Swedes Sweep Podium in Livigno Freestyle Sprints. No One Can Stop Klaebo

Ken RothJanuary 21, 2023

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After taking a weekend off to recover from the grueling Tour de Ski, the World Cup returned to its traditional format this weekend. Today, in Livigno, Italy, the freestyle sprints were contested. It’s the first time Livigno has hosted a World Cup event. Livigno sits just below 6,000 feet, which would press the FIS (International Ski Federation) rules on altitude.

The pleasant sight of natural snow welcomed racers in Livigno, Italy. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The storyline on the men’s side should have been straight forward:  Would Johannes Klaebo (NOR) continue his season, and career long, sprint domination? Over half of Klaebo’s individual World Cup victories have been in sprints, and he is riding a very hot hand having won nine out of ten of the last sprints he’s competed in. The primary threat to Klaebo was likely to come from Lucas Chanavat (FRA) who is currently second in the sprint rankings. Also hoping to topple Klaebo were Richard Jouve (FRA), and Federico Pellegrino (ITA). Pellegrino would have the benefit of being able to draw support from his home country’s fans. Pellegrino beat Klaebo in a shocking outcome in Davos, back in the middle of December. While a strong sprinter, Jouve’s strength is in the classic technique sprint.

Johannes Klaebo (NOR) on the way to another sprint victory. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Klaebo is in a pitched battle with countryman Paal Golberg (NOR) for the overall cup standings. While Golberg doesn’t usually have Klaebo’s sprint prowess, (he is fifth overall in the sprints), he would need a strong performance to keep him in the overall cup hunt.

However, the narrative became scrambled due to a schedule conflict with the Norwegian national championships. This led to Paal Golberg racing Thursday in Gjovik, Norway and then heading over to Italy for the weekend. Other men pulled double duty racing both the Norwegian championships and the World cup, including Erik Valnes and Even Northug. Valnes ended up winning his country’s sprint championship. It remained to be seen what effect the extra racing would have on Golberg and the others. Klaebo did not race in the Norwegian Championships.

The U.S. side of the men’s sprint story was also dominated by who was absent. Going into the race, Ben Ogden was in seventh place in the sprint standings (ninth overall). However, Ogden did not race today. U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier that the time off was planned for Ogden. Also not racing today to prepare for the world U-23 championships were J.C. Schoonmaker (University of Alasaka-Anchorage), and Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars)

On the Women’s side, the biggest story again was who wasn’t racing. There were only 38 women who competed in the qualifying round. A morning of racing for the qualifiers was spent eliminating only 8 skiers. This should be a point of concern for FIS.  Whitcomb shared the concern about depth of competition. “There’s a lot of stress coming up to altitude, and racing a sprint without being acclimated, and there’s a lot of pressure to race at [Norwegian] nationals. You really have to choose your battles.” The scheduling is far from ideal.  Whitcomb noted that he is concerned with the depth, particularly of the women’s field. “One of the big issues is that it doesn’t make a lot of physiological sense when preparing for World Championships to go up to altitude for four days…and then come down.” He noted that it’s a problem that needs fixing.

Many of the top Norwegian women also chose to race the Norwegian championships or skipped Livigno. Tiril Udnes Weng, Heidi Weng, Lotta Udnes Weng, Ragnhild Haga, Helene Fossesholm, and Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg all chose to skip Italy. Frida Karlsson (SWE) also did not race today.

Emma Ribom (SWE) had dominated the sprints early in the season, but a bout with Covid may have prevented her from achieving similar successes lately. It remained to be seen whether she could regain her early season form. Today would also be a return to World Cup racing for Linn Svahn (SWE) who has had an extended absence from the World Cup due to injury.

The start list shuffling left the door wide open for American Julia Kern, who has been having an impressive sprint season. She is currently sixth in the sprint standings.  Going into the race, third through sixth overall were only separated by 56 points. Given the sparse starting field, Kern had the opportunity to gain significant ground.

Julia Kern (USA) raced her way into a World Cup sprint final for the first time this season. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Jessie Diggins is fourth in the overall cup standings, only 15 points behind Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) who sits in third. But Diggins joined the long list of women not racing today. It was a strategic decision for Diggins who chose to prioritize rest prior to the World Championships over chasing World Cup points. U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier that “Jessie’s doing great.  She had a great training camp in Seefeld and stayed there with a bunch of athletes…because we knew she needed a break it was going to be either this weekend or Les Rousses, France [next weekend’s World Cup race].  Whitcomb continued that “The focus is now on World Championships, much more than points.”

Also not racing was U.S. National’s champion Hailey Swirbul. Swirbul won every race two weekends ago in Houghton, MI and had expected to race this weekend. However, Whitcomb informed FasterSkier that Swirbul had gotten sick almost immediately after arriving in Europe.  “She’ll head straight to Les Rousses as soon as she is feeling good.”

Going into the race, Rosie Brennan was sixth in the overall standings, and she would be trying to help her cause by gaining points in the sprint. Brennan has had her ups and downs in sprints this year. She’s made the finals in Davos but has also had her difficulties. She seems to have put her early season illness behind her, so hopes would be riding high for the Alaskan.

