When it comes to distance classic events, at least this season, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen is calling the shots. She completed her undefeated streak in 10-kilometer classic competitions (in both individual or mass starts), winning her fourth in a row on Saturday at World Cup Finals in Québec City.
Starting in bib No. 7, Saturday’s eventual mass-start winner was skiing just outside of the top 10 for the first kilometer, following two U.S. skiers, Sadie Bjornsen in eighth and Jessie Diggins in fifth. Setting the pace from the front were Norwegian teammates Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg.
In another half a kilometer, Bjørgen moved to an outside lane and tucked past Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and Stina Nilsson. The maneuver moved her from 12th to fourth by the bottom of the third major downhill. And within the next climb, the classic queen had changed tracks and strode her way to the front, overtaking Weng.
From there, the race for the win became one about Bjørgen.
While the Norwegian stayed put up front, Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, who started the day ranked 22nd in the mini tour, began gaining ground from the back. At 3.3 k the eventual third-place finisher, Pärmäkoski, who had crashed earlier in the race, was skiing 8.1 seconds back from the leader in 21st. In another kilometer, she had moved up ten places and was within 5.3 seconds of Bjørgen.
“I fell today after the start and I had to fight hard to ski back to the leading group,” Pärmäkoski said during an International Ski Federation (FIS) interview.
While Pärmäkoski managed to move up, Diggins, who had been within striking range of the podium, had slipped 19th. The American explained that, while her energy felt good throughout the race, the real struggle came from her lack of kick.
“I had many races when I had outstanding skis this year, arguably the best in the world,” Diggins said. “I guess at some point, it was natural to fall on the other side of that. You can’t nail it every time.”
Despite ideal conditions for spectators — clear, blue skies and a strong sun that sent temperatures soaring into the mid-30’s Fahrenheit (about 2 degrees Celsius) by midday — it was a tricky one for classic waxing.
“Our wax techs work so hard, they are under incredible pressure,” Diggins added. “We did the best we could, we tested as well as we could, and it was a huge struggle for me out there today. But I’m ready for tomorrow. I know at the end of the season, everyone is tired, I just want a good race to finish it off. In skating, you don’t have to worry about kick, so I’ll go out and fight.”
As Diggins dropped back, a trio of Norwegians spearheaded the front. Around the halfway point, Bjørgen, Weng and Østberg began their breakaway, foreshadowing an all-Norwegian podium.
But what they hadn’t counted on, least of all Østberg, was Pärmäkoski. The Finn had decreased her distance from the Norwegians within the next kilometer by another 4 seconds, now merely a meter away from the top three.
“I was really fighting and hoping for a podium,” Østberg told FasterSkier. “I actually felt strong and strong enough but there was three girls stronger than me so, fourth is also good.”
With less than four kilometers to go, Østberg took a pull at the front, but it wasn’t long before the lead was back to Bjørgen.
“I think Marit and I did an awesome job in the front,” Østberg said. “Marit for sure did most of the job, but I tried to help and tried to keep up the speed in the leading group because there was someone chasing behind and I knew that she had some power left at the end of the last lap.”
As the four headed into their final kilometer, Bjørgen and Weng steamed off the front, while Pärmäkoski passed Østberg and locked into third. The two Norwegians cornered into the finishing stretch together, but Bjørgen’s double pole proved too strong for Weng and she crossed first in a time of 24:23.6.
Weng crossed 0.6 seconds later for second place, and Pärmäkoski finished 2.9 seconds back in third, while Østberg was 4.9 seconds off the podium in fourth.
“I have been winning all of the distance, so I’m happy with that,” Bjørgen said. “I was fighting for my position from the beginning, so I wasn’t in front before 2 kilometers, and then I wanted to speed up and then I saw the group was smaller and smaller. A good finish, so I am happy.”
A day after Weng locked up the Overall World Cup title, she clinched the Distance World Cup season-long title as well on Saturday. For Sunday’s pursuit, the last World Cup race of the season, Weng has a 1-second head start on Bjørgen in the 10 k freestyle pursuit.
Bjornsen Top American in 15th; Nishikawa Top Canadian in 37th
The top North American woman on Saturday was U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Sadie Bjornsen in 15th (+29.9).
