American Kikkan Randall showed no signs of rust, coming off a three week break from racing to win the World Cup freestyle sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“It was just the day I was hoping for after a three week break,” Randall said in a phone interview after the race. “You’re never quite sure which way you are going to come out, so it just solidifies that the plan to take some time off and do some training was a good one.”
The defending Sprint Cup champion qualified in tenth and then proceeded to ski from the front the rest of the day, winning each of her heats en route to victory.
Laurien Van der Graaff of Switzerland placed second, just ahead of Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg.
Van der Graaff earned just her second World Cup podium, and first since December of 2011, while Oestberg continued a strong run, cracking the top-3 for the third consecutive sprint.
Katja Visnar of Slovenia set the time to beat in qualification, just ahead of Swede Ida Ingermarsdotter and Van der Graff. But once the heats started it was all about Randall.
The course, a narrow ribbon of snow surrounded by green and brown, was relatively short, clocking in at roughly 2:45 per lap, and featuring several gradual climbs.
“It seemed like a tough course to find places to pass,” Randall said. “So I felt like the safest strategy was to go out front and control the pace.”
With a relatively short finish stretch coming off a descent, she was looking to build a lead early and leave nothing to chance.
“We knew it was going to be hard to pass and that if you were skiing in the front and skiing relaxed it was going to be tough for people to get around you and a little bit easier to defend your position, especially coming into the finish,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover explained.
Randall executed the strategy to perfection, saving the best for last in the final, moving to the front right off the line.
A surprising Gaia Verich of Italy, along with Van der Graaff and Oestberg slotted in behind Randall, Ingermarsdotter and Denise Herrmann of Germany a bit behind.
Ingemarsdotter, who like Randall, looked strong in the earlier heats, attacked hard on the first climb, skiing wide to move up the field. She was able to pull alongside Vuerich in second, but as the race wound back down, the American and Italian opened a small gap.
The field compressed heading into the second climb, and when the pitch steepened, Randall shifted into a higher gear, using a powerful jump skate to accelerate.
At first the other women followed, Ingermarsdotter and Oestberg continuing to V2 while Veuerich and Van der Graaff matched Randall’s V1.
Halfway up Randall shifted back to V2 herself, before hitting the turbo V1 again on the final pitch.
This time the field could not respond, and Randall held a five meter lead over the top, an insurmountable gap that she continued to widen.
“I felt stronger and stronger as I went through the rounds,” Randall said. “The qualification was okay, but I knew that things could be a little bit better.”
Ingemarsdotter, spent from her efforts to fight for the win, quickly faded back, drifting down to Herrmann who was never in the running.
The remaining three battled for second. Vuerich, in her first World Cup sprint final, was unable to match Van der Graff and Oestberg, and ended up barely holding off a late breaking Herrmann for fourth.
Vuerich actually held the second spot swinging down in to the homestretch, but Van der Graaff swung wide and sling shotted by, followed closely by Oestberg.
The Swiss skier took advantage of her first step lead into the homestretch, and held of the Norwegian.
Herrmann finished fifth and held on to the top spot in the Sprint Cup.
Randall had opted to skip the Tour de Ski, missing two skate sprints, a challenge, even with her focus on the Olympics next month.
“Watching the races on TV was even harder than I thought it would be,” Randall said. “Luckily I had teammates in the races to cheer for and they skied great, but it was really hard not to be there racing myself, especially with the skate sprint in Lenzerheide on my birthday, but that just put more fire in the belly …”
Grover was impressed with his top skier’s performance and her ability to stay focused on the big picture.
“It took a lot of discipline for her to stick with her plan and really invest in that plan of training and preparing over that period,” Grover said. “Obviously it paid off today and you really saw it in her spark and her way of being able to go out there and control a lot of racing.”
Last year she raced right through the Tour, an effort that she said left her “feeling a little flat in the middle of the season.”
This year, she opted for extra rest, and some volume training in Davos, Switzerland.
“We have really learned some good lessons over the years that when I am in a good balanced state where I have some good training behind me, but also some good racing under my belt, and I am rested and I’m healthy, then I am skiing at my best,” Randall explained.
And that will be her goal leading up to the Olympics — balance training and racing, stay healthy, and enjoy the process. With two more skate sprints before the Games, she will have two more opportunities to hone her skills in her marquee event.
“Some of the stuff you can simulate in workouts and some of the stuff you don’t really get to try out until you race,” she explained.
— Matt Voisin contributed reporting