PLANICA, Slovenia — Move over Norway and Sweden, there’s a another skier scouting and snagging World Cup wins — and she’s just over 5 feet tall and Finnish.
Krista Pärmäkoski set out on a rugged 10-kilometer classic course on Sunday located directly in the Julian Alps, the highest mountain range in Slovenia. Any challenge the course summoned, however, the 27-year-old Pärmäkoski dished twice as hard in return.
Though a bluish early morning light cast a sombre glow on the course, Pärmäkoski was punchy. She pushed past the start gate one minute ahead of Norway’s Heidi Weng, who was a favorite heading into the weekend’s distance event.
The reigning Tour de Ski champion, Weng was coming off back-to-back wins in the last two distance events she’s entered: the Tour’s 10 k classic mass start stage in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and the 9 k final climb freestyle pursuit, also in Val di Fiemme.
On the other end, Pärmäkoski has had six runner-up finishes in the individual distance events she’s entered. She has also posted two stage wins for time-of-day performances, and racked up 19 individual podiums.
Until Sunday, however, the satisfaction of standing as the outright winner of a non-stage World Cup had remained elusive.
But if anything, that only motivated her. The long striding climbs featured in Planica’s course suited her powerstride style, and she knew it. She had seen them during a dryland camp with her team last year.
“We had a training camp here in the summer and when I saw the competition tracks here I said to my coach that I will have a good race in Planica this winter,” Pärmäkoski said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
Still, once the snow hits, Mother Nature has a way of foiling even the most prepared skier’s plans. Or working to the advantage of others.
With firm tracks laid out for Sunday’s individual starts, another contender for the win was Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla. Though most of her World Cup victories have come in 10 k freestyle races, she is no less threatening in classic. At the start of this season, she won the FIS 10 k classic in Gällivare, Sweden, by 17.7 seconds.
In Planica, Kalla, the 32nd starter, appeared to be heading in the same direction. At a little under 2 k in, she posted the fastest split. She did the same 2 k later and for the next 5 k following that. For close to 9 k, Kalla’s splits were unmatched. Pärmäkoski, who started 58th, trailed her by almost ten seconds at the halfway mark.
For the first half of the 10 k, Kalla maintained that nearly 10-second gap on Pärmäkoski. In the second half, however, the countdown began. The Finn began picking Kalla off second by second, stride by stride.
At the 7 k mark, Kalla held the lead over Pärmäkoski by only one second. Realizing how close she was to the leading time, Pärmäkoski made her attack in the final kilometer. She ended up beating Kalla’s time by 3.6 seconds, crossing the line in 27:08.7.
“I wanted to get faster as the race went and when I saw that I was battling with Charlotte, I really pushed hard over the final kilometer,” Pärmäkoski said. “It feels great to finally have my first win.”
“It was exciting to have the battle with Krista today and for sure I would like to have won, but it’s also nice to see her get her first win,” Kalla said afterward, according to FIS.
“It was a great race. It’s nice to be back on World Cup,” she added. “I will go to Seiser Alm now to get ready for Korea.”
Following Kalla was Weng, who started 60th and ended up third, 33.5 seconds off Pärmäkoski’s winning time. The Norwegian had been skiing in second for the first 4 k, but lost time to Pärmäkoski and Kalla by the halfway point. During a FIS interview, Weng indicated that the grade of the climbs, which featured more gradual pitches with sustained periods of striding, didn’t exactly play to her strengths.
“The profile didn’t suit me with the long gradual hills,” Weng said. “My plan was to start slower and then speed up. I tried my best and to push over the top of the hills. It’s good to be on the podium with the other ladies today.”
Rounding out the top ten in Sunday’s event was Austria’s Teresa Stadlober in fourth (+39.0), Sweden’s Ebba Andersson in fifth (+48.6), Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen in sixth (+49.4), Norway’s Kari Øyre Slind in seventh (+49.5), Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in eighth (+1:02.1), Norwegian Kathrine Rolsted Harsem in ninth (+1:03.2) and American Jessie Diggins in 10th (+1:05.4).
