FAIRBANKS — It is a measure of how the standards of the U.S. women’s ski team have been raised when Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall can have her best-ever World Cup finish in a distance race at altitude, and not be ecstatic.
She knows there is more to do, and that she’s capable of it. That was Randall’s attitude after the first day of racing at the Alberta World Cup in Canmore, a 10-kilometer mass start classic race won by Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk.
A sixth-place finish in a distance race, which would have made her very happy in any year other than this, was OK, but “not satisfy(ing)” according to APU Coach Erik Flora.
The first lap saw a dozen women skiing in a pack including Kowalczyk, Randall, Anchorage’s Holly Brooks, Norwegians Vibeke Skofterud, Kristin Stormer Steira, Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, Maiken Caspersen Falla, Finland’s Anne Kyllonen, and Russians Olga Rotcheva and Marlya Guschina.
On the second of three 3.3K laps Kowalczyk put the hammer down on the course’s biggest climb — an A climb in the first kilometer, and effectively put the race in her back pocket.
Her only worry was staying upright on the high-speed downhills on the Olympic course — Kowalczyk is not known for her descending skills. Kowalczyk gradually skied away on the uphills, and limited her losses on the descents to win by 14.4 seconds.
Kyllonen, with only one prior World Cup podium appearance, skied away from a group of Norwegians and Randall to claim second place. Randall and the four red suits sprinted up the long, gradual grind to the finish, with Falla, whom Randall has fought down the finish stretch in a number of sprint events, claiming third. Randall was sixth, behind Skofterud and Oestberg. Just 3.6 seconds separated third from seventh.
Brooks was right at the front of the pack for the first one and a half laps, but then the three consecutive weekends of World Cup racing, a transatlantic flight, and transcontinental travel landed on her all at once.
“It’s such a treat to start in the front of the race,” Brooks said after starting in position number 6. “You can really avoid all that fighting and the broken poles.”
She looked and felt very tired over the final 5K and ended up collecting the final World Cup point in 30th place.
“It’s been a long first period for me,” she said, “I’ve been bouncing around lots of time zones and raced every single race.”
Brooks’ APU teammate, Sadie Bjornsen, was second for the U.S. in 25th.
In the men’s race, as expected, there was a large pack much farther into the race. For the first five or six kilometers, the lead pack included nearly 40 skiers.
The Norwegians were strong at the front for the first few kilometers, pushing the pace to the top of the two big climbs on the slightly long 3.75K course. An early casualty was Martin Jonsrud Sundby, winner of the season opener in Gallivare, Sweden, who fell early and was never able to get back in contention.
After Norway had a turn at the front, the Italians took over the work of pulling the peloton, with a little assistance from the Noah Hoffman of the U.S. men’s team, who went after the World Cup points available in the sprint preme on the second lap and placed fourth.
Kris Freeman of the U.S. bided his time and skied conservatively, mostly lurking in the teens, but not letting the leaders put a meaningful gap between them and where he was in the pack.
Tscharnke, Angerer and Russia’s Evgeniy Belov broke away on the final lap, as the pack finally disintegrated. Following them were the threesome of Italy’s ageless Giorgia DiCenta, Norway’s Sjur Roethe and Dotzler. In the final 600 meters, the birthday boy Tscharnke used the last uphill to put a gap on the other two and led to the finish.
Meanwhile, Roethe exploded out of the chase group to drop his companions and double-pole past Belov and Angerer to place second. Angerer edged Belov by 0.4 seconds for third place.
Former Lathrop High School standout David Norris was the fifth U.S. finisher, placing 48th, 3:19 behind the winner.
Norris was tired after the race, fatigued from having to work a little more with his arms on the climbs to compensate for not having quite enough grip.
“I feel like I went out fairly easy,” Norris said, “but then midway through had to recover a little bit on the third lap,” he said. “The last lap I felt pretty good.”
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