This World Cup coverage is made possible through the generous support of Marty and Kathy Hall and the A Hall Mark of Excellence Award. To learn more about A Hall Mark of Excellence Award or to learn how you can support FasterSkier’s coverage please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The temperature was a balmy -11℃ (12℉). A glow hung in the sky and new snow decorated the trees; a welcoming winter scene in Ruka, Finland. With the FIS Cross-Country World Cup making its start there on Friday, the crisp, clear, sub-arctic conditions seemed to be an indicator of good things ahead.
Ruka’s 1.4 k classic sprint course remains unchanged from previous years. (To see a breakdown on this course, check out our video from 2018 with Andy Newell here). The straightforward read on the Ruka loop is that for all the jockeying and positioning possible in the first 1 k of rolling terrain, the last hill—the big one—plays an outsized role in deciding who wins. Yet, the critical read on why it has produced such awesome racing over the years is that the place in the racing calendar is just as important. The jitters and nerves of an entire offseason bear down on skiers in a way where the decisive moments in a day come not on the hill meant to test their mettle, but in the moments before where they know that test is coming. Don’t miss the forest for trees. Don’t miss the whole race because of the big hill.
The women’s field came into that course today anticipating an extra degree of variability. For all the variety of the World Cup last season, its classic sprints were surprisingly predictable. Only four skiers notched wins: overall sprint champion Maja Dahlqvist (SWE), Natalia Nepryaeva (RUS), Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR) and Jona Sundling (SWE). This season, Falla has retired, and Nepryaeva is out due to the FIS’ Russian suspension. With no skier showing a firm hold on the sprint events, today looked to be anyone’s race.
The Americans started a full lineup of six skiers, with Jessie Diggins qualifying for heats in 11th place, +4.68 seconds off winner Ane Appelkvist Stenseth (2:48.85). Julia Kern also qualified for the heats, placing 23rd (+5.39 sec). Kern ended up in the first quarterfinal along with the winner Stenseth, while Diggins took to the 3rd quarterfinal in a match up with 2nd place qualifier Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR) (+0.56).
The first quarterfinal also featured Sweden’s Emma Ribom, who was coming off an FIS sprint victory over most of the Swedish national team last week. For the 24 year old, that result follows an offseason in which she had top results in rollerski races of all types, from sprints to a 42 k classic marathon win in Trollhaettan.
In that quarterfinal, Stenseth (NOR) set a pattern her countrywomen would follow throughout the day; taking the inside lane at the start and leading out the early action. The Swedish counter throughout the day was to let the Norwegians do the pace-setting and hit that decisive last hill hard. Kern meanwhile comfortably moved in the pack, always near the front but never commanding the lead. When they hit the last hill, Ribom surged and Stenseth followed from the other side of the trail. Ribom crossed in 1st – 2:47.54, and Stenseth crossed in 2nd – 2:48.21 (+0.67). Kern had followed the Stenseth move up the hill, and held on in a late sprint with Anna Svendsen (NOR) for 3rd place 2:48.60 (+1.06).
The first heat had been fast, though Kern in 3rd place would be forced to wait out the rest of the quarterfinals before learning if her time was good enough to earn a lucky loser spot.
In the 3rd quarterfinal, Jessie Diggins tucked in behind the Norwegian pair of Tiril Udnes Weng and Kristine Stavås Skistad, and through the early part of the race was in a comfortable position in the pack. As that field rounded the corner that led to the course’s only prolonged downhill, however, Finn Katri Lylynpera and German Katharina Hennig tangled up and went down. Diggins was held up ever-so-slightly, but the spot on the course was unfortunate, stifling the momentum Diggins hoped to build by skiing out from the back of the field. She ended the heat in 5th place.
When the rest of the dust had settled on the quarterfinals, the first heat proved to be the fastest, sending Julia Kern into the semi-finals where she would race out of the second heat.
