Race: Women’s 20-kilometer mass start classic, Lillehammer, Norway
Is there embedded video you can watch? Yes, but enjoy it while you can, as I’m getting reports that takedown notices have been (not unjustifiably) lodged with YouTube on the grounds that these videos are copyright-violative. But for the time being, try this (Diggins did not win today; thumbnail is from a different race):
What happened at the front of the race: I’ll get to a full, or at least a somewhat longer, race recap in a second.
(TLDR: A massive pack skied together near the front for virtually the entire race, with none of the top contenders able to achieve much separation on the rolling, relatively easy course. Frida Karlsson established strong position within the close of the final lap and “broke away” approaching the stadium, winning the race by 0.6 seconds over Tiril Udnes Weng in second. Jessie Diggins was 9th, 5.5 seconds back, to lead four American women in the race. The top sixteen women all finished within 15 seconds of each other.)
But first, please bear with me through a brief math lesson, and a look at the homologation certificates for some of the various high-level courses used at the sprawling Lillehammer Olympiapark.
(Homologation is the process of making sure that races used for FIS-sanctioned competitions meet numerous requirements for specifications like width, overall climb, and the placement of hills within the course. The requirements are generally aimed at making sure that the course is both safe and appropriately challenging. FasterSkier published a fine deep dive on the homologation process here some time ago.)
Here is an excerpt from the homologation certificate for the course that likely would have been used for the skate legs making up the second half of today’s skiathlon, if snow conditions had permitted the race to be held as a 20km skiathlon (first 10km in classic, second 10km in skate) as originally scheduled.
And here is a corresponding excerpt from the homologation certificate for the sole course that was used today, on what became a 20km classic held over six laps of a 3.3ish-kilometer course:
The first of these, the would-be course, has a healthy 64-meter A-climb (main climb) midway through the course, and three B-climbs (secondary climbs), which gain 27, 25, and 14 meters, respectively. It has 156 meters of total climb per lap, and, by math, 40.5 meters of climb per kilometer. This is slightly above the high end of the notional range for climb on a homologated course, 32–40 m/km.
The second of these, the actual course used, has a more subdued 33-meter A-climb, and three B-climbs, with elevation gains of 10, 19, and 19 meters. It has 109 meters of total climb per lap, and, by my math, 31.3 meters of climb per kilometer. This is slightly below the low end of the notional range for climb on a homologated course, 32–40 m/km.
I don’t want to suck all the joy out of the sport with some bloodless math problems, and no one involved faults race organizers for doing the best they could with available terrain and snow conditions, but the math may help you to quantify what you saw with your own eyes if you watched the race: At this level of sport, a course like this, on a day with relatively benign snow and weather conditions, was simply insufficient to create much of a separation between a field of world-class athletes. We saw it in Friday’s 10km skate, when 23rd place was a minute out of first. And we saw it today, when 16th place was all of 15 seconds out of first.
So, back to the race. The athletes headed out of the relatively narrow “backup” stadium in three long rows. Conditions were benign. After the first lap, Ebba Andersson was leading, Diggins was in the lead pack at 11th, and 15th place was 2.0 seconds back of first. After the second lap, Andersson was leading, Diggins was in the lead pack at fifth, and 15th place was now a whole 4.7 seconds back. At the halfway mark: Moa Ilar leading, Diggins in the lead pack at 13th, and 15th place all of 3.1 seconds back of first.
I could go on, but you get the point: rolling course + world-class athletes = not much separation.
Starting out the sixth and final lap (per live timing: Frida Karlsson first, Jessie Diggins 13th, 15th place 7 seconds back), Karlsson attacked. It was a gutsy move, but it also did not create any meaningful separation. Indeed, here is the women’s lead pack at the start of the final lap:
And here is the women’s lead pack near the end of the final lap, less than 90 seconds before the finish:
Corporate wants you to find the difference between these two photos, as it were.
Katharina Hennig of Germany was well-positioned to potentially break up the Scandinavian hegemony at the front, but broke a pole at a spectacularly ill-timed moment as she herringboned up the final climb back to the stadium, and lost contact while getting a replacement. Frida Karlsson of Sweden was in the lead, and kept the lead, holding off a fast-closing Tiril Udnes Weng of Norway (+0.6 seconds back). Ebba Andersson of Sweden was third (+1.2).
Diggins finished ninth, 5.5 seconds back. Go to the second slide in this post and press “play” to watch the finish of the race.
What else happened for the Americans: Alayna Sonnesyn was 36th, just under 3 minutes back. Sophia Laukli was 39th, just over 3 minutes back. Julia Kern was 44th, 4:43 back. Rosie Brennan was an unfortunate DNS due to illness for the third race in a row, and was joined today on the sidelines by Novie McCabe.
What do the athletes think about today? Great question. Here are some answers.
Here’s Jessie Diggins, in a transcription of audio sent to multiple media outlets:
“If you watch the race, it’s pretty clear that it was a very chaotic day out there. I mean, it was just the kind of course that keeps things together. I think there were a number of attempts to kind of break it up. And everyone kept coming back together on that long kind of winding downhill.
“So knowing that I tried to ski really calm and smooth on the uphill. I was really happy with my skis, I had good grip, which is really important for me. And so I felt like I was able to kind of stay calm, knowing it was going to come back together at the end.
“If I could do it again, I would have definitely set myself up differently for that final, you know, 300, 400 meters. I’m not super satisfied with that. And that’s okay; that was a learning opportunity. And I know I’m not the only one who is feeling a little boxed in and stepped on out there. So that’s not unique to me.
“But overall, I’m happy with where my body’s at and where my fitness is; I always have things I want to work on. So I always have learning opportunities out there. And I definitely took some lessons away from this that I want to apply to the next classic race, which will be in Beitostølen next weekend.”
Diggins added that she is looking forward to some high-quality skiing in the Beitostølen area. She also noted, in a nod to the recent racing schedule, “It feels almost a little bit like a Tour de Ski of sorts because it’s been six races in two weeks and two race prep days. So I think it is really important to try to strike a good balance between rest and recovery and racing and training”; Diggins noted that she hopes to ride this line as best as she can.
Here’s Julia Kern, via message to Nordic Insights:
When asked about a strong aspect on the day: “When I got tired, I focused on my technique today. I tried to stand tall and stack in the tracks up the big hill. It was good practice for steeper striding.”
When asked how she is handling the multiple three-day race weekends and the high load: “My overall approach to period 1 is to race a lot, because I usually race my way into shape. With that comes some ups and downs in the early season as I build my race fitness and maybe build a little fatigue from so many races. However, I always evaluate every start to make sure it still seems to be the smart decision. The weeks have been flying here with so much racing, we race Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Monday is travel day, and then we just have Tuesday and Wednesday training before we are already doing race prep on Thursday!”
And here’s Alayna Sonnesyn, in an email to Nordic Insights, about the realities of showing up every day and trying to crack into the top-30:
“Just another day knocking on that top-30 door. Felt good today, especially the first two laps. I went to take a feed and just lost focus for one second but that was enough to lose the lead pack and couldn’t get on the draft again.
“The body is definitely feeling all the racing but I’m doing everything I can to recover each day/week and prepare for the next effort.”
What’s next? Following back-to-back three-race weekends to start the season, some of the athletes have now contested six races in ten days. There will be more of the same next weekend, when the World Cup heads a few hours west to the bucolic small town of Beitostølen; races resume on Friday with a classic sprint. Saturday will be a 10km interval-start classic. Sunday will be the second-ever 4 x 5km mixed relay, an event in which the U.S. is so far undefeated in World Cup competition.
— Gavin Kentch
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