 10k skate on Friday, lead most of the first 7.5 k classic but ended up in ninth place after falling back on the skate portion of the race. Jacobsen’s previous win in a regular World Cup event was the skiathlon in Falun, Swden, almost seven years ago in February 2008. Since then Jacobsen has won a stage in the 2014 Tour de Ski.
For sixth place finisher Størmer Steira, Rybinsk was the first World Cup weekend since her hip fracture in October. With Sunday’s result and fifth in Friday’s 10 k, she has definitely put her name in the hat for a selection position.
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Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.