LAHTI, Finland – The next time the FIS Cross Country World Cup visits Lahti, it will be for 2017 World Championships. Sunday was the second and final day of pre-World Championship racing at the Lahti ski stadium, heightening the level of significance of these races for the teams and athletes.
After Saturday’s freestyle sprints, where American Jessie Diggins pulled out a silver-medal performance, it was time to switch gears to a 15-kilometer skiathlon for the women (30 k for the men). At the end of the day, Norway’s Therese Johaug continued her domination of distance races, winning by more than a minute over teammates Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who completed the Norwegian podium sweep in second and third, respectively.
The women’s race format consisted of a 7.5 k classic, followed by 7.5 k of freestyle, kicking off with a mass start. The classic and freestyle legs both included two 3.75 k loops, with racers passing through the stadium a total of four times, where they met a roaring crowd.
The gun sounded and the 62 women were off. To the local fans’ excitement, Finnish skier Krista Parmakoski initially led out of the stadium.
But after just a couple hundred meters, Johaug took the lead and immediately began her relentless pushing of the pace. She’s used this tactic time and time again on the World Cup, yet it’s effectiveness remains rather impenetrable. Quite simply, very few have have been able to match her.
Sunday marked Johaug’s 15th World Cup win this season; only her teammate Marit Bjørgen has won more (17 times in 2011/2012).
By one kilometer into the race, Weng stood as the only one able to stick with Johaug. The main pack chased seven seconds behind, led by Norwegians Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Maiken Caspersen Falla, and Parmakoski.
Then, Johaug began to steadily put distance between Weng and herself as well. At 4.8 k, Weng slipped 9.7 seconds behind Johaug, but by now she had an 18-second gap over the chase group. The race continued to unfold in a similar fashion.
Polish veteran and four-time Tour de Ski winner Justyna Kowalczyk led the chase pack for most of the first lap of the classic leg, with Falla and Østberg also up front. Two Americans, Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen, skied together in the pack throughout the first lap. In the second classic lap, a pack of 10 skiers had broke off the front, while Diggins and Bjornsen fell behind.
By the transition to freestyle at 7.5 k, Johaug held a 15.8-second lead over Weng, who had also developed an even bigger gap to the chase pack, 28.5 seconds behind. Østberg led them, and Bjornsen and Diggins came through the transition about 10 seconds behind the lead group in 13th and 21st, respectively.
With Johaug and Weng expanding comfortable gaps in first and second, the highlight of the freestyle leg became the race for third place.
At the 8.7 k checkpoint, 1.2 k into the skating leg, the pack racing for third consisted of 11 women, led by Østberg and Falla, and Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen. Diggins and Bjornsen led a secondary chase pack, trailing the group ahead of them by 6.3 seconds.
Meanwhile, Johaug and Weng both remained untouched and continued to ski alone towards their medals. Johaug became even quicker on the initial part of the skate leg, holding a 34-second lead on Weng at 9.7 k.
At 12.5 k, Østberg raised the pace and the third-place pack began to deteriorate. Roponen and Falla surged to stick with Østberg, but a space grew between them and the rest of the pack.
“I realized quite early that I had to focus on the third place and when it was 1.5 kilometers left, I tried to increase the speed, on the last uphill and tried to attack,” Østberg said in a post race press conference. “I got some meters on Maiken and the rest of the group and I think it was good I had some meters on Maiken because I know how strong she is in the finish. I am really happy with how the race went today for sure.”
As they were duking it out, Johaug cruised home with a fist pump and a scream, winning in 38:59.9.
“It was an amazing day today,” Johaug told FIS in a post-race interview. “I love these tracks here. The hill is so steep. Those are perfect tracks for me. And I think the weather was good for me today, too. I had really good skis, so the wax team has done a really good job. It was difficult conditions today with all the snow, but for me it was perfect. It’s good to have good memories from here for next year when the World Championships [are here].”
Weng finished 1:05.5 minutes behind in a comfortable second place. According to FIS, it was her first podium in Lahti.
“I like the track in Lahti. … I felt I had perfect classic skis,” she said. “When Therese went away I was on my own and had to find my own pace.”
As the others flew into the stadium for the last few-hundred meters, small gaps had formed. Østberg won the race for third, 1:31.9 behind Johaug and 4.7 seconds ahead of Falla in fourth (+1:36.6). Roponen as the first non-Norwegian placed fifth (+1:39.0).
“I am really, really happy! It was impossibly nice to ski,” Roponen told Finnish broadcaster YLE after the race, according to a translation.
Her fifth place at home marked her first top 10 of the season.
“I really liked a lot of these new tracks,” she said.
Two other Finnish women landed in the top 10, with Anne Kyllönen in ninth and Parmakoski in 10th.
Bjornsen 15th; Three Americans in Top 30
Of the three U.S. women on the start line Sunday, all three finished in the points within the top 30. Bjornsen led the charge in 15th, 2:26 seconds behind Johaug, while Jessie Diggins finished close behind, in 17th (+2:29.2).
Despite being comfortably into the top 30, Bjornsen and Diggins both struggled to navigate the chase packs as it split.
“It was an up and down, roller-coaster-feeling day,” Bjornsen said in an in-person interview after the race. “The classic was especially challenging today because of the [slow, fresh-snow] conditions. It didn’t stretch out, so when you are in the middle of that front pack, you just stop-go, stop-go, stop-go, fight for position, stop-sprint, and I never felt like I got in a classic groove. And I mean that is the challenge of classic mass start, but I think especially with these conditions, it intensifies it.”
As the chase group split in the second lap of the classic race, neither Diggins nor Bjornsen were able to stay with the front end.
“I just was not at the right place at the right time when they broke on that second loop of the classic,” Bjornsen said.
“[Yesterday] definitely took a toll [on me],” Diggins said after the race. “I was pretty tired after doing all the [sprint] rounds and doing such a long sprint yesterday. But you know, it is good to practice the skiathlon when you can and I thought, even if my body doesn’t feel like it is there, I will practice my tactics, work on everything else and try to have some fun out there.”
The freestyle leg went better for Diggins and Bjornsen, with both of them gaining spots back, but neither was able to reattach to the leading chase pack.
“The first lap I was having a hard time hanging onto the pace,” Bjornsen said. “But I just tried my hardest to just stay with that group that I went through the exchange with, and then the second lap of the skate felt a lot better.”
Notably, Bjornsen had the fastest mid-race transition time, switching from classic to skate faster than anyone else.
To her surprise, Caitlin Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, finished 29th (+3.22) for her second-career top-30 result in the last two weekends.
“I was really happy to hear that apparently I was 29th, so back into the top 30!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t feel like I had that today, especially when I was out there on that classic leg, so I was really happy to do that after all.”
After catching a few days rest at home, the U.S. Ski Team will launch into action at the eight-stage Ski Tour Canada, beginning in Gatineau, Québec, on March 1.
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
About the Author: JoJo Baldus is a nordic skier from snowy Minneapolis, Minn. Currently living the dream as a volunteer journalist and photographer for FasterSkier while enjoying a gap year before starting at Macalester College in St. Paul. He could not be more excited to attempt to stagger across the finish line of 8 different WorldLoppet ski races this winter!