In case you missed the discussion on the Devon Kershaw podcast, the Norwegian team made its World Cup return today in Lahti, Finland after nearly two months of training and competing domestically. As predicted, neither their form nor racing gears have not been from this decision. The women in red went 1-2-3 in the 7.5/7.5-kilometer skiathlon, led by powerhouse Therese Johaug who notched her third consecutive win in the event and third career skiathlon win on the tracks in Lahti. Her total of nine career skiathlon wins is a women’s record, surpassing Johaug’s former teammate and one of the most decorated skiers of all time, Marit Bjørgen.
In her usual style, Johaug took command from the start, skiing away from the pack displaying remarkable precision in her technique and metronomic tempo, stopping the clock at 37:45.1.
As has been remarked before, with the lack of spectators and commentary overlaying the live stream, it’s hard not to be struck by the intensity of the athletes’ breathing. As they kicked, glided, and skated six laps of the 2.5 k course, their lungs pumped at a rate and effort that seemed impossible to sustain. Yes, Johaug had a gap to the chasers from early on, but like the others, her rapid breathing made it abundantly clear that she did not simply walk away with the victory.
“It was so fun to be on the World Cup again,” Johaug told FIS after the finish. “It has been a long time since I was in Kuusamo [for the opening World Cup races in Ruka, FIN], so it’s really good to race here and see all the people in the cross country family again.”
Unlike the teams coming off a two-week break following the Tour de Ski, the Norwegian squad made a quick turnaround from their National Championships, which wrapped up just five days ago in Trondheim. Today’s skiathlon is the second this week that Johaug has raced and won. In fact, with only minimal rearrangement for the second and third spots, the podiums in the two events were identical.
“My shape has been really good, now and the last weekend. Today, I know that I was starting in the line, so I knew to take it a little bit easy in the first lap and then go hard from the second and the third. I felt really strong today, and of course, I had to do all the job alone, and especially then, it’s really good to stand on top of the podium.”
Perhaps the more interesting race to watch unfold happened behind Johaug. When the Norwegian began to pull away in her second classic lap, a small chase pack emerged in her wake, containing Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva, Sweden’s Ebba Anderson, and Jessie Diggins in stars, stripes, and the yellow overall World Cup leader bib. Diggins striding was strong and confident, as she tucked in behind the other two racers, entering the exchange zone at 7.5 k on their tails and smoothly switching into her skate skis and poles.
As the first skate lap unfolded, Norway’s Helene Marie Fosseholm and Heidi Weng began to ski off the front of the second group of chasers, which contained names like Olympic champion in the Skiathlon Charlotte Kalla of Sweden and bronze medalist Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland. Wearing the red World Cup distance leader bib, Rosie Brennan also sat comfortably in this group.
Though only 29-years-old, Weng is a veteran compared to Fosseholm, who is only 19. Her results this season indicate she is a name to get to know; she finished 6th overall in the Ruka Triple, and proceeded to earn four podiums during her subsequent time racing on home turf, including a Johaug-like victory in the 10 k skate last week during the Norwegian National Championships, winning by a margin of over 30 seconds. Johaug did not contest this event.
By the 10 k mark, Fosseholm and Weng had caught the group of Andersson, Nepryaeva, and Diggins. The Russian began to fall off the pace, but Diggins was not about to follow suit. The women skated as a unit through the next lap, never separated by more than a second or two.
As they left the stadium for their final lap, Fosseholm made a surge, testing her mettle against her more seasoned pursuers. With just over a kilometer to go, she had nearly a seven-second gap, which dissolved much faster than it was formed.
Andersson, Weng, and Diggins powered through the back half of the lap, steadily closing in on Fosseholm. Aerial shots showed the women charging up the final climb, still able to jump skate after nearly 40 minutes of exertion. They V2’ed over the top of the climb, all cylinders firing as they dropped back toward the stadium, around a couple of tight curves and toward the lanes.
Fosseholm could be seen taking nervous glances over her shoulder, knowing the other women had zeroed in their sights and there was no room for error. Luckily for Fosseholm, she had maintained enough real estate to enter the lanes with a clear path to second place (+28.1).
Behind her, it was still anyone’s game. Weng was first into the lanes, but Andersson was by her side and charging, Diggins just behind. With a furious throw of boots at the line, Weng snagged the third spot on the podium (+29.6) with Andersson centimeters behind in fourth (+29.7) and Diggins in 5th (+30.1).
In a post race interview, Diggins shared insights into the conditions in Lahti and how bomber kick on klister allowed her to ski what she identifies as one of her best classic races on the World Cup. With suboptimal glide in skate, Diggins had to shift her tactics so she could stay in the draft of those in front of her and ultimately left a final slingshot around Andersson and Weng to fight for the podium just out of reach.
“I was excited to dare greatly and try to stay with Johaug as long as possible, just to see and to really push it… In the skate half, it was nice to have those girls to work with. I had to keep adjusting my strategy as I realized how our glide stacked up to their glide. I had to keep changing it around, and I played the only card I had, tactically speaking. It didn’t really work, but it was the only thing I could do in the situation that I was in. I was really proud of that and I think I skied as smart of a race as possible.”
Diggins also discussed the team recovery camp in Seiser Alm, Italy, how she manages the balance of increased media attention with training and recovery and her desire to support meaningful causes like the Emily Program, and how “new blood” on the World Cup squad re-energizes the veteran members of the American team.
Maintaining her position in the second group of chasers, Brennan skied to 11th place (+1:07.6), ending her race just ahead of Kerttu Niskanen in a photo finish.
“It’s always hard to know how the body is going to bounce back from an event like the Tour de Ski,” wrote Brennan in an email after the race. “As a result, I decided to start controlled and then see what I had when I switched to skating. I felt much stronger in classic than I have all season and as a result maybe should have been more aggressive in the classic leg, but hindsight is always 20/20. After the transition to skate, my muscles struggled a bit, but I found better movements and strength as the skate portion went on. There wasn’t much space to move in the skate portion and I feel I missed some moves that I shouldn’t have, but had a strong final climb to move up a bit. In all, I feel this race was a really good step in the right direction for me as I am now focused on preparation for the World Championships.”
A quick look to the overall World Cup ranks. With today’s results, Diggins remains at the top of the overall leaderboard with 991 points and also ties Brennan for the top spot in the distance standings with 401 points. Brennan remains in second place overall with 824 points, followed by Russia’s Yulia Stupak with 802 points.
Also for the U.S., Sophia Laukli in her first World Cup start raced to 33rd (+3:54.8). Laukli is a member of the US Cross Country D-Team and is a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont. Caitlin Patterson was the next American in 37th (+4:33.8), Julia Kern 40th (+6:31.3), and Alayna Sonnesyn 43rd (+6:41.1). Forty-eight skiers finished the race.
This was Canada’s first World Cup appearance this season. Two athletes scored points, Katherine Stewart-Jones in 24th (+3:23.5) and Cendrine Browne in 27th (+3:44.9). Laura Leclair skied to 44th (+6:41.7).
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646