The team sprint is a unique beast that World Cup racers only get one or two shots in a season to tame. Despite strong skiing, the U.S. men’s and women’s team came up just short of being in podium contention in the 6 x 1.2-kilometer freestyle team sprint at Sunday’s World Cup in Planica, Slovenia.
The format of the team sprint competition features two-skier teams who each race alternating legs of a sprint course. Each skier completes three legs and they must make contact with their teammate in the exchange zone between each leg. The Planica team sprints were held on the same fast, twisty and technically-challenging 1.2 k course as Saturday’s freestyle sprint.
The format poses unique challenges for athletes as well as logistical challenge for the staff. For the athletes racing three separate legs, it is a challenge of measuring energy output to be ready for the decisive moves in the last lap. The technicians have their own race in between heats to work on skis.
“One of the challenges is we don’t get a chance to race this event very often,” head coach Chris Grover said on the phone after Sunday’s race, in which two of three U.S. teams qualified for the final. “We are doing the only team sprint out of 37 starts [this season], so it is a very rare format.
“It is really fun for the athletes and the staff. It is so logistically intense in terms of ski prep,” he added. “It is a race to get the skis off the athletes’ feet, freshened up, and back on their feet.”
Grover noted the course was shorter than typically used in team sprints (it took the men about 2 1/2 minutes and the women 2:45 to round each time on Sunday.
“Because of that short window, it makes for an extremely hectic time for the techs,” he said. “But our techs did an awesome job and we had great skis.”
The U.S. entered one women’s team (with most of its athletes taking the weekend off following the Tour de Ski); Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell teamed up to take fifth in the final, 20.57 seconds behind Sweden I, with Stina Nilsson and Ida Ingemarsdotter, who won the event in 16:14.08. Norway I (Heidi Weng/Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen) placed second (+3:51) and Germany I (Sandra Ringwald/Hanna Kolb) took third (+8.84).
Sargent and Caldwell delivered a well-executed semifinal to automatically advance in second place behind Sweden I, the eventual winners. In the team sprint racing, the top two teams advance in both semifinals, in addition to six lucky loser qualifiers.
“Ida learned from yesterday how to pace the course and made a great move at the end of her last leg and tagged off in first,” Grover said of the semifinal. “Sophie brought it in easily in second to advance.”
In the final, the field broke apart during the third leg when Weng began pushing the pace. Sweden and Germany responded, but Sargent lost time on the leaders. By the final handoff, the U.S. had slipped several places to sixth, 13 seconds behind the leaders.
At the final handoff, Sargent tagged Caldwell in sixth, 13 seconds behind the leaders, for the finishing charge. Caldwell was able to catch Norway II and hold off Germany II to secure fifth place, 20.57 seconds behind the Swedish winners.
“Those top women’s teams just skied away. They [Sargent and Caldwell] actually skied great all day and did tactically what they wanted to do,” Grover said.
“It ties my best-ever team sprint result and is my best ever with Sophie so it was a good day,” Sargent said on the phone. “The course was really hard with lots of climbing and fast technical downhills so there wasn’t much recovery and it was important to balance pushing the pace and conserving energy for later rounds.”
Newell and Hamilton Miss the Tag
The men’s team of Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton made it to the final after advancing in fourth out of the first semifinal (behind the second teams for France, Russia and Norway, respectively). In the final, the Americans initially finished eighth, but were disqualified for missing a tag in the exchange zone.
The men’s field remained tight throughout the final, making the exchange zone both challenging and game-changing.
The U.S. men’s team ran into trouble when Hamilton entered a chaotic tag zone after his first leg for the second exchange.
“It was basically unavoidable since the Norwegian, who was tagged right before I reached out to tag Andy, cut to the left and skied right between Andy and I, essentially creating a barrier,” Hamilton said on the phone. “We were tagging towards the end of the zone, so we didn’t have room to stop to ensure we made contact, even though both of us stretched as best we could.”
They emerged out of second exchange in eighth, 2 seconds behind Norway II in the lead. One lap later, by the third exchange, they were 3.22 seconds back in ninth.
Unsure whether the jury would rule an infraction, Newell and Hamilton continued to race. They finished eighth, less than six seconds off the podium. Italy I took the win with Dietmar Nöckler and Federico Pellegrino in 14:44.82, and France swept the remaining podium spots in second (+1.79) and third (+2.41), with Renaud Jay/Baptiste Gros and Valentin Chauvin/Richard Jouve, respectively. The first teams for Germany, Norway and Russia ended up fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, and the top eight teams at the end of the day — not counting the Americans — all finished within nine seconds of one another.