In the first semi, Emma Ribom and Maja Dahlqvist formed a Swedish contingent matching up to a three-strong Norwegian contingent of Tiril Udnes Weng, Ane Applekvist Stenseth and Anna Svendsen. The sixth skier in the heat was the host nation’s Jasmi Joensuu (FIN), who also has a strong American skiing connection – an alumni of Denver University, where she was an All-American and part of DU’s NCAA national title winning teams in 2016 and 2019.
On the Ruka hill, Joensuu earned the distinction of having the best finishing kick of the day. In a heat where the Norweigans took it out fast, and then Maja Dahlqvist took them out even faster, the Finn was able to hold on to the pack just long enough so she could kick back into contention in the final climb. Joensuu followed Weng and Stenseth on the hill, who overtook Ribom and Dahlqvist, but saw themselves be out-double poled in the sprint. The result: Emma Ribom 1st place, 2:44.99, Dahlqvist 2nd (+0.05), Weng 3rd (+0.09), and Joensuu 4th (+0.67). It was the fastest heat of the day.
Julia Kern started her semi-final alongside Johanna Hagstroem (SWE), Frida Karlsson (SWE), Kristine Stavås Skistad (NOR), Lotta Udnes Weng (NOR), and Tereza Beranova (CZE). The Norwegians again took the inside track and took the heat out in front. Kern, for her part, chose to stick behind the pairing of Swedes early in the race, The pack didn’t have the same ferocious pace as the previous heat, instead seeing a quiet battle for positioning going into the final hill. Kern came into that in 3rd place, before losing ground as Czech Tereza Beranova made a massive push. That broke the field into a final sprint early, with Hagstroem (SWE) coming out on top in 1st – 2:47.16 and Skistad (NOR) getting Beranova by a boot’s throw for the 2nd spot (+0.43). Kern finished the heat in 6th place (+4.92).
The Final: three Swedes – Emma Ribom, Johanna Hagstroem, and Maja Dahlqvist, two Norwegians – Kristine Stavås Skistad, and Tiril Udnes Weng, and one Finn – Jasmi Joensuu. The dynamic was everything a spectator would expect watching the rest of the days racing, but the decisive moment was not.
The Norweigans took the final out hard from the gun, while the Swedes took the early part of the race to find the right position. That eventually led to a moment of attrition, where the field slowed and stared over into the downhill, not daring to be the first down into it. That led to a more jumbled pack going into the final hill than usual, but it was still a similar race to what had been seen all day. The Swedes took to the uphill at full speed, and seemed to gain a slight advantage on their Norwegian and Finnish pursuers. The final turn looked to be all that was left between them and a podium sweep. Dahlqvist led it out, then Ribom, then Hagstroem.
And then, Dahlqvist went down. One of those trips that every skier has tripped. A little touch of the toe under the boot, and she hit the ground. Ribom and Hagstroem were left to sprint for the victory, and Ribom took the win, 2:49.22.
Hagstroem in 2nd (+0.91) and Weng in 3rd (+0.93) rounded out the podium in the first race on the first day of the World Cup season. Last year’s sprint champion, Maja Dahqvist, crossed the line well after the field, broken Swix Triac in hand.
On a course designed to open the World Cup with a piece of decisive terrain, its latest chapter was defined by an accident that no amount of engineering could snuff out. Maja Dahlqvist, the reigning sprint champion takes a tumble. Emma Ribom, the 24 year-old, takes her first World Cup win. New season, same Swedes.
American skiers had strong results further down the qualifying list. Rosie Brennan placed just outside of heats in 32nd (+9.15), while Alayna Sonnesyn placed 43rd (+12.36), Novie McCabe placed 52nd (+17.28), and Lauren Jortberg placed 54th (+19.33).
The Canadians also saw a strong grouping of skiers in the results, with Dahria Beatty 38th (+10.16), Katherine Stewart-Jones in 45th (+12.48), and Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt in 46th (+14.03).
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.