Karlsson Duels Niskanen in 20 k Mass Start Classic

John TeafordFebruary 11, 2024

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Frida Karlsson (SWE) celebrates her win in the Canmore World Cup 20 k Mass Start Classic. (Photo: Modica/NordicFocus)

Frida Karlsson, Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan, Linn Svahn, Heidi Weng, Tiril Udnes Weng: plenty of the primary contenders for season-long World Cup accolades played significant roles in Saturday’s Freestyle Sprint races in Canmore, Alberta. Sometimes, the efforts expended in those sprints (especialy for those skiers who make it all the way to a hotly contested final) can spell disaster for athletes racing distance races the following day. Even those accomplished distances skiers who also happen to perform at a high level on Sprint days (like Diggins and Karlsson) may struggle when the following day presents a Mass Start distance race. Women’s World Cup Mass Start fields have been known to drive the pace high and hot from the very start, with the true contenders attempting to break the field early on to establish race-winning breakaways. For those with yesterday’s sprints still in their legs, a 20 k Classic race could be a challenge, indeed.

That prospect is especially daunting when it’s considered that a number of significant distance specialists (and a few who are Classic specialists) did not race deep into the heats in Saturday’s Sprint competition. Perennial distance contender, Ebba Andersson (SWE), was not a competitor in the heats in yesterday’s Sprint competition. Neither were Classic-specialists Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) and Victoria Carl (GER), nor distance-specialists Teresa Stadlober (AUT), Astrid Oyre Slind (NOR), and Katharina Hennig (GER). Those skiers have the ability to make the whole field suffer in a distance race. And if Saturday’s Sprint races took enough out of those who raced all the Sprint heats, today’s podium could look very different, indeed.

And then there are the bonus points sprints . . .

In the end, it was all-rounder, Karlsson, who took the final sprint from Niskanen, while H. Weng won the battle with Slind for third. Among Americans, Diggins made up ground on the final downhill to finish 10th, ahead of Brennan 13th, Sophia Laukli 14th, Julia Kern 26th, Sydney Palmer-Leger 31st, Margie Freed 33rd, Alexandra Lawson 35th, Mariah Bredal 36th, Renae Anderson 37th, Emma Albrecht 39th.

“Today was a chance to get really mentally tough,” said Diggins in post-race interviews. “It was really the first race all season where I felt like I didn’t have kick or glide. Our wax team has been excelling all season, but we were bound to have a tough day at some point.”

Among Canadians, Katharine Stewart-Jones skied the early laps among the leaders, but faded to 28th. Other Canadian finishers included Anna Stewart 34th, and Katya Semeniuk 38th.

Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) (#7) and Frida Karlsson (SWE) (#6) set a blistering pace in the closing laps of the 20 k Mass Start Freestyle. (Photo: Modica/NordicFocus)
Women’s 20 k Mass Start Classic

Andersson, Carl, Diggins, and Brennan led the field out of the stadium for the first of six laps on Canmore’s technical, up-and-down course. After the second climb, the field began to stretch out, creating a break behind the top 30 skiers. Diggins, Brennan, and Laukli made the selection, and seemed relatively comfortable with the pace. Canada’s Katherine Stewart-Jones also made this first selection.By the 3.3 kilometer mark, Julia Kern had also returned to the front group.

At the five kilometer mark, the pace quickened, and a lead group of five (Karlsson, Andersson, Slind, Niskanen, Hennig) slipped away from the field. Stadlober and H. Weng gave chase, their efforts bringing another group up to the leaders. That group included Brennan and Laukli. Diggins had to chase a bit longer (with Carl); she ultimately made the front-group selection as well.

Sophia Laukli (USA) is on a roll, consistently putting herself in contention in challenging World Cup distance races, including the Classic (not her specialty) Mass Start in Canmore, Alberta. (Photo: Modica/NordicFocus)

Nearing the halfway point, the lead group came back together with the bonus points sprint going to Niskanen (15 points) followed by Brennan (12 points) and Hennig (10 points). Diggins came through fifth (six points) to continue her trend of confounding her rivals whenever bonus points are awarded. The pace of the 14-woman lead group settled a bit after the second bonus points sprint, allowing Niskanen and Karlsson the opportunity to go to the front. Diggins began dangling off the back while a lead group of five formed (Slind, H. Weng, Niskanen, Karlsson, and Andersson). Laukli chased through the lap, but her diminutive stature may have left her at a disadvantage on the course’s technical downhills. Likewise, Brennan appeared determined to close the gap to the leaders.

Slind came through to take bonus points in the final lap, but by that time the racing looked as though it was less about the points, and more about upping the pace in anticipation of the finish line a a few kilometers ahead. Brennan and Laukli were still involved in the chase, along with Diggins who had latched onto the back of the chase group.

In the final lap, Karlsson (the only remaining skier who had contested the heats in yesterday’s Sprint) drove the pace, with only Niskanen able to stay at her side. As the lead group strung out, Niskanen and Karlsson charged up the A Climb.

Karlsson tailed Niskanen down the final descent into the stadium, hoping to rely on her proven sprint speed in the closing meters. The difference in double poling technique was evident between Karlsson, the sprinter, and Niskanen,  the distance skier. Karlsson extended her lead to the line, and crossed first for an emotional victory.

“It was a hard pace from the start, so there were a lot of stiff legs in the end,” said Karlsson in post-race interviews. “But I’m so happy with today’s race.”

H. Weng won the race to for third ahead of Slind. Diggins flew down the final descent to recover a top-ten finish, just ahead of teammates Brennan (13th) and Laukli (14th).

“It’s hard to ski 20 k with that much herringbone,” said Diggins. “That’s why I went down to New Zealand and worked on it a lot in the summer . . . That last lap I was thinking, ‘Just deal with what you’ve got. Leave it all out there.’”

“What was hard is that it was easy [on this particular course] to get really ‘floody.’ I just kept thinking ‘Try to pace it evenly, be smart.’ I knew that people were goin to be standing up and doing some funky things on the downhills; if I could try to really ski the downhills as well as I could—to get every second I could out of the flats and downhills—then that could help mitigate my losses.”

Cowboy hats awarded on the Canmore World Cup podium—always good for a smile. Heidi Weng (NOR), third place, Women’s 20 k Mass Start Classic. (Photo:  Modica/NordicFocus)

Women’s 20 k Mass Start Classic RESULTS

John Teaford

John Teaford—the Managing Editor of FasterSkier — has been the coach of Olympians, World Champions, and World Record Holders in six sports: Nordic skiing, speedskating, road cycling, track cycling, mountain biking, triathlon. In his long career as a writer/filmmaker, he spent many seasons as Director of Warren Miller’s annual feature film, and Producer of adventure documentary films for Discovery, ESPN, Disney, National Geographic, and NBC Sports.

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