On Friday in Kuusamo, Finland, the 2017/2018 Cross Country World Cup began with the first day of racing in what’s called the Ruka Triple — a three-day event featuring a 1.4-kilometer classic sprint, 10 and 15 k classic races on Day 2, and 10/15 k freestyle pursuits on Sunday.
For many, considering how multifaceted the U.S. Ski Team (USST) women are, and how five to six of them are podium threats, the biggest step up today was USST member Sadie Bjornsen’s leap onto the podium’s No. 2 spot.
“What an amazing and exciting way to start this new season,” Bjornsen wrote in a post-race email. “I have been feeling good for the past few weeks, but as always at the beginning of the season, you wonder where you are. Starting with the qualifier, I had great feelings. I love this course, because it is so tough all the way to the finish line, and you don’t have many places to recover throughout the course. I also love how steep the climb is, it is a grade that I have always enjoyed!”
For Bjornsen, who turned 28 on Tuesday, it was her first-career World Cup individual sprint podium. (On the World Cup, she’s placed third in a 5 k freestyle, second in a team sprint, and with the 4 x 5 k relay, second and third place twice. At last year’s World Championships, Bjornsen also teamed up with Jessie Diggins to finish third in the classic team sprint.)
On Friday, the Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier’s cylinders were firing from the moment she tipped the wand in the qualifier. Bjornsen qualified in fifth, sprinting around the course in 3:13.67 minutes. Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter was the day’s fastest qualifier in 3:11:69 minutes, 1.98 seconds faster.
After her qualifier, Bjornsen continued to rise to the top, winning both her quarterfinal and semifinal. On a course with a steep but strideable final climb near the finish, she controlled each heat. She won her quarterfinal in 3:18.14 minutes over Russian runner-up Yulia Belorukova (+0.39) and Sweden’s Hanna Falk in third(+1.97).
“The general tone of the day was a fast start so that Sadie was in control in the front half of her heat,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone. “In particular in the semifinal, she was able to have a fast start and shut the race down a little bit and pick it up when she was ready.”
Her ability to acquire the lead, command the pace, essentially set the first semifinal’s tone, allowed her to also keep other skiers in the turbulence of her wake by the slimmest of margins.
She won the semi in 3:20 flat. Again, Belorukova was second, this time just one-hundredth of a second back. Another Russian, Evgenia Shapovalova* was third (+0.39), and U.S. teammate Sophie Caldwell finished fourth (+0.50) in that semifinal.
The final was where Bjornsen finally met her match in Swedish speedster Stina Nilsson.
Nilsson qualified 19th, 8.15 seconds behind her teammate Ingemarsdotter — nothing stunning by her standards, but a safe margin with which she could enter the heats and then take control like she’s been known to. She won the fifth quarterfinal with the fastest time of all the quarterfinal heats in 3:14.38.
Nilsson then dominated the second semifinal with a time of 3:17.61. That semi was nearly 2.5 seconds faster than Bjornsen’s winning semifinal time, and both lucky losers advanced from Nilsson’s heat. Those beneficiaries were Ingemarsdotter in third and Finland’s Krista Parmakoski in fourth.
As much as Nilsson may have played a poker hand while qualifying, this much was clear: once into the knockout rounds, she’d leave nothing up for chance. Nilsson won the final in 3:17.62. Bjornsen placed second by 0.24 seconds. Russia’s Belorukova was third (+0.91), Ingemarsdotter fourth (+2.72), Norway’s Kathrine Rolsted Harsem fifth (+3.54), and Parmakoski sixth (+18.62).
The win marks Nilsson’s 19th career World Cup sprint podium and her 10th sprint victory. She won the classic sprint in Kuusamo last year and placed second there in 2015. She also finished last season in second in the 2016/2017 Sprint World Cup standings and fourth in the overall World Cup.
Friday’s classic sprint was a bit unusual from the get-go. The qualifier revealed a big void compared to recent seasons’ results. Only two Norwegians, Harsem and Anna Svendsen, skied into the top 30 and moved onto the rounds. Last season’s Sprint World Cup Overall champ, Maiken Caspersen Falla, missed qualifying by 0.32 seconds in 31st.
