Today, the women competed in the final day of World Cup racing in Les Rousses, France with the 20 kilometer mass start. The course consisted of six laps on a 3.3-kilometer loop. The course featured an extremely difficult early climb up the side of the venue’s ski jump which Jessie Diggins (USA) had said was about as steep as Alpe di Cermis in the Tour de Ski. The repeated ascents would test skiers’ ability both aerobically and technically, as they would have to navigate a tricky descent after each uphill effort.
Finishing first was Ebba Andersson (SWE), followed by Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) and Astrid Oyre Slind (NOR). Jessie Diggins was the top American finishing ninth, 2:20 behind the leaders. Rosie Brennan was 12th, about 12 seconds behind Diggins. Other American finishers were Hailey Swirbul in 19th (3:30 out of first), Alayna Sonnesyn in 35th, Alexandra Lawson 39th, and Michigan native Sarah Goble in 40th. No Nordiq Canada team members were entered in today’s race.
After having reached yesterday’s sprint finals, Julia Kern (USA) did not start today’s race. According to U.S. coach, Kristen Bourne, it was a planned rest day for Kern; she was not suffering any ill effects from her injured thumb which had recently required stitches as documented in FasterSkier’s story yesterday.
Le Rousses Women’s 20 k Mass Start
The undulating course broke up the field early on. The early lead was taken by Teresa Stadlober (AUT) who was seeking to become the first Austrian to win a World Cup cross country event. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
As the women navigated the steep climb, they were forced to slow to a painful herringbone simply to ascend the hill. The steep climb was followed by a quick descent with a sharp turn which the skiers had to navigate after having their legs blown up by the climb. Brennan described the climb to FasterSkier as “Incredibly steep.” Swirbul commented, “That hill was strange. On the first lap, I saw the skiers in front of me basically walking up it.”
At the start of the second lap, Niskanen—who excels at classic racing—jumped to the lead. She was followed closely by Andersson, Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR), and Slind. Stadlober had been gapped by the lead group.
Americans Diggins and Brennan had established a chase group ten seconds back with Brennan forcing the pace. But Brennan was unable to close the gap on the leaders. “I struggled with my skis today,” she said, “and didn’t have the glide I needed to be as competitive as I had hoped.” But, she was happy with the way she felt, “My body was in for the fight, and that’s encouraging as well.” The big hill and the weather proved challenging for wax technicians. As Bourne told FasterSkier, “It certainly was not a straight forward kick kind of day for us. There were sunny spots, and a mix of man-made snow and natural snow, so there’s variability throughout the course as well, so it’s not a super straight-forward place to figure out wax.”
As the third lap began, Niskanen continued to push the pace in a lead group which had been reduced to four skiers. Brennan and Diggins were in the middle of a chase group 15 seconds behind. By the time the skiers began the steep climb for the third time, the struggle navigating the ascent was clearly visible. Swirbul told FasterSkier that “It was comforting to know that everyone felt similarly about that hill, and many people seemed to treat it as a place to relax and save energy rather than push really hard.” Bourne added that “[The hill] was an added challenge trying to figure out how to pace the course. Quite a few of our athletes felt like you just had to make it through that section, then there are plenty of opportunities to push the rest of the course.”
After the third ascent, Andersson pushed ahead with Niskanen, reducing the lead pack to just the two skiers. Oestberg and Slind teamed up in a chase group of their own to try and regain the connection to the leaders. By the eight kilometer mark, the leaders had established a 13 second gap, with the Brennan/Diggins chase group 43 seconds back.
As the leaders reached the half-way point, they had extended their lead to 30 seconds over Slind and Oestberg, who maintained a 40 second lead over the Brennan/Diggins chase group. The race pattern had become clear: Andersson would use her double poling strength to her advantage, Niskanen would then regain ground using her textbook diagonal stride technique.
At the start of the fourth lap Andersson made a break on Niskanen, when Andersson ignored hydration at an aid station and established a 10 second gap. Once again, Niskanen was able to use her beautiful classic technique to close the gap. It was now a game of cat and mouse between Andersson’s double poling strength and Niskanen’s diagonal stride.
At 11 kilometers, the race story was boiling down to the two leaders fighting for first, and Slind and Oestberg fighting for third. The second chase group would be unlikely to reach the podium. Lead changes continued to epitomize the Andersson and Niskanen battle as the pair climbed the ski jump hill where Andersson again established an 11 second lead By the start of the final lap, the only remaining question was would Andersson be able to maintain her lead over Niskanen, and would the two Norwegians in the chase group establish a gap between each other?
As the racers ascended the monster hill for the final time, it was clear that Andersson had established a big enough lead to hold off Niskanen and would be able to comfortably ski into the finish ahead of her rival. Meanwhile, Slind and Oestberg were caught in an intractable struggle to the finish, neither of them giving an inch. Slind and Oestberg fought right to the finish, sprinting into the final stretch. Slind went into a double pole frenzy which her country woman was unable to match. She nipped Oestberg by four seconds.
As the second chase group came to the finish, Brennan and Diggins had fallen off the pace and it was the sprint standout Emma Ribom (SWE) who used her sprint power to charge across the finish line in fifth.
Diggins would finish ninth, 13 seconds behind Ribom, with Brennan in 12th. Hailey Swirbul was the third American to cross the finish having an excellent day finishing in 19th place. Swirbul appears to have acclimated well to the transition to Europe once her initial illness was behind her. She commented “That was as good of an outcome as I could have hoped for with a hill that crazy!”
It was an exciting race and a beautiful day to finish racing in France.
Women’s 20-Kilometer Classic Individual RESULTS: