DRESDEN, Germany — Just over 15,000 people gathered at the Elbe River bank on Sunday, some donned in sunnies and carrying sauce-laden brätwurst from pop-up food carts, though all took pause around 11:14:59 a.m. It wasn’t to take in the Altstadt baroque-style buildings that make up the city skyline, nor was it to bask in the bright, mid-morning sun hovering on the horizon.
A new attraction had come to the capital city, and all eyes were on it: the start of the International Ski Federation (FIS) women’s 6 x 1.2-kilometer freestyle team sprint. The city race organizers had trucked nearly 5,000 cubic meters of manmade snow to the grassy green bank, creating a skiing venue where one had never previously existed before. (Dresden has never before hosted a World Cup; the closest place to find natural snow being around 95 kilometers away).
Though it was the first of its kind, the crowd was still on edge as racers anticipated the snap of the gun for the women’s final. Even amid artificial conditions, the scene was naturally mystifying for onlookers.
With the gunshot, life roiled back into those in the stands and competitors became absorbed in the race for the win. Leading out Lap 1 was Ida Ingemarsdotter, racing for Sweden’s second team with Maja Dahlqvist (who placed third in Saturday’s individual skate sprint).
Ingemarsdotter was closely followed by her compatriot, Hanna Falk, who had won Saturday’s sprint and was racing for Sweden’s first team on Sunday. Hanna Kolb, racing for Germany I, Ida Sargent racing for U.S.A. I, and Alenka Cebasek racing for Slovenia, were all in hot pursuit.
Also on course was Nadine Fähndrich of Switzerland, Giulia Stuerz on Italy , Jessica Yeaton of Australia, Caitlin Patterson (U.S.A. II), and Katharina Hennig (Germany II).
Through the exchange it was Ingemarsdotter in first, Falk second, Kolb third, and Sargent fourth. Coming through in seventh was Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, handing off to Kikkan Randall (U.S. Ski Team).
“I think I tend to let myself accordion to much, so I had to watch that and really focus to stay in it,” said Patterson, who arrived in Dresden on Thursday after being crowned a four-time 2018 national champion last week in Anchorage, Alaska.
“Being efficient … keeping it together and keep[ing] it tight,” Patterson added, referring to her race strategy on Sunday. “Because I know Kikkan has so much experience in heats and she can really maneuver well; she did such a good move on the last leg of that semifinal to keep us in it.”
In the final, as Patterson handed off to Randall, while Sargent passed off to Caldwell (who had placed third in Saturday’s sprint). Still in the lead was Ingemarsdotter tagging to Dahlqvist, Kolb to her teammate Sandra Ringwald, and Falk to Stina Nilsson.
The women stayed in a close pack, but thanks in part to the cheers of a large fanbase behind her, Germany’s Ringwald had worked her way to the front. As the skiers approached their third exchange, Germany had taken over the lead. Following Ringwald was Caldwell in second and Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan in third. Randall was also gaining ground and gave the race back to Patterson in sixth as the field headed into Lap 3 of 6.
“This is my first real racing weekend back and yesterday was a little frustrating because my body felt good but I just didn’t quite have the speed fully ready yet,” said Randall, who had pulled out of the Tour de Ski due to an ongoing issue with one of her foot tendons and has been working on recovering since. “So I am really glad I got the opportunity to race today.
“It was great to have Caitlin ski really strong and get into the final,” Randall added. “I just wanted to get six rounds and I did. It was fun, fast paced, and I am happy with the way I felt. Of course, it’s fun to have another team in the race, too, and kind of be working together a bit.”
As racers struck out into Lap 3, Switzerland’s Fähndrich was at the helm, which she held until she tagged off to her teammate Laurien van der Graff. The Swiss skiers had a smooth exchange and van der Graff was out front. Breathing down her neck behind her, however, were two Swedes: Nilsson and Dahlqvist. As the group approached the course’s most notable climb, Nilsson powered her way around van der Graff and to the front, Ringwald in tow.
With the fourth exchange coming into sight, the top two spots were with Sweden, Switzerland third. U.S.A. I was in fifth, U.S.A. II in eighth.
“It’s hard to pass, so we definitely wanted to stay toward the front,” Caldwell said of her and Sargent’s plan heading into the final. “It’s such a short and fast course that anything can happen and I think it is always fun to be right there in the mix.”
With just two laps to go, Falk, who came out of the exchange first, began to push the pace, while Fähndrich, Sargent and Ingemarsdotter chased her down. Though Falk had put a bit of a gap on the field by the course’s turn heading back to the stadium, it had closed by the course’s single climb. Here, Fähndrich made her move and maneuvered around Falk to the front.
After the fifth exchange and heading into the final lap, the two Swedes, van der Graff, and Caldwell tried to separate themselves from the rest of the teams in the final. But within a few meters three more teams — Slovenia, and Germany I and II — had rejoined them.
As they approached the aforementioned uphill, Nilsson went for it, propelling herself to the front. Dahlqvist went with her, and Caldwell dodged to van der Graff’s left, pulling a hard V1 to get around the Swiss skier. Approaching the finish, it was Dahlqvist to the far right, Nilsson in the middle and Caldwell to the left.
Both Swedes appeared to have an edge on Caldwell, but the American made a gritty final few pushes and all three lunged for the line. Dahlqvist was just ahead and took it by 0.16 seconds over Nilsson, and Caldwell placed third for the second day in a row, just 0.07 seconds out of second place and 0.23 seconds out of first. Sweden’s No. 2 team had won it with a cumulative time of 13:33.40, about four seconds faster than the fastest semifinal.
“I was actually left wishing the finish was a little longer, which I don’t know if I have ever said about a race before,” Caldwell, who leans toward sprint disciplines, said after the race. “Ida skied awesome and I was proud with how I skied, so it’s really fun when you feel like both legs kind of do their best and you get a good result to celebrate that with.”
Finishing in fourth (+2.11) was Germany I, Slovenia placed fifth (+4.46), Germany II placed sixth (+4.62), Switzerland (+5.09) USA II eighth (+7.95), Italy I ninth (+10.89) and Australia 10th (+27.53).
To start the day, Sweden I, with Falk and Nilsson had won the first semifinal in 13:37.97, by 0.17 seconds over Sweden II’s Ingemarsdotter and Dahlqvist. The top-six teams from that heat qualified for the final, with Switzerland in third, Italy in fourth, Slovenia in fifth, and Australia in sixth.
The American teams took the top two in the second semifinal, with Sargent and Caldwell winning 13:46.51, and Patterson and Randall following in second, 0.11 seconds back. Germany I and Germany II qualified from that heat as well with fast-enough times.
Sunday marked the first and last team sprint of the season so far before the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where a freestyle team sprint will be contested on Feb. 21.
The World Cup has two more weekends of racing before the Olympics, with all-classic races next weekend in Planica, Slovenia (classic sprint and 10/15 k classic individual starts), followed by freestyle races in Seefeld, Austria, on Jan. 27-28 (skate sprints and 10/15 k freestyle mass starts).
— Ian Tovell and Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.