The first race of the weekend in Munio, Finland, went off without a hitch this morning, as Kikkan Randall cruised to a victory in the 1.1 k skate sprint.
In a change from last weekend, both the men and women raced on the same course – a 1,110 meter point-to-point beginning with a steep pitch straight out of the start. The course then wound around some more gradual uphills and finished with a steep downhill corner leading into the finish.
In qualification, the U.S. Ski Team’s Kikkan Randall led the American contingent in second place, behind only Slovenia’s Petra Majdic . She was followed by Ida Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project/Dartmouth College) in fifth place – a very strong result considering that she considers herself better at classic skiing. They were separated by two skiers: World Cup mainstay Arianna Follis of Italy, and Olympic gold medalist Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.
Sargent said she was “surprised and excited” by her qualification result.
No other American women advanced to the quarterfinals. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project trio of Hannah Dreissigacker, Chelsea Little, and Lauren Jacobs finished 41st, 89th, and 92nd, while Audrey Weber of Go! Training finished 101st. Dreissigacker was four seconds out of the top-30, and a spot in the heats.
In the men’s qualification round, the USST’s Andy Newell tied his teammate’s performance, qualifying in second position. Martin Jaks of the Czech Republic took the field by surprise, winning the round coming from bib 60 (Newell was the first starter, based on FIS sprint points). They were followed by Sergey Shiraev of Russia, Fulvio Scola of Italy, and Ansi Pensinen of Finland.
Newell said, “I didn’t feel like I was moving so fast in the qualification, but it ended up being a decent time, finishing second.”
No other Americans qualified, but Leif Zimmerman (Bridger Ski Foundation) was the next finisher in 53rd place, less than two seconds away from advancing. The men’s field was packed and in some places on the results sheet more than ten skiers finished within a second of each other.
The Craftsbury Green Racing Project was led by Tim Reynolds and Dylan McGuffin, who finished a second apart in 82nd and 86th places. They were followed by teammates Pat O’Brien in 114th, Matt Briggs in 117th, and Ollie Burruss in 129th place. Sam Tarling, currently a sophomore at Dartmouth College, led the rest of the NCCSEF-funded Maine Winter Sports Center group in 146th place.
With two to three inches of new snow covering the trails – and continuing to fall off and on throughout the day- the going got sloppy and deep after a few hundred skiers had passed through in the qualification rounds. There were a few falls and tangle-ups to keep the heats exciting.
As in the qualification round, the women raced first in the quarterfinals. The first two rounds proceeded as expected, with Madjic and Kowalczyk leading their respective heats. Randall, too, took the lead from the start and never relinquished it.
Sargent’s heat was a different story. She led out of the start and indeed for most of the course, but was caught on the last downhill as the other competitors took advantage of the draft. Sargent gamely sprinted into the finish, and made it through as a lucky loser.
“In the quarterfinal, I got a quick start and was in the lead, and the trail was pretty narrow, so I thought I’d try to lead the whole thing. But the draft on the last downhill part was pretty strong if you didn’t drop everyone before that, so they pulled me back in there.”
In the men’s heats, Newell ran into trouble. After a rocky start, he tried to take the outside lane around the rest of the skiers, to no avail. Going up the second hill, he slipped into third place, and was never able to move up.
He said, “This course is pretty short and easy for the guys, and with the narrow trails you really need to get out front because there is no way anyone is getting around you. I knew that and tried to get out there, but instead spent the heat bouncing off the other skiers fighting for that second spot.”
In the semifinals, Sargent was up against the stiffest competition she’s ever faced, with both Madjic and Kowalczyk in her heat. She got off the line fast and was moving between second and third places early in the heat, but then dropped back, ultimately finishing 6th.
“In the semifinal, Kowalczyk yelled at me and I got intimidated,” she said. “I tried to jump in behind Petra, and there was definitely space, but Kowalczyk kind of barked at me, so I just stopped [and let her go by]. I got blocked out, because it was kind of narrow.”
Randall had no such problems in her semifinal, again leading from start to finish. And in the final, she did the same thing, against women who routinely fill World Cup finals and semifinals: Majdic, Kowalczyk, and Follis, as well as Pirjo Muranen of Finland and Magda Genuin of Italy.
Randall said, “I took the lead from the start because I wanted to be able to ski my own rhythm up the climb. Coming into the final climb Petra was right in my draft and she tried to make a move around me on the left. I sprinted hard over the top and she again tried to come up on the left off the downhill. I was still carrying enough momentum, and still had zip in my legs so I was able to hold her off… it was a super short finish stretch so I kept the lead to the line. I didn’t believe I had it until I crossed that line!”
In the men’s final, Timo Simonlatser of Estonia took the win over Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan and Peeter Kummel, also of Estonia. Jaks finished 4th, followed by Alexey Moriakov of Russia and Josef Wenzl of Germany.
Looking towards next weekend’s World Cup openers, Randall was enthusiastic.
“Today was a pretty solid field. Majdic, Kowalczyk, Follis, Genuin and Murranen are all consistent World Cup finalists so to ski well against them today is a good sign that preparation has been good for the season.”
She concluded, “I was particularly excited to see fellow American Ida Sargent ski so well today. She was fast in qualifying and held her own in the heats. I’d love some company on the World Cup sprint circuit so exciting to see her skiing well. Also big props to our team today – waxers, coaches and teammates. The skis ran fast and we had lots of support out there.”