Race: Women’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint, Ruka, Finland
Is there embedded video you can watch? Yes, from Finnish broadcaster YLE:
What happened at the front of the race: Racing in cold and dark conditions well north of the Arctic Circle, the women’s final saw three Swedes, two Norwegians, and one Finn toe the line: Emma Ribom, Johanna Hagstrøm, and Maja Dahlqvist; Tiril Udnes Weng and Kristine Stavås Skistad; and Jasmi Joensuu.
It would be the women’s fourth trip that day around the sprint course at Ruka, which features a, shall we say, somewhat prominent final uphill approaching the finish:
“The last hill on the Ruka course is famous for a reason,” as Julia Kern told Nordic Insights in her post-race comments (see bottom of article).
Back to the final: The Norwegians led the race out quickly, with Skistad and Weng taking the lead going around the first corner out of the stadium. The Swedes had fast skis, and the pack skied as a close group up the first climb on the course. The entire field came to a near-standstill around the hairpin turn 600 meters into the course, with no one particularly antsy to take the lead.
Eventually Dahlqvist had had enough, and poled away into the course’s second and final downhill as fast as she could, leading out a single-file train of athletes in her wake.
Hagstrøm hit the final climb first, with the whole field save Skistad immediately behind or around her. By the top of the climb it was Dahlqvist, Hagstrøm, then Ribom leading the field back into the stadium, with yet another Swedish women’s sprint sweep looming.
But stuff happens in sprint racing. Coming off the final turn, with victory in her grasp, Dahlqvist stumbled as she poled around the corner, swayed, and ultimately took herself out, falling to the ground. It wasn’t obstruction; it wasn’t incidental contact from another athlete that would have to be classed as a race incident by the jury to avoid an athlete’s relegation; it was just something that happens when racing as hard as possible at the limits of one’s physical capacity. That’s sprint racing.
While a devastated Dahlqvist punched the ground in frustration, the rest of the field flew by her. Ribom took a clear lead into the finish, winning the race for her first-ever World Cup victory. Behind her, Hagstrøm of Sweden and Weng of Norway were going head-to-head for second and third. It came down to a lunge, which Hagstrøm (foreground, yellow Swedish suit above the boot) won by this much:
Emma Ribom first, Johanna Hagstrøm second, and Tiril Udnes Weng third. Jasmi Joensuu was two-plus seconds back for fourth, with Kristine Stavås Skistad 10-plus seconds back in fifth. Maja Dahlqvist skied in alone in sixth.
What happened for the Americans: Julia Kern qualified in 23rd. Racing in the first quarterfinal, Kern held back slightly while the Norwegians led the heat, then timed her move up the final hill near perfectly to approach the front. Kern was only third in the heat, 1.06 seconds back of Ribom, but the pace was hot, and Kern made it through to the semis as one of the day’s two lucky losers.
Kern adopted much the same strategy in her semifinal, staying close to the lead but never taking it. Kern was comfortably in third coming into the final climb but was unable to stay with the final surge as the pack went up the hill. Kern was sixth in the semifinal, ultimately leading the Americans in 11th overall on the day.
Jessie Diggins looked strong in qualifying, ultimately finishing 19th there. Racing in the third quarterfinal, she adopted roughly the same tactic as Kern before her, holding back slightly through the first half of the race before looking to move up near the end. An ill-timed fall in front of her proved costly, however; while Diggins was not caught up in the fall itself and was able to move around it, this cost her virtually all of her momentum. A gap opened in front of her that she was unable to close; Diggins ultimately finished fifth in the heat, and 23rd overall.
Behind them, Rosie Brennan was 32nd in qualifying. Alayna Sonnesyn was 43rd. Novie McCabe was 52nd. Lauren Jortberg was 54th.
What do athletes think about today?
Here’s Kern, via transcribed audio:
On her approach to the season’s opening race: “The first race is always a bit nerve-wracking. But to kind of prepare for the start of the season I like to do some harder efforts before going over to Europe and then making sure I’m really rested for the big travel over so that I have really good energy when we get back on snow. And so this year I made sure to have really good, fresh energy for the week so that I could actually spend more time skiing on snow and adjusting to snow, since we only had six days before the race.
“I think it’s just being socially and mentally happy as well. Finding time to connect with family and friends before leaving and feeling like I’m heading over to Europe in a good mindspace, like I’m excited to race it and not burnt out from training, but instead we’re really ready to go.”
