In less than two weeks, the FIS Cross-Country World Cup will kick off in Kuusamo, Finland.
But two American skiers are already in the country, putting on bibs for the first time this season and waxing up their race skis. Four hours north of Kuusamo, above the Arctic Circle, Craftsbury Green Racing Project athletes Ida Sargent and Caitlin Patterson are racing in Muonio.
“Coming over here early is a good opportunity to get the jet-lag and time change out of the way before the World Cup, and also shake out some racing jitters and remember all the little details of getting to the start line prepared,” Patterson explained in an email.
The pair are supported by Craftsbury head coach Pepa Miloucheva, and the Rex wax team thanks to arrangements by Toni Roponen, the husband of a Finnish World Cup skier who is friendly with some of the American women.
“They don’t speak any English though, which is interesting,” Sargent wrote of the race-ski preparation.
On Friday, Sargent was the first woman out of the start in the classic sprint qualifier. She ultimately logged the fifth-fastest time.
“It was snowing and they didn’t have any forerunners skiing in the tracks for the time after the course closed,” Sargent explained. “I was the first starter so I plowed the track around the entire course. So that was frustrating but otherwise I was pleasantly surprised with how good the race felt!”
Although the races are FIS-sanctioned, the trails aren’t as wide as some World Cup level venues and only four athletes were put in each sprint heat, rather than six.
Skiing in a quarterfinal heat with eventual winner Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, Sargent failed to advance and ended up ninth on the day.
“The four person heats on the narrow course in the snow was a little interesting and I was not on my game at all, so I made some stupid mistakes and was third in my quarterfinal when I should have easily moved on,” Sargent wrote in an email. “I was a little pissed at myself afterward, but grateful for the opportunity to get back into the racing mindset before the World Cup begins.”
Fajnie znowu wygrać w Muonio! Fajnie dobrze zacząc sezon! Fajnie przebiec całe sprinty 1szy raz od MS w Falun! No..ale..młodzież napiera💙💙💙😉 pic.twitter.com/JMx7EvYaF7
— Justyna Kowalczyk (@JuiceKowalczyk) November 11, 2016
Anna Svendsen of Norway finished second and Yulia Tikhonova of Belarus third. The men’s sprint was won by Finland’s Ari Luusua, with World Cup regular Anssi Pentsinen second. Norway’s Erik Valnes rounded out the podium.
Saturday brought 5 and 10 k interval-start classic races for the men and women, and while Patterson had sat out the sprint, she finished 16th in the 5 k, 1:03.5 behind race winner Kowalczyk. Sargent finished six seconds and three more places back in 19th. The top ten was packed with Finnish national team members, with Krista Parmakoski finishing second and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, who skipped much of last season to have her first child, in third.
“I can’t say I was entirely happy with where I ended up in the results, top 10 was only 4 seconds up and that would have felt a lot nicer than 16th,” Patterson wrote. “But I did feel pretty good skiing, if a little too relaxed at the start, and when Justyna Kowalcyzk and Riita-Liisa Roponen both caught me at the very top of the course, I had a great time chasing them both on the downhills and was only a few seconds back at the finish. It’s a good reminder of what it feels like to race, and also of how tight finishing times can be, especially here in Europe.”
Sargent didn’t feel as fresh, and will take Sunday off instead of racing the 10 k skate.
“I felt really tired today so maybe the jetlag and excitement of being back on snow and skiing again is catching up to me,” Sargent said. “But most importantly I’m very excited to get the season going and very thankful for the chance to do a few of these races with Craftsbury before the World Cup begins later this month!”
The men’s 10 k was won by Lari Lehtonen of Finland, with countrymen Perttu Hyvarinen and Sami Jauhojaervi coming in second and third.
The Craftsbury pair arrived in Finland only on Tuesday, and seemed satisfied with their form and efforts given the short timeframe to adjust to both the time zone change and being on snow.
“The transition back to snow is going smoothly,” Patterson wrote. “I was fortunate enough to be able to get on snow twice this summer, on the Eagle and Dachstein glaciers, and with that plus just getting more experienced as an athlete and having more summer-to-winter transitions under my belt, the feel of skiing comes back quickly. Or at least distance skiing does, I think skiing with higher intensity will take a bit more refinement before I’m fully settled. I’m somewhat jet-lagged still, and adjusting my sleep schedule, but while I don’t feel super snappy out skiing, it’s not bad.”
After the weekend, Miloucheva will fly back the the U.S. to travel with the rest of the team to the West Yellowstone Ski Festival, and Sargent and Patterson will travel to Saariselka for more competitions.
Sargent is a member of the U.S. Ski Team, and has had good results in Finland before. At the season-opening World Cups in Kuusamo, she finished seventh in the sprint in 2015 and fifth in 2014.
Patterson, meanwhile, earned her World Cup starts by dint of winning the 2015-2016 U.S. SuperTour. She has raced European World Cups for parts of both of the last two seasons, including top-30 finishes in both Falun, Sweden, and Lahti, Finland, the site of this year’s World Championships.
It will be Patterson’s first year starting the season on the World Cup.
“I don’t really have any expectations for these races, having never been here before, so my goal is just to focus on the preparation and do everything I can to keep feeling good and making progress towards racing faster,” she wrote. “Of course it would be nice to land in the results near some of the World Cup regulars who are here, but that would be a bonus. The key thing is to be ready for the World Cup start in 2 weeks, and these races will help me remember what it feels like to go hard, get in touch with the feel of skiing fast on snow, and make a few technique adjustments if Pepa and I notice anything. I’m looking forward to testing out some skating in the 10k tomorrow!”
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.