Another women’s 4 x 5 k World Cup relay, another Norwegian win.
Yawn? Not so fast. While the team of Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Heidi Weng, Astrid Jacobsen, and Marit Bjørgen may have picked up the victory, the women’s race in Ulricehamn, Sweden, was anything but dull.
For one thing, it was the closest race in 23 months, going all the way back to the 2014 Olympics where Sweden took gold. The top four teams all finished within 10 seconds of one another – a far cry from the more recent Norwegian victories by 30 or 40 seconds or even well over a minute.
And for another thing, the race for second place was a nailbiter. After trailing the leaders by 11 seconds at the first exchange, the German and American teams had clawed their way back into the fight for the podium. So by the time 19 kilometers had gone by, it was Hanna Falk of Sweden, Sandra Ringwald of Germany, and Jessie Diggins of the United States flying into the stadium to the finish together.
All were highly motivated. It is Falk’s home course, and the very first time her club has hosted a World Cup.
“It was again a great experience,” Falk told FIS. “I was motivated by the audience.”
For Germany, being in that group of three meant the potential for the team’s best finish in three or even seven years.
And for the United States? Well, the U.S. women are always game for a relay, and Diggins is always game for a fight.
In the end, though, Diggins was boxed at the back of the group coming into the finishing straight. She had to choose an outside lane and couldn’t quite catch Ringwald and Falk.
The German edged the hometown favorite for second place, earning Germany their best relay finish since 2010.
“It was in my head that I absolutely did not want to become fourth today,” Ringwald told German broadcaster ZDF. “And then I just thought: killer instinct for the end, just keep at it! When Hanna [Falk] started her first attack I tried to somehow fight, and then on the last meters I knew that finish stretch suits me pretty well. And I just gave it all I had, and then it worked out for a second place.”
She crossed the line 8.8 seconds behind Bjørgen and Norway. Falk took Sweden to third, +9.0, and Diggins and the United States were left in fourth, +9.2.
“Of course we were hoping to be on the podium,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said in an interview. “So it’s hard when you’re that close to the podium, within a few hundredths of a second, and then not able to be on the podium. But all the women skied really well.”
U.S. Women Strong, But Can’t Crush the Course
The consensus from the U.S. team was that all four members of the first squad – the U.S. also fielded a second team, which finished 12th – skied well, but that the course wasn’t especially suited to them.
The classic portion of the relay (the first and second skiers) did ascend a major climb that had featured in the individual 10 and 15 k freestyle races on Saturday. But the skate course skipped that hill, and instead was rolling and flatter.
Rosie Brennan kicked things off for the U.S. She lost contact with the lead group (both Norwegian teams, Ida Ingemarsdotter of Sweden, and Anamarija Lampic of Slovenia), but tagged in fifth place, just 11 seconds back.
“I didn’t have the best start, but found my groove about half way through and was able to pull back some time in the second half,” Brennan said in a USSA press release. “I will always want more when it’s a relay because I want to be the best for my teammates, but I am satisfied with today and now know exactly where I need to put in some work to be better next time.”
From there, Sadie Bjornsen took over.
“I knew I needed to be somewhat patient closing that gap,” Bjornsen said. “Thinking back to Lillehammer when a similar thing happened, I tried to close the gap in one kilometer and I exploded. I was trying to be a bit more conservative for the first part today, and it all worked out well.”
By partway around the loop, Bjornsen and Germany’s Steffi Boehler had bridged up to the chase group. Heidi Weng of Norway had taken off, putting 15 seconds on the rest of the field – Norway never faltered after that – but the American and German teams were now skiing with Sweden, Slovenia, and the second Norwegian team.
“Once we finally did catch the group it was a bit challenging because there really wasn’t anywhere you could pass,” Bjornsen said. “There were just two lanes.”
Coming into the stadium she took the lead, but it still wasn’t what she had hoped for – and she wasn’t able to drop the other skiers.
“I was double poling as hard as I could coming down that hill, while others were tucking,” Bjornsen said. “It was the only way to get around. It was impossible to pass, which I knew the classic legs were the only places to make a break, so for that reason I was wondering how it could be possible to go around those girls, but yeah. It was what it was.”
“The goal is always to be as close as possible after the classic leg, and to put our skaters in contention for the podium,” Grover said. “Rosie and Sadie did exactly that. They brought it in right in contact with the second-place team.”
The inability to create gaps was something that would come back to haunt the Americans on the next two legs, as the race transitioned to skating. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden tried to move and break up the chase group, but the U.S. racer Liz Stephen stayed right on her – and then the rest of the group caught up too.