“It was disappointing for sure, but it was a good call by the jury,” Grover said. “Andy and Simi have done a lot of team sprints together and tags are such a critical part of the team sprint. Andy and Simi are usually some of the very best at maintaining speed and having really good tags in chaotic situations, but today they just missed it.”
Reflecting on their semifinal, in which they advanced as lucky losers, Newell was pleased with how he balanced his energy.
“I was able to stay up near the front with Norway, stay out of trouble, and put down a hard third lap tagging Simi in second,” Newell said on the phone. “In the final I don’t think we found the same rhythm, at least I hard a harder time feeling the line of hard versus too hard. We got bounced around a bit in the back and our tags weren’t as smooth as in the semi. It’s easy to waste energy even just trying to pick off a few places can take it out of you each lap when you are coming from the back.”
Considering the circumstances, Hamilton was content with the day.
“I felt good today, and my speed and shape are rebounding after getting sick during the Tour de Ski,” he said.
“Team sprinting is one of the hardest race formats we have, but it super fun,” Hamilton added. “It combines the best of sprinting and distance racing I think, and I hope we see more of it, or events similar to it, in the future.”
This was the first and only team sprint on the World Cup calendar this season.
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Also competing for the U.S. was the second men’s team of Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess and Reese Hanneman. They finished 12th in the same semifinal as Newell and Hamilton, 51.08 seconds behind France II (Chauvin and Jouve) as the winner of that heat. Blackhorse-von Jess and Hanneman did not advance and ended up 23rd overall.
“For Dakota and I, it was just a chance to get right in the big pack of the fastest guys in the world and see what we could do,” Hanneman wrote in an email. “No amount of preparation could really prepare you for the chaos that happens at breakneck speed out there.”
“I think they were both left wanting more,” Grover said. “They are going to need some time in Europe to get get acclimated some good training and racing and hopefully come into their top form.”
The weekend following the Tour de Ski can be rough on teams and the U.S. team is feeling the effects.
“It was a little bit of a flat weekend overall for us,” Grover observed. “We are certainly feeling the effects of post-Tour de Ski fatigue, both physical and mental, and we have a bit of illness going around the team so all of these things added up to take our edge off a bit, but I think we’ll be back by next weekend.”
‘Good save Canada!’
Four Canadian teams raced Sunday, but none advanced out of the semifinals. Canada’s second women’s team, with Cendrine Browne and Emily Nishikawa, placed eighth in the second women’s semifinal, 55.64 seconds behind Sweden I as the winners of that heat, for 15th overall.
In that same semi, Canada I, with Maya MacIsaac-Jones and Dahria Beatty, finished 10th (+1:06.39) for 19th overall.
“I focussed on staying with the pack as long as possible,” Browne, Canada II’s first starter, recalled in an email. “I managed to stay with them on the first lap but on my second lap, we were already a couple seconds back.
“The down hills are pretty sketchy … I almost fell today but catched myself at the last second!” she added. “The jury even told me: Good save Canada!”
“The women fought hard, but it will take some more racing at that level to get used to the speed,” Alberta World Cup Academy head coach Chris Jeffries, who’s leading the Canadian team in Slovenia, said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “These World Cups are definitely focused on development, and hopefully they will take some really good lessons to their training in preparation for the Ski Tour Canada races in March and the coming years.”
Both Canadian men’s teams squared off in the second semifinal, with Knute Johnsgaard and Len Valjas placing ninth for Canada I (+13.23) for 16th overall, and Jess Cockney and Andy Shields finishing 12th for Canada II (+23.85) for 22nd overall.
- Andy Shields
- cendrine browne
- Chris Grover
- Chris Jeffries
- Dahria Beatty
- Dietmar Nöckler
- Emily Nishikawa
- Federico Pellegrino
- freestyle team sprint
- Ida Ingemarsdotter
- Ida Sargent
- Jess Cockney
- knute johnsgaard
- Len Valjas
- Maya MacIsaac-Jones
- Planica Slovenia
- Planica team sprint
- Planica World Cup
- Simi Hamilton
- Sophie Caldwell
- Stina Nilsson
- Team sprints
New to the FasterSkier team, Kaitlyn is a silent sports all-arounder, competing in cross-country skiing, cycling and triathlon since graduating from the University of Michigan, where she ran cross country and track. Kaitlyn is intrigued by the complexities of cross-country ski racing and is excited to start in the elite women’s field at the 2016 Birkie.