Bjornsen and Diggins had been skiing with the top 10 for the first 3.3 k loop. As Diggins began to fall back, Bjornsen continued to race within and around the top 10. Bjornsen, like Diggins, also explained she had trouble slipping.
“I just couldn’t get up that hill,” Bjornsen said, referring to one of the course’s final climbs. “I started slipping so much, I was trying to keep it together. I made the mistake of wanting to go on the steep part of the climb, because I wanted to follow Kalla, but it was super hard to kick there, so it was a bit of a mistake … But I didn’t lose too much time on the group in front of me for tomorrow, so I’m excited.”
Bjornsen will start Sunday’s pursuit 1:10.4 minutes after Weng. While she admitted that classic races used to be her favorite, Bjornsen has embraced the fact that she can perform well in either discipline and attributed part of that newfound confidence to the depth of the women’s team.
“In 2011, we knew that Kikkan was good, but we didn’t know that we could be good,” Bjornsen said. “Each year, a new person on the team is discovering that they have podium potential, and they belong here. Yesterday, for example, for Rosie to make it into the heats is just crazy, the lift it gives the team, or Julia making her first World Cup points.
“We talk a lot about what we can do to improve together, and that’s different from 2011, because we’re not like, ‘OK, we have to do what Kikkan is doing,’ ” she continued. “Now we can speak with each other, and have an idea of what we can do.”
Diggins finished Saturday’s mass start in 27th (+1:06.9) followed by her teammate Sophie Caldwell in 38th (+1:56.0).
“I felt pretty good. I haven’t done much distance racing this year so it was fun to hop in one,” Caldwell said.
Following Caldwell, was Caitlin Patterson crossing in 44th (+2:39.9), Liz Guiney 45th (+2:43.3), Kaitlynn Miller 47th (+2:46.5), Chelsea Holmes 48th (+2:48.4), Rosie Brennan 50th (+2:48.8), Julia Kern 52nd (+3:05.5), Erika Flowers 55th (+3:37.2), Becca Rorabaugh 57th (+3:39.5), and Jennie Bender 58th (+3:41.9).
“I was happy with the result,” Guiney said. “I got in a little bit of a pile out of the start. I didn’t expect it to stop, but other than that it was good. I had fast skis and good kick so I was happy.”
Brennan explained that she broke a pole on her first lap.
“I was fighting my skis a lot and fighting myself, then fell and broke a pole and then it was not a good race,” she said.
For Canada, Emily Nishikawa led the team in 37th (+1:51.7). She explained that while she once again finished outside the points (top 30), a result is not so much her ultimate goal as a feeling.
“I have just been out of the top 30 a lot this year … it has been really close” Nishikawa said. “Everyone always bases it on top 30 is good and anything other than that is not that good. But I just kind of focus on my own self and if I have been skiing well I am happy with that.”
Nishikawa further indicated that being able to race the final World Cup competitions in front of a home crowd is indescribable.
“I can’t wipe out the smile of my face, it’s hard to put into words just how special it is to race in your home country,” she said.
Following Nishikawa was Cendrine Browne in 41st (+2:28.2). Despite getting caught early on in the competition, Browne is satisfied with her position heading into tomorrow’s pursuit and hopes to move up into the top 30.
“Unfortunately, I got stuck behind on the first uphill, which prevented me from staying with the leading group,” Browne said. “I felt I could of stayed with them, I felt strong and relaxed. At the start of the last lap though, I was leading my pack, which made it harder for me. I still managed to distance myself from the skiers behind, but I was unable to catch those in front. I was caught up between two groups. Anyway, it’s good news for tomorrow.”
Also competing for Canada, Dahria Beatty finished 53rd (+3:15.4), Annika Richardson 54th (+3:36.3), Katherine Stewart-Jones 56th (+3:38.1), Frédérique Vézina 59th (+3:43.6), Annika Hicks 60th (+3:45.6), Sophie Carrier-Laforte 61st (+4:05.9), Andrea Dupont 62nd (+4:05.9), Katherine Weaver 63rd (+4:27.9), Alannah MacLean 64th (+4:29.4), Sadie White 66th (+5:31.1), Lisle Compton 67th (+5:34.3), Mia Serratore 68th (+5:58.6), and Laura Leclair 69th (+6:46.2).
— Alex Kochon, Gerry Furseth, François Léger Dionne, Ian Tovell, and Jake Ellis contributed