The premise was simple on the World Cup Saturday in Toblach, Italy, for the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle interval start: with firm tracks, sunny skies and only the timer to dictate the effort, it was a hammertime from the start. The threshold-type race featured two laps on a 5 k course that threw grinding climbs and working flats at the 78 female starters.
Early in the race it appeared the red and blue of Norway would make a clean top-five sweep. At the 5 k mark, well into the starters, Norwegians Heidi Weng, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Ragnhild Haga, and Marit Bjørgen looked like the lock for the top finishes, perhaps with some reordering as the time differences between Weng, who completed 5 k in 12:07.4, and Bjørgen was 11 seconds. The other three Norwegians were slightly off Weng’s pace.
The yellow-bibbed skier, indicating her overall World Cup-leading status, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla started 60th, an omniscient placing when it came to receiving the timing splits to match and potentially superpass.
Kalla’s powerful V2 and gravity slaying V1 were on display immediately. She was second at 2.1 k, 2.2 seconds behind Østberg. Kalla kept the pace and was second at 5 k, this time 2.3 seconds behind top-ranked skier Weng. At 7.1 k, Weng still held her position, while Kalla came through 4.4 seconds back.
In the closing kilometers, Kalla cranked up her effort. The payoff came for Kalla when she crossed the line in first, turning her four-second deficit 3 k earlier to a 5.8-second win.
Kalla won the race in 22:40.1 minutes. Haga placed second 5.8 seconds back and Weng third (+13.8).
“I worked a lot in the summer on skiing fast on the flats,” Kalla said, according to an International Ski Federation press release. “I knew it was important here in Toblach. I love racing here. It was nice to see it worked. I had amazing skis, the team did amazing job. I had great fun skiing today when I felt my body was responding so well.”
Jacobsen finished about four seconds off the podium in fourth (+17.9), Bjørgen followed in fifth (+22.6), Østberg placed sixth (+29.3), and Jessie Diggins of the U.S. Ski Team (UST) was seventh (+40.5). Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen finished eighth (+43.5), and second USST member in the top 10, Sadie Bjornsen placed ninth (+43.9). Also in the points and in the top 20 for the U.S., Rosie Brennan raced to 19th (+1:15.2).
As World Cup Period 1 comes to a close after Sunday’s classic pursuit, in the early goings it looks like Kalla’s time to shine. Saturday marked her third World Cup win of the season: she finished first in the Ruka Triple’s 10 k skate pursuit to win the season-opening mini tour in Finland, and she won the Lillehammer 15 k skiathlon the weekend after in Norway. Last weekend in Davos, Switzerland, was an off-weekend for Kalla, who finished eighth in the 10 k skate.
So far this season, Kalla is the most consistent woman on top of the scoreboard. Of the five distance races this season, she’s won three of them. Østberg and Bjørgen won the other two, and Haga notched a stage win with the fastest time in the Ruka pursuit.
Another remarkable indicator of national dominance and an individual’s staying power, is that according to FIS, since the beginning of the 2010/2011 season, a total of 17 World Cup 10 k skate races have been contested on the World Cup. Up until Saturday, all but a single race had been won by a Norwegian. Kalla, the only foil in Norway’s winning streak, also won a 10 k skate in 2015 in Östersund, Sweden.
Three Americans in Top 20
For Diggins, who finished seventh, 40.5 seconds off Kalla’s time, Saturday marked her ninth top 10 in 10 k events. Diggins’s performance was also her sixth top 10 of the season: four of which have been distance events and two sprints.
Her splits on Saturday indicated a consistent effort, with a lock on seventh place at the 2.1 k, 5 k, and 7.1 k marks.
“I went out hard and pushed as hard as I could today, and I felt like I had good skis (although it being an individual race, I didn’t do much skiing with other people out there)!” Diggins wrote in an email. “My style of racing is usually to just go as hard as I can from the start and try to ski smooth, powerful and work every section of the course.”
No stranger to winning in Tobach, Diggins won both 5 k freestyle races there during the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Tour de Ski. But on Saturday, the 10 k was held on a new 5 k loop in Toblach.
“It’s a fun course, and of course I’m sad that my old favorite course was changed but it’s still such a fun gliding course with so many transitions and a ripping fast downhill section!” Diggins explained. “It’s always fun to be in the fight in the top-10 and really motivating to work so hard for every single second on the course.”
