The high alpine valley containing Livigno, Italy is as beautiful and sublime as any place on Earth, seemingly heaven-sent to feature the high drama of the FIS Cross Country World Cup; for the first time, Livigno was hosting World Cup races this weekend.
That idyllic scene made Sunday’s Team Sprint all the stranger, since so many of the usual players and storylines were absent from the World Cup. As FasterSkier reported on yesterday’s Sprint, many factors affected the participation in Livigno: the staging of Norwegian National Championships, athletes taking planned breaks in their racing schedules, untimely illnesses, Livigno’s daunting elevation (Livigno sits at an elevation of 6000ft), and upcoming World Championships in Planica, Slovenia. Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR) had packed his bags and returned to Norway after his victory in Saturday’s individual Sprints. Jessie Diggins (USA) was taking a break from racing to refine her training. The field of U23 athletes had largely abandoned the World Cup in preparation for U23 World Championships in Whistler starting next week.
What was left in Livigno then? Well, the mountains towered, the sun shone down without a cloud in the sky, the snow was good, and the Italian fans were ready. It was, in other words, still a perfect scene for a ski race, and so those who had stayed on the World Cup—along with a few who were making their first appearances in it—gathered for a Skate Team Sprint in which partners skied three legs apiece on a 1.2 k loop around the valley floor.
In a weekend marked by a lull in the World Cup, there was one glaring irony: the front of the women’s field was marked by top skiers trying to re-establish themselves in the World Cup standings. For all their dominance, it has been a difficult year for the Swedish women’s team. A shoulder injury has kept Linn Svahn out for much of the season, and persistent illnesses have struck Jonna Sundling andEmma Ribom early in the World Cup season. In Livigno, the Swedes were looking for an opportunity to return to high-level competition. In selecting their teams, the Swedes split the Beijing Olympic Team Sprint Silver Medal duo of Maja Dahlqvist and Jonna Sundling, and paired both with new partners. Dahlqvist joined up with Linn Svahn to form Sweden II, and Sundling joined with Emma Ribom to form Sweden I.
There was little to separate the field on the relatively flat Livigno course; through most of the race, the field remained largely intact. Out of the third exchange (entering the fourth lap) the Swedish pair of Dahlqvist and Sundling started to up the tempo on their persistent V2. Only two teams followed: Germany and the United States. The United States I team was represented in the move by Julia Kern, who paired up with Rosie Brennan to form a strong unit for the US. The USA II team of Lauren Jortberg and Alayna Sonnesyn were also in the final today, but had not quite bridged the gap to the front pack. Germany was represented by the pairing of Sofie Krehl and Laura Gimmler.
The pack of four teams—Sweden I, Sweden II, Germany I, and United States I—held through the fifth lap. The move to win was made by Maja Dahlqvist on the only true feature of the course—a short, steep, pitch where she unleashed a powerful V1 that led her to the win over Sundling who sprinted to second place for Sweden I. Behind the pair of Swedish sprinters, Kern had affected the same high-tempo attack for third, and beat out the German anchor skier, Gimmler.
The unusual scenes of this World Cup brought some welcome novelty, especially for American ski fans, in the Men’s race. A pair of American men even younger than the skiers who are now becoming the familiar faces on the US Ski Team made their World Cup debut in the Individual Sprint yesterday, and paired with more experienced teammates in comprising the Team Sprint duos today. That included Adam Witkowski—a native of upstate New York now skiing for Michigan Tech—who paired with Logan Diekmann to form the United States II team. The team rosters also included Will Koch—the Vermonter and University of Colorado Buffalo—skiing with veteran Kevin Bolger on United States I. United States I advanced to the Final.
Focus on who might win the Men’s race was firmly turned towards those teams hailing from the surrounding Alps. The Italians, on home soil, fielded the strong team of Francesco De Fabiani and anchor Federico Pellegrino. The French, too, fielded reigning Sprint champion Richard Jouve in the anchor leg, paired with Renaud Jay.
The men’s field remained tightly woven and tense throughout the course of the six lap race. Skiers looked for a track to gain a place, or test out a high-tempo attack. It wasn’t really until the last leg—the anchor’s anchor leg—that Richard Jouve and Federico Pellegrino moved on the only sharp incline on course and made it a sprint. Jouve gained a slight advantage in doing so, and it was enough to seal the win for France, as Pellegrino brought Italy to a second place finish on the day. Behind the battle for first and second, it was Valerio Grond (SUI) who escaped the pack to earn the bronze with his partner, Janik Riebli (Saturday’s Individual Sprint bronze medallist).
The pairing of Koch and Bolger for the United States finished in 12th place on the day, but just 20 seconds off the leaders. The combination of the experienced Bolger alongside the younger Koch underscored the range and depth that the American program has fostered over the past decade. Koch’s first start on the World Cup extends the scope of that accomplishment across time too, as he joins Novie McCabe in being the second generation of his family to have skied on the World Cup for the United States.
On to Les Rousses
With familiar pieces of the World Cup scattered to the winds during this weekend in Livigno, perhaps the biggest story going forward is just who might be on the start line next weekend when the World Cup travels from Italy to France. The French will finally be able to host a World Cup in Les Rousses after Covid restrictions and insufficient snow coverage forced cancellation two years ago. It’s a reminder that the World Cup is subject to the whims of life, weather, sickness, and all else. There’s never absolute certainty, which only heightens the experience when the sun is shining, the snow is plentiful, and the best athletes in the world converge to ski race for ski racing’s sake.
Full Results from Sunday’s Team Sprint
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.