Whitcomb commented on the waxing struggles some skiers had out on course. He paraphrased a quote he heard from fellow American Anne Hart, who now races for the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team, in 2010 to describe a common waxing puzzle.
“It’s always challenging on this course to find the right balance — as Annie Hart would say — the kick-to-glide ratio,” Whitcomb said. “But the kick-to-glide ratio is the key here in Ruka, and I think perhaps what happened with Norway. We will have to see what is said in the press by them and what we find out from our peers, I think they just went for more glide today, and some ended up struggling on the climbs. … It was noticeable. They had women that were herringboning up the entire final climb and most of the field was striding right up it. It’s a little bit of a trap — easy kicking snow and you are strong as a skier and a nation. It can be easy to perhaps try to go for speed. We have done it here before as well. Sometimes it works.”
On the right side of that kick-to-glide ratio was USST member Sophie Caldwell. She smoked the qualifier, placing third, 0.59 seconds behind Ingemarsdotter.
“The first race of the season is always a little funny because you don’t know what to expect,” Caldwell said on the phone. “But I have been doing good, smart training this year where I wasn’t pushing things too much and just doing what I knew worked, and I was feeling good going into it, but I have also never been able to have a great race in Kuusamo before. I think I’ve qualified twice, and both times I just sort of snuck into the top 30 in qualifying. But going into today I just sort of looked at it as a new day, and it was kind of a fun situation because there was no pressure, I have never done great here before.”
After her top-three qualifying result, Caldwell’s day way up north in Finland progressed smoothly. She chose Heat 2 in the quarterfinals, which turned out to be a quick heat and produced both lucky losers that would advance to the semis.
“I led out of the start and into the first downhill and then generally after that first downhill, places switch up a lot because there is a big draft, and so I think I got passed by a couple of people,” she said of her quarterfinal. “And then [Sweden’s Charlotte] Kalla sort of sent it from there, and I actually got in a little jumble at the low point of the course after dropping down the big hill. Maybe I was back in fourth or something, and then just tried to stay relaxed and ski well up that first hill. But she led it pretty much from that low point to the finish, I think, and she looked really good. After that heat I was like, ‘That’s proof right there that you don’t really need to be leading out of the start, because so much can change.’ ”
Kalla won the heat in 3:15.93, while Caldwell also automatically advanced to the semifinals in second (+0.70).
Caldwell skied in the first semifinal along with Bjornsen. Caldwell, of the SMS Elite Team in Vermont, let others lead out, understanding that an early burst of speed might not have a big payout.
“And at some point … it was funny because I was expecting Kalla to sort of hammer out from the start again and having it be another really fast, hard heat, but once we got to the bottom of the big hill I didn’t really see her again,” Caldwell recalled. “So it was just the two Russian women, Sades [Sadie] and me heading up the big hill. And I think Sadie and one of the Russians were a little ahead, and then we started filing behind them.”
After all the tactics and jousting, it came down to a lunge-fest at the line, and Caldwell just missed advancing. Caldwell placed fourth in a semi where the top-four places were separated by half a second. She was two spots away from advancing to the final and ended up eighth overall.
A third U.S. Ski Team member, Ida Sargent also began the season with a standout performance. Ruka has been kind to Sargent. Historically, she’s able to begin the season in Ruka with head-turning results. In 2014, Sargent she placed fifth in the Ruka classic sprint. In 2015, she placed seventh in the season-opening classic sprint. Last year she was 23rd, also in the classic sprint.
On Friday, Sargent qualified 22nd (+8.70).
“I was really nervous and excited for this race,” Sargent wrote in an email. “I really love this course and have been feeling great in training lately with a very solid prep period but the first race of the year can be a little nerve racking. Most other teams have already raced a couple weekends and this was our first time putting a bib on! The qualifier was solid for me but nothing special but I was psyched to get it over with and I felt a lot more relaxed going into the heats.”