“Kalla took it out hot — I tried to stay with her, and then Ragnhild [Haga, of Norway] and [Germany’s] Victoria Carl caught up,” Stephen said. “It was a really hard course to pass on because the draft was pretty amazing. There’s just no real long hill to showcase fitness, or to make any moves on, and I think you saw that in both the men’s and women’s races today. But it was a really fun race to do, and I feel like I skied really well, especially tactically well, which is not always my strong suit.”
Later, Stephen tried to up the pace herself, but similarly failed to get a gap. On the particularly fast course, the draft effect was just too strong.
“Today I had to think about the best way for me to ski the course,” she explained. “I skied the uphills really well, and as fast as I could. But we weren’t able to fully break the group, Charlotte and I. I led some of the downhill, flat stuff, and I felt like I was really moving,and speeding people out — but then there were three people right up on me again. Once you realize what’s going on, you have to play to your strengths, so I knew that I needed to just hang with the girls.”
By the time Stephen tagged off, Slovenia had dropped out of the group and it was a four-way race for second place, about 16 seconds behind the leading Norwegian team.
Diggins took the tag and the lead of the group. But she, too, was unable to ski away from her competitors, although Kari Øyre Slind of the second Norwegian team did drop back.
“For my leg, it felt like a chess match,” Diggins wrote in an email. “After watching Charlotte and Liz racing so well but seeing the drafters in their pack still clinging on, I knew my usual strategy of going all out was unlikely to work. I did the best I could with how it played out, but I feel like my fitness wasn’t reflected well in this particular race. It was a huge drafting course and it was exceedingly hard to drop people in the skate leg.”
Coming down the final downhill to the finish, Diggins was in back of Falk and Ringwald and trying to get past. She couldn’t, and dropping down to the finishing straight didn’t have an immediately obvious choice of finishing lanes. She eventually had to swing wide to the left. Despite a hard sprint to the finish, Ringwald and Falk got there first.
“In the sprint finish, we fell short by a quarter of a second,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said in a USSA press release. “Jessie felt like she made a tactical mistake with her positioning, but she also did a lot right out there. She skied great. We’ll take a look at the footage to learn from the race for each athlete. I know she’d like to do it again, and the good news is that she will.”
While the U.S. didn’t make the podium – a goal which had been made easier by a disastrous start by Finland, almost always a podium contender – the women seemed philosophical about the day.
“We all had these little things that we wish we could have improved, but the thing about the U.S. relay team is that the harder the course is, the better for us,” Bjornsen said. “Today was a challenging course; it was really hard to make breaks on the skate legs. On the classic legs, I think if it would have been an even more challenging course it would have been better. Every course is different, and you want to be the best on every single course, but I think all four of us, all eight of us, really, finished the race today feeling… we wanted to be on the podium, of course, but feeling no crush of confidence out there. We all feel confident going into the next relay.”
A Second U.S. Team Toes the Line
It’s not often that the U.S. has two relay teams in a race, but that happened in Ulricehamn. Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, and SuperTour leader Liz Guiney finished 12th, +3:03.0, after losing a finishing-stretch battle with the Russia I team.
“It was really cool,” Grover said. “We had eight women so we were really hoping to field two teams, but you’re always worried that somebody’s going to get sick or something. But we were lucky that everyone was healthy and ready to go. That was cool. I wish we could do that more often.”
Randall had been 10th at the first tag, just 29 seconds behind the leaders and 18 seconds behind fifth-place teammate Brennan.
Sargent then took over and skied the eighth-fastest time among second-leg skiers, losing only 24.6 more seconds on Weng.
“I was really happy with how I felt today and had a lot of fun racing,” Sargent wrote in an email. “I skied solo for the whole race except for when [Finland’s Anne] Kylloenen caught me around the 4km mark, so we skied the last kilometer together. It was a very tough course to ski by yourself because there was a lot of flat and some long gradual downhill sections that would have been a lot easier to be in the draft or working with someone else during those sections… Considering that I was skiing solo I was really happy with how close I stayed to the leaders. I haven’t done many distance races this year so I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
After that, Sophie Caldwell brought the team to 11th, and Guiney, in her first World Cup relay, to 12th.
“I think the travel and excitement of the weekend caught up to me a bit,” Guiney wrote in an email. “I was mostly excited to be able to start on a World Cup relay, so I didn’t have any expectations beyond getting to the finish as fast as I possibly could. Skiing alone in a relay is always tough, so I just tried to focus on skiing each section as well as I could. Of course, I was really hoping to stay in front of the Russian team, but their last leg caught me with around 1 k to go. While I was able to stick with her until the finish, I didn’t quite have the sprint to get around her in the lanes.”
“Being on a team with Liz Guiney in her first World Cup weekend was also a blast!” Sargent, a Craftsbury Green Racing Project teammate of Guiney’s, wrote.
-Jake Ellis and Harald Zimmer contributed