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And so it begins. The first round of World Cup racing took place in Ruka, FIN today with conditions one might expect in late November at almost 66 degrees North latitude: long shadows, low light, and squeaky tracks, with strong, eager athletes kicking and gliding around a 1.4-kilometer loop. The temperature showed in the athletes’ appearance, as they were bundled with mittens and buffs through the heats, layering with jackets and vests on the warm up and between rounds. Perhaps good practice for the forecasted conditions in Zhangjiakou, China, during the upcoming Olympics.
While Jessie Diggins normally comes into form later in the race season once she has a handful of races under her belt, she surprised herself with her opener in Ruka. Diggins may not be considered a favorite for classic sprints, but she has shown time and time again that she should never be ruled out in a classic race. Today, she raced the fastest qualifier with a time of 2:58.85, 0.77 seconds ahead of the next woman.
In an interview with FIS before the rounds, Diggins credited her techs for preparing her winning skis, laughing that “no one looks at her in a classic sprint qualifier.” (We expect there might also be a fitness component at play here.) In terms of a return to the World Cup, she expressed her excitement that the season is upon us.
“I feel great,” she said. “It’s so fun to be back in Europe, back with my team. This is such cool energy. For me, it feels like the first day in school. I just love being here with these people.”
Heading into the rounds, Diggins selected the fifth and final quarterfinal heat.
Also among the top-30 qualifiers were Rosie Brennan in 8th (+1.90) and Julia Kern in 21st (+5.6). Kern raced in the second heat of the quarters, while Brennan selected the fourth.
A quick note on the sprint course in Ruka. You’ll notice from the profile that the A-climb begins just before the 1k mark, leading into a false flat before winding into the final straightaway to the finish. There is no downhill out of this climb; athletes simply climb a little over 20 vertical meters, then fight the subsequent flood of lactate as they make their way to the finish.
In the second quarterfinal, a pair of Swedes, Maja Dahlqvist and Anna Dyvik, got out quickly to establish position at the front. Kern tucked in behind the Swedes out of the gate, then made a commanding move using momentum from the first descent to put herself at the front of the pack for the first climb. Heading up the A-Climb, the Swedes began to pull ahead, along with Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampič. Kern held her position in fourth place into the stadium and across the line, however, the time was not fast enough to secure a lucky loser position and she was knocked out.
During Brennan’s heat, she remained tucked into the middle of the group at the halfway mark. She dialed the effort up a notch on the A-climb, but as she neared the top, there were still four women vying for the lead. Brennan was tucked in on the tails of Finland’s Johanna Matintalo coming down the final stretch to take third in the heat. Unfortunately for the American, this was less than half a second off the time needed for a lucky loser spot in the semis.
Diggins took the lead early in her quarter, her fast skis having allowed her to capitalize on the first downhill. She held her ground into the A-climb, where Krista Pärmäkoski and Katri Lylynpera, both of Finland, followed by Sweden’s Frida Karlsson, caught the American, leaving the climb as a pack of four.
In the final stretch, Karlsson gained ground with her double pole to take the win just ahead of Lylynpera. Diggins crossed the line in a photo finish with Pärmäkoski, but timing showed that the American was 0.04 seconds behind the Finn, leaving her in fourth for the heat, which did not see any lucky losers.
Despite not advancing further in the rounds, Diggins said she knows she is “exactly where I need to be” at this point in the season. She acknowledged how much she has put in with her coaches to improve her classic skiing, and sees this as a positive indicator of the progress they’ve made. Here’s more from Jessie:
Post-race audio clip from Jessie Diggins.
In the first round of the semis, all six women remained tight through the halfway mark. You’ve probably caught on to the theme of the day: positioning oneself at the front heading out of the A-climb proved critical for final placement. Deciding moves were made here. Using this tactic, Johanna Hagström (SWE) and teammate Dahlqvist ran powerfully uphill to pull ahead. The women entered the final straightaway side-by-side, but Dahlqvist soon made ground on her teammate, taking the win in the round. Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva was close on the women’s tails, closing the gap in the last 50 meters and sliding across the line just behind Hagström in third, not quite fast enough for a lucky loser spot in the final.
Moving on to the second round. Russia’s Yulia Stupak led the women through the first half. On the A-climb, Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla held the lead with Lylynpera close behind. Moving from the back of the pack into third, Karlsson took the inside around the curve heading into the stadium. She steadily gained ground on the other women in the double pole sprint to the line, edging Lylynpera out at the line to take the heat. Falla took third, with Matintalo close behind. As the second was the faster heat of the semis, both of these women advanced to the final.
In the final round, Sweden was looking to repeat their podium sweep from last year in Ruka. With Dahlqvist, Hagström, and Karlsson in the final, the possibility remained on the table.
Despite a brief failure in grip and consequent slip, Dahlqvist charged the A-climb to put herself in excellent position for the final meters. A few stride lengths behind, Falla and Hagström were matched as they vied for the second and third podium spots.
As they rounded the final left-hand bend into the stadium, the Swede had enough space to take the preferred line into the second track from the left of the curve heading into the final straight, leaving Falla to make a lane change behind her. This advantage carried Hagström to the line for second (+1.77) with Falla just behind for third (+2.02).
“I couldn’t say better — perfect start,” Dahlqvist told FIS after the race. “I had really good shape and my skis were so good, so I just wanted to ski fast. I couldn’t wait for the uphill, and that’s never happened with me before.”
This is Dahlqvist’s second World Cup win, but 13th time on the podium. She was second in last year’s classic sprint opener in Ruka.
Off the podium, Finland’s Matintalo finished fourth in the final (+3.21) with teammate Lylynpera next over the line for fifth (+3.74). Karlsson was sixth across the line (+3.97) to close out the final heat.
Once final rankings from the heats were solidified, Brennan was deemed the top American in 15th, with Diggins just behind in 16th. Still inside the Top-20, Kern ended her day in 18th.
Reflecting on her opener, Brennan shared the following in a post-race email:
“Ruka is such a unique course and being the first race of the season, it’s always hard to know what to expect. My goal was to be in the mix and skiing well. I am happy with my effort and really happy to be underway with racing. I think this was my best result in Ruka so even though I always want more, I am happy to be where I am right now. I felt I was missing a little top end speed today, but feel that I am on track and moving in the right direction. I’m excited to do some distance racing and to continue working out the kinks this weekend.”
Kern also posted her career-best result in Ruka. She finished outside the heats in 40th last year. Remarking on this progress, Kern wrote:
Outside the heats, Hailey Swirbul was 37th in the qualifier (+8.59). Katharine Ogden was next for the U.S. in 52nd (+12.23), immediately followed by Hannah Halvorsen in 53rd (+12.95). Novie McCabe was 61st (+16.43), with Sydney Palmer-Leger closing out the American team in 66th (+21.61).
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