Brennan described those course changes as reducing the overall number of climbs, but making those climbs more significant.
“They added in a much larger climb, it is steeper and longer,” Brennan said on the phone on Saturday. “It has a really fast downhill afterwards and then you climb what was the bigger climb on the old course. It used to be on the way back you had a these little lobes you went over on the way back to the start and they got rid of those. So basically, you have one really big steep climb, one more gradual but till pretty long climb. Then you shoot straight back towards the stadium. You are not tucking, it is an undulating working section all the way back.”
With one race to go until the end of Period 1, Kalla leads the overall World Cup standings with 570 points, while Diggins ranks eighth with 298 points.
“I feel like period 1 for me has been a solid, good start to the year,” Diggins wrote. “My focus and peak is aiming for the Games, so right now I feel when I’m racing that I’m fighting as hard as I can but don’t have that top gear just yet. Which is part of the plan, but still a little frustrating when you know you have more somewhere but just aren’t in top form – but, of course, that makes me even more motivated for later in the season!”
Bjornsen, who placed ninth on Saturday, is ninth in the World Cup standings, just 10 points behind Diggins.
This season began with a bang for Bjornsen as she reached the podium on two successive weekends, both in classic sprints. Her result on Saturday marked her first-career top 10 in a World Cup 10 k skate race. She had previously placed seventh in a 2013 classic individual start in Lillehammer and ninth two years ago in a classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, during the 2016 Tour de Ski.
However, Bjornsen’s first World Cup podium came in Toblach last season in a 5 k skate.
“It was an exciting start to the World Cup Weekend here in Toblach,” Bjornsen said in a mass email to media outlets. “This is a special venue for me, as I have had some of my best races here, and I had my very first career individual podium here last winter. So, I have some good vibes and good confidence here. There is a new course here in Toblach, which added some tough climbing into the course, and a whole new challenge. I went out hard, as I have been trying to do these past few weeks, and tried to hang on as long as I could. My second lap was incredibly hard, as my legs were burning like crazy. I am very familiar with 5k feelings here in Toblach, but it is a whole new challenge with 10k. I am excited to have finished in 9th, my career best 10k skate result. As with last weekend, I think I have more to give, and more gears to find, but it is a great step for now! It will also put me in a really exciting position for tomorrow’s pursuit start 10k classict!”
For the fifth time this season, Brennan scored World Cup points in the top 30. Her 19th place came on the heels of her 17th-place result in the 10 k skate last weekend in Davos.
“I had a good summer of training and I thought I was a lot smarter this fall in terms of taking recovery when I needed and also just finishing school in August really helped,” said Brennan, who, like Bjornsen, studied at and trains with Alaska Pacific University (APU) as a member of the U.S. Ski Team.
“It was just a very focused fall, and so I definitely kind of felt like I had top 20 in me so I am happy to have had back-to-back results,” Brennan said. “It reassures my confidence especially in skating. I generally consider myself better at classic.”
Including Saturday’s 19th in Toblach, Brennan has 10 top-10’s in 1o k races. Six of those came in skate races.
“I feel like it is interesting,” Brennan said about her success in the 10 k freestyle. “But the interesting part for me is that I feel like that my classic is much more consistent. The difference between a good day and a bad day is much smaller. And for skate, I think it can be be much bigger, I just don’t feel as confident in it. And but I do know when my fitness is good, and I can get my skating under me, I think it really excels so I have really good skate results, too. So that really makes me feel like my fitness is in the right place and if I can skate well I know I can classic well.”
That may bode well for Brennan as Sunday’s event is a 10 k classic pursuit based on the time back from today’s winner, Kalla.
“This is kind of new for us to do, a two-day pursuit,” Brennan noted of the Tobach weekend’s race format. “It will be interesting. I am looking forward to it. It is always fun to ski with people, and the people you start with are skiing a similar sped as you so you can in their and fight.”
Also for the U.S. Chelsea Holmes (APU) finished just outside the points in 34th (+1:38), and Liz Stephen (USST) placed 47th (+2:00.6).
Canada started four skiers. Emily Nishikawa (Canadian World Cup Team) finished 51st (+2:07.3), Cendrine Browne (Canadian U25 Team) 55th (+2:20.9), Dahria Beatty (World Cup Team) 69th (+3:04.9), and Katherine Stewart-Jones (U25 Team)77th (+4:07.7).
Racing continues Sunday in Toblach with a 10k classic pursuit for the women.