American Andy Newell ended his World Cup season on a high note, finishing as the top North American in Wednesday’s 1.3-kilometer classic sprint in Drammen, Norway. He reached the semifinals before finishing 12th overall.
Newell qualified in 28th, 5.48 seconds behind top qualifier Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway (2:36.48).
Lenny Valjas of Canada qualified in 19th (+4.90) and was the only other North American male in the quarterfinals. He and Newell ended up racing in the fifth quarterfinal.
In that heat, Valjas held a slim lead until Newell and Norway’s Pål Golberg passed him in the final stretch. The Canadian finished in third, just 0.72 seconds behind Golberg, who won the heat in 2:39.43, while Newell lunged to a second-place finish, 0.43 seconds back.
Valjas would finish 14th overall. He did not immediately respond to an email for comment.
Newell said in a phone interview that he felt strong during his quarterfinal heat, deciding to go with kick wax while trying to stay near the front throughout the heat.
“I was able to do that in the first climb and get a good draft on the downhill. I felt good striding up to the finish line and was able to move on pretty comfortably,” he said.
Newell, who is coming off an eighth-place finish in Saturday’s freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland, explained that he had a yellow card on his record and had to be especially careful to avoid skating, a risk on the steep hill where many of the racers were herringboning.
“You can be skating very easily trying to do that,” he said. “I think there were definitely some sketchy techniques going on out there, so I went into that hill doing my best to be really under control and not herringboning too much.”
In the semifinal, Newell finished sixth, 8.75 seconds behind winner Sondre Turvoll Fossli, who won in 2:35.41.
Newell said that although he was happy to reach that round, he wished he could have been more competitive. The quick turnaround from the final quarterfinal heat left him fatigued, he said.
“I just got stuck in the back going over the tops of the hills and into the drafts,” he explained.
Newell wanted to establish a good position to catch a draft on the long downhill, but became stuck behind Russia’s Nikita Kriukov, who was herringboning the uphill.
“I had to herringbone behind him as well, and he wasn’t going as fast as some of the guys that had kick wax,” Newell said. “We did come back on the downhill, but because he had skate skis he wasn’t a great person to draft behind because he pulled away from me and I was left in no-man’s land on the downhill. And then I didn’t carry quite enough speed on the corner.”
Newell finished the season 18th in the overall Sprint World Cup, despite missing one sprint and failing to score in two others.
He explained he was pleased to be able to turn his season around after suffering from a slow start, injuries and adversity, particularly a neck injury and a reoccurring allergic reaction, earlier in the season.
“As far as an overall sprint year, it was not super successful, but I was able to learn some things and turn it around at the end of the season,” Newell said. “It’s always nice to finish pretty strong.”
Canada’s Alex Harvey, who took a silver medal in the classic sprint at the 2015 World Championships and bronze in the skiathlon, missed qualifying by 0.7 seconds in 33rd (6.53 seconds behind the qualifying winner) and ended the season 13th in the sprint standings.
Other American men racing on Wednesday included Erik Bjornsen in 38th (+7.16), Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess in 42nd (+7.55), and Simi Hamilton in 65th (+13.56). Hamilton crashed late in his qualifier to take him out of contention.
Sadie Bjornsen Qualifies Ninth
Sadie Bjornsen was the lone North American woman to qualify for the heats, finishing ninth, 5.22 seconds behind Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, the top female qualifier in 3:01.25.
However, Bjornsen ended up in the fastest quarterfinal, which Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen won in 3:00.33, and placed sixth (+2.87) to finish 26th overall.
Bjornsen said in a phone interview that it is unfortunate she was put a heat with so many fast skiers, but her time in the heat still left her encouraged.
“Even though I was last in my heat, I was skiing faster than most of the other heats, so there’s definitely some positive things to take away,” she said.
Bjornsen explained that her strategy in the quarterfinal was simply to ski as hard as she could and try to keep contact with the front. She said she had a strong start, but became caught behind the other skiers. Once she had to slow down, she had a difficult time regaining speed. It is something she says she has struggled with throughout the season.
“I ended up skiing from the back the whole time, and every time I tried to find a hole, it was quickly covered,” she explained. “It was a bit frustrating, but those are all really good skiers so it was hard to find my way to the front.”
Bjornsen was able to make contact with the leaders at the bottom of the course’s steep hill, but got tangled up in the back while climbing the other side and was not in an ideal position when she reached the finishing stretch.
“The hills were steep and narrow and tricky,” she said.
Despite temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, skis were not an issue for her.
“I definitely had awesome skis,” she explained.
Even though she was not able to reach the semifinals, Bjornsen is encouraged by how she qualified.
“I feel like this year I’ve sort of struggled. There have been many races where I’m just barely qualifying or on the other side of not qualifying,” she said. “I was definitely really happy to finish the last sprint of the year knowing that I can qualify in the top 10.”
Although she has not had as many top results as during the 2013/2014 World Cup season, Bjornsen said this season has been a step in the right direction. She finished 24th in the sprint standings.
“It’s easy to be greedy and just want to have those high races … but I’ve finally found a level of consistency. And I do believe this is the next step,” she said.
She explained that this winter she has raced more than ever, and hopes for even better results next season after a good summer of training.
Meanwhile, her teammate Sophie Caldwell missed out on qualifying by 1.18 seconds, placing 35th (+11.59). She finishes the season 20th in the sprint standings.
She wrote in an email that she was not very satisfied with her qualifier and felt like she skied frantically.
“I’ve been fighting a little sickness the past few days, but it never got bad enough to consider not racing. I felt a little flat and tired, but mostly just frantic,” she explained.
She wrote that she tends to struggle with the Drammen course due to the power striding and double poling, and is going to work hard to improve those techniques during the offseason.
“I’ve never qualified in Drammen, but one of these years that’s going to change!” she wrote.
American Kikkan Randall, who reached the podium in third in Saturday’s freestyle sprint in Lahti, qualified in 45th (+18.03), while Caitlin Patterson was 51st (+19.73) for the U.S.
No Canadian women competed on Wednesday.
The 2014/2015 World Cup season finishes this weekend at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway, with the men’s 50 k and women’s 30 k freestyle mass starts.