Sargent skied in the third quarterfinal which included Swedes Anna Haag and Ingemarsdotter. On a day when skiers contended with snowfall and wind, keeping one’s line and maintaining speed in the fast tracks were paramount.
“The quarterfinal was playing out exactly as I was hoping for but then I ran into some bad luck in the finishing lanes with a track that was full of snow so I’m actually pretty disappointed with the result,” Sargent wrote. “ I felt like I had the skis and the body to do better today so I was bummed to be out after the quarters.”
Sargent explained she felt great in her quarterfinal and had the physical ability to keep pace. She maintained a reserved start, but soon moved into second place. On the final climb, she felt as if she could make a move.
“Ida [Ingemarsdotter] and I led over the top of that hill but then I was getting pushed to the outside on the final corner and then only had the far right track open into the finish because Ida was in the next one over,” she wrote. “Unfortunately everyone was skiing up the two middle tracks and since it was windy and snowing, the outside tracks were full of snow and super slow. I was having to plow my own track so I tried jumping in behind Ida hoping she would have a fast finish and I could get second behind her. But she wasn’t making much time and Anna Haag was coming up on the other inside track so I was totally trapped. I switched back to that outside lane hoping I could make up some time but it was a lot slower. It’s a huge bummer that there were really only two finishing tracks and just some serious bad luck to be in a different one. But I had great energy today and we had really good skis so I think its a good takeaway to be in a good place at the start of the season and there is lots of racing ahead!”
Sargent placed third in the heat, 0.65 seconds out of first and 0.43 seconds out of second place. She finished the day in 15th overall.
Rosie Brennan, a USST member known for her distance racing, finished 29th overall after qualifying in 26th. She skied in the fifth heat in which Nilsson set a blistering pace. Brennan placed sixth in her quarterfinal, 4.3 seconds behind Nilsson.
“My heat ended up being very fast, but also tight,” Breanna wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “My tactics are severely lacking as I have skied maybe 3 heats in the last three years so I was happy with my skiing, but not so happy with my group tactics. It certainly left me hungry for more opportunities to ski heats.”
Brennan went onto explain that she had developed her sprinting as part of her larger goal of performing at a high standard in tours.
“The biggest reason I wanted to work so hard on my sprinting this summer was for tours,” Brennan wrote. “I love tours, but I feel it is hard to be competitive if you can’t qualify for the heats so I’m thrilled to have done that for the first tour of the season. I am looking forward to getting some distance racing started.”
Outside the top 30 necessary to qualify for the heats were USST standouts Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall. Diggins skied to 34th overall (12.51 seconds behind Ingemarsdotter and 2.45 seconds out of qualifying), while Randall placed 36th (+13.92; +3.86). Other U.S. starters were Julia Kern (USST), who finished 57th, Liz Stephen (USST) in 70th and last season’s overall SuperTour winner Chelsea Holmes (APU) in 86th.
Whitcomb did comment that the team made use of its new waxing bus for the first time at a race on Friday. And although some skiers had dynamite skis, others may have had less-than-desirable race skis.
“It is the first race we have operated out of the truck,” Whitcomb said. “It was great. But I don’t think all the athletes had great skis. And that is more of a product that it is early season, techs working with athletes, us functioning as a team. It is just straight-up getting the wax up is hard to start with. In terms of the function of the truck, we had power all day, the place never filled with smoke. We had space, light was good, and we had athletes that had skis that were good enough to win races.”
Canada started three women, none of which qualified. Dahria Beatty (National U25 Team) placed 64th, Emily Nishikawa (World Cup Team) 74th, and Cendrine Browne (National U25 Team) 87th.
Heading into Day 2 of the Ruka Triple, Bjornsen leads the mini-tour standings by 2 seconds over Ingemarsdotter. Saturday holds a 10 k classic individual start for the women.
(*Although Shapovalova has been sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, the International Ski Federation (FIS) announced on Thursday that it would not prohibit the six IOC-sanctioned Russian skiers, including Shapovalova, from contesting FIS sanctioned races “for the time being”.)
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.