“That was a gnarly course,” Diggins told FasterSkier in person after. “You don’t get rest because the downhills, you’re working the corners, which I love, but I am tired right now. That’s on purpose, it’s part of the plan, but I am looking forward to a nap and some rest and some extra food and just getting ready for next week.”
Diggins, coming off a third-place finish in the 2018 Tour de Ski, also raced Saturday’s classic sprint in Planica, where she finished fourth for her best World Cup classic-sprint result.
“Really cool to see her making that progress,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said on Sunday.
Also scoring World Cup points on Sunday was Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project), the Period 1 SuperTour leader, in 20th (+1:45.2). Now into her second World Cup weekend of the season, Patterson had a banner week earlier this month in Anchorage, Alaska, where she won four titles in four races at U.S. nationals.
Reflecting on the courses she’s raced this season, Patterson said that the SuperTour in West Yellowstone, Montana, and U.S. nationals in Anchorage had more “double poling [sections] and herringbone hills.”
“I knew this course was going to be different than anything I’ve skied in a while, for classic at least,” Patterson said of Planica. “It’s just so much gradual striding.”
The change of pace, however, seemed to work to her advantage.
“I had a little trepidation going into it….I think it allowed me to relax into it really nicely and make sure I found my kick well which the skis were great.”
“The long gradual stuff was kind of fun,” Patterson added. “It felt a lot different, it felt less about quick accelerations back and forth and more just sustained work.”
The finish is Patterson’s sixth individual World Cup top 30, and her second-best individual World Cup performance to date. She placed fourth in last year’s Pyeongchang skiathlon.
“It was a great classic result,” Grover said of Patterson. “She is somebody who has only been here a week and a half, or maybe just over a week. We expect some more great stuff from her.”
The U.S. had three score World Cup points in the top 30, with Kikkan Randall racing to 23rd (+1:50.4) on Sunday. Randall sat out Saturday’s classic sprint, as she is in the process of recovering a foot injury. She aimed to use Sunday’s distance race to assess her progress.
“It was really hard to sit out yesterday’s classic sprint, but I needed to test out my foot and we felt a distance race would be a safer test,” Randall wrote in an email. “I’ve been battling the stress reaction and tendonitis in my left foot since Davos and I just got back to classic skiing this week. I still have some lingering pain in my foot but we’ve got it under control enough to race again.”
The 10 k was Randall’s first distance race in more than a month, and she described it as having the “best classic racing conditions I’ve seen all season.”
“10 k classic individual start is one of the toughest race formats for me usually so I’m pretty happy to be solidly in the top 30 today and just a few seconds out of the top 20,” Randall continued. “I’m looking forward to a couple skate races next weekend in Seefeld to continue sharpening for the Olympics.
“I was definitely motivated by my teammates strong results yesterday and really happy to see Caitlin Patterson have a strong race today for 20th!” she added. “It’s not easy to come right over to Europe after all that racing at US Nationals! And of course, Jessie continues to be on fire. Look out world!”
American Sophie Caldwell, who placed ninth in Saturday’s classic sprint, finished just 1.7 seconds outside of the top 30 in 31st (+2:17.2). Two more American women competed on Sunday, with Liz Stephen in 35th (+2:34.9) and Ida Sargent in 37th (+2:37.5).
“A couple of great performances,” Grover said referring to the overall weekend’s results. “Jessie’s fourth yesterday, that is her best classic sprint result of all time. I thought a great race yesterday out of Logan Hanneman, to be that close to qualification. He just got over here this week from the U.S. Similarly, a really nice qualification out of Tyler Kornfield yesterday … Caitlin Patterson’s 20th place today. Those were some silver linings for sure.”
But with many athletes in a transitional zone, some recovering from the TdS and others adjusting to the travel and recouping from U.S. nationals, Grover indicated that next weekend in Seefeld, Austria, the energy levels and pop of the U.S. team’s skiers should be even more pronounced.
“I thought some of our skiers looked a little bit flat,” he said. “Probably to be expected. We have some athletes obviously who just got here, some who just came out of U.S. nationals, some who are just coming back to skiing after the Tour de Ski … I definitely expect next weekend will be a lot better for us.”
The last World Cup weekend before the Olympics takes place next Saturday and Sunday in Seefeld, with freestyle sprints and 10/15 k freestyle races.