An all Sweden podium in Livigno (l-r : Maja Dahlqvist, Jonna Sundling, Emma Ribom) (Photo: NordicFocus).
The Results

It ended up being team Sweden dominating the Livigno podium. Finishing first was Jonna Sundling (SWE), followed by Maja Dahlqvist (SWE), and Emma Ribom (SWE).  The top American women were Julia Kern, who finished sixth, and Rosie Brennan in 11th.

Other American finishers were Alayna Sonnesyn, 24th, and Lauren Jortberg, 29th.

On the Men’s side the Klaebo train continued to chug along as he beat out Richard Jouve in a close finals race.  In third place was a surprising Janik Riebli (SUI).

Janik Riebli (SUI) on the way to a podium performance (Photo: NordicFocus)

The top American male was Kevin Bolger, 12th.  He was followed by Logan Diekmann, 38th,  Will Koch, 41st, and Adam Witkowski 42nd.

The Race

In the women’s heats Brennan went in having qualified in 12th spot. She skied her quarterfinal heat strategically, sitting in fourth most of the way. She ultimately finished third in her heat and would have to wait for a lucky loser spot. She was rewarded for her work and ultimately advanced via the lucky loser route.

Kern skied very controlled in her quarterfinal and pushed herself to the front of the pack taking the lead with about 30 seconds to go and cruised comfortably to finish first.

Julia Kern navigating through the field on the way to the finals in Livigno. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Alayna Sonnesyn was not able to advance out of her heat.

Brennan and Kern both raced in the second semi-final. Brennan pushed immediately from the start setting a fast early pace. However, she was unable to hold the quick tempo and was passed about halfway through the race.  Kern took an alternative strategy holding back early and then pushing to the front in the final half. Kern ended up second to advance to the finals. Brennan’s strategy of going out hard did not work for her as she continued to fade through the race and ended up last in her heat.

“I took a chance in my semi to ski a bit more aggressively and unfortunately, I completely ran out of power on the long uphill finish.”           Rosie Brennan.

Rosie Brennan (USA) (number 12) gave it everything she had in the heats, but ultimately ran out of steam. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The difference in approach was based upon what the racers experienced in the quarterfinals. Whitcomb said that “Julia felt like she was knocked around a little out of the start…there’s always a risk when you’re playing your cards from fifth or sixth.  We wanted her in the semifinal to be in a [higher position], so she had less traffic to deal with.”  Regarding Brennan, Whitcomb said that “People drafted by her, and she kind of ran out of energy.”

On the men’s side, Klaebo—who qualified with the fastest time—comfortably won his quarterfinal. Jouve, Chanavat, and Pellegrino also advanced comfortably.

The only American man to qualify for the heats was Kevin Bolger. He skied a very efficient quarterfinal and ended up winning his heat.

In the men’s first semifinal it was Klaebo and Jouve taking first and second.  In Bolger’s semifinal he went to the front from the start. With most of the pre-race favorites going in the first heat, it was a good strategy.  But just like with Brennan, he faded toward the finish and ended up finishing last in his semifinal.

Kevin Bolger  (USA) (number 13) would have an outstanding day in Livigno, finishing 12th. (Photo: NordicFocus)

In the finals, the only American left was Julia Kern. She held back toward the rear of the pack at the start with four Swedes out front.  Faehndrich tried to meticulously worked her way through the crowd of Swedes, but was unable to join the front grouping. Kern was never able to find the speed to challenge and ended up sixth. It was still her best sprint result of the year. At the end of the day, It was all Sweden with Sundling, Dahlqvist, and Ribom going 1-2-3.

In the men’s final Klaebo held back at the start sitting in fifth place, and then easily moved himself to the front about a minute into the race.  He then asserted himself at the front, content to let others try to find a way around him. At the finish Klaebo turned on the afterburners and was able to just beat out Jouve at the finish line. It was a close finish, but at the end of the day no one had solved the puzzle of how to beat Klaebo in a sprint race. Not bad for a guy who pulled into the venue the night before the race.

An interesting byproduct of the scheduling was the U.S. and Norwegian teams shared wax facilities this weekend. Whitcomb said that, “Because Norway kept so much of its infrastructure in Norway because of the nationals, they needed some help. It was a great opportunity to partner up…we had the Norwegians in our truck today.”  It turned out that Klaebo’s skis were waxed in the American truck by Norwegian technicians.  Whitcomb emphasized the value of sharing ideas and was excited about the partnership. The teams have a history of helping each other when one needs help. In addition to sharing physical space, the teams shared testing data as well. “We have a great relationship with the Norwegian team…I’m very proud of our small staff’s ability to plug in with the Norwegians and figure out a seamless working machine.  It was a great team accomplishment.”

FULL RESULTS

 

 

 

Ken Roth

Ken lives in Southeastern Michigan. He's an avid outdoor sport enthusiast. He's an attorney, former Mayor of Northville, Michigan, and former bowling center owner. He's spent much of the last 35 years trying to chase down his wife on classic skis; to no avail.

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