On that famous/infamous final hill on the Ruka sprint course: “The last hill on the Ruka course is famous for a reason. It’s a really tricky hill, and every year I think, ‘This year I’m gonna master it.’ I don’t think anyone maybe ever masters it. I think it’s all about figuring out how to make it up that hill in whatever gear is best for you. And so for me this year, I wanted to stay a little bit more relaxed in the first half of the course, because I found myself in other years starting out too fast and burning out too early, when really the race is decided from halfway up the last climb to the finish. So that’s where all the action happens. So this year, I really focused on that, practicing some intervals and speeds over the top of that hill. Trying not to slip and to stay in the track or herringbone run, and not bogging down in any way possible. So for me, it was staying relaxed and skiing into the hill and then having some technique cues to think about throughout the race.”
On her approach to the quarterfinal versus the semifinal, and if there were any differences between them:
“I had a similar approach for my quarterfinals and semifinals today and I thought I skied tactically how I plan to. I felt like I was slotting into the right positions, finding the windows where they were open. And I just think in the semifinal when the pace turned up a bit I maybe got a little bit frantic and reverted to some old habits, and maybe got a little frantic, trying to keep up instead of really remembering those technique cues on the final climb. So I think there weren’t really many big differences, more just that climb, every time up is a little bit different, and finding a way to kick your skis and ski with good technique when you’re trying to sprint as fast as possible is always really tricky. And so I was really proud of how I skied it in the qualifier and quarterfinal, probably the best I’ve skied that hill. And by the semifinals I was starting to get tired so I think just continuing to work on how to ski well when I get tired, and when the pace turns up a bit.”
Here’s Rosie Brennan, via email:
“Nothing went wrong today. I felt very good about my skiing, but just didn’t have the gear I needed. I picked up a lot of speed in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the lethargic start. I unfortunately missed a lot of speed and power training this fall and as someone who isn’t naturally springy, that took a toll on me so I have faith it will come around in time and with some race efforts. I am looking forward to some distance racing now.”
Here’s Alayna Sonnesyn, via email:
“I’m happy with today. It wasn’t perfect and everything needs to be perfect on the World Cup to have a great day. But I’m pleased with the way my body felt and I how focused, yet relaxed I was. I think it’s a great starting place to build on for the rest of the season. My fall training prep wasn’t everything I was hoping it to be (you can read more about that on my blog) [here is a link] so all things considered I’m pleased with the way I raced today, but VERY hungry for more.”
“We practiced that last Ruka hill a lot yesterday to warm up the hip flexors and woke up today to find conditions were much better than expected. My skis felt great in warm up so I knew I could kick up the whole hill in the tracks, I just had to stay light and snappy. So I took a deep breath on the downhill into the last climb and then went as hard as I could up that hill.
“I feel so close to qualifying and I really believe it’s going to happen. Every race is a learning experience. I think I started fast and ended well, I just need to make sure the middle of the qualifier carries just as much speed.”
Here’s Jessie Diggins, per a U.S. Ski & Snowboard press release:
“It was really great to get the processes back in action. I didn’t have any big expectations in terms of results, I just had big expectations in terms of my process, technique focus and mental game. I was focused on dialing in all the things I could control and I was happy with how it’s going so far!”
Here’s Lauren Jortberg, via email:
“Today was definitely a rip off the bandaid type of day for me. This was my first race ‘effort’ on snow which I’ve learned, as of today, that maybe I should try to simulate something if not throw on a bib beforehand. All in all, a lot was learned, especially how tricky that last hill is, and I feel like I lost a lot of my day out on it. I need to continue to dial in my new skis, I switched to Rossi, and kick to ensure that I can be more confident in how I know I’m capable of skiing after a great summer & fall of training. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to dial in my race gear!”
Also of note, at least for the other gear dorks out there: It’s going to be hard to quantify this (Statistical Skier are you listening?), but the final podium for this race featured one athlete on Rossignol skis and two athletes on Atomics. It was likely the first two-Atomic World Cup podium, in cross-country skiing, in decades. But Kern has switched to Atomics for this year, joining the Wengs as perhaps the most prominent athletes on the brand, so more Atomic podiums could be in the near future.
— Gavin Kentch
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