CANMORE, Alberta — The U.S. women had two skiers in the top 15 in Sunday’s Nordic World Cup 15-kilometer skiathlon, with Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall in eighth place and the ascending Ida Sargent 14th.
This season, that’s just another day at the office. But it was only the first half of the show.
The second half of the program, the men’s 30K skiathlon, was where the big excitement came.
The U.S. men outdid the U.S. women for the first time this season, with Noah Hoffman finishing a personal-best eighth and veteran Kris Freeman 10th — his best World Cup result since a 13th in the 30K skiathlon in Rybinsk, Russia in February of this year.
Hoffman has spent time at the front of the pack this season in other races, but not been able to close the deal; Freeman has twice been fourth in the 15K at World Championships, but has been inconsistent for the past few seasons.
The combination of the superb performances of the U.S. women so far this season and the performances by Hoffman and Freeman in the distance races and a rejuvenated Andy Newell in the sprints has the U.S. in rarefied air.
The U.S. is ranked fourth in the Nations Cup — the sum of all points scored by the athletes in individual and relay races — based upon the second-ranked women’s 1,107 points and the 11th-ranked men’s 331 points.
The women’s race didn’t start off well for the U.S. skiers.
Right from the gun, Randall and Holly Brooks of Anchorage were farther back in the pack than expected, but instead of sticking with the lead pack, they continued to drift backward. That rearward drift was exacerbated by the killer pace set by Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk.
At the 6K mark Ida Sargent had paced her way to 17th place, just ahead of Randall and Brooks, out of the 45th start position.
Comparing this race to Thursday’s 10K classic, Sargent said, “In the 10K I really freaked out with the late start position and tried to race up to the front and wasted a lot of energy. So today I tried to be patient out there and move up when I could.”
As they began the first of two laps on the skate course, Randall sat 21st, one place behind Sargent, but started working her way toward the front of the chase pack.
“I focused on finding my rhythm first ... then I could pick my head up and start looking at the skiers ahead of me” Randall said. “I was surprised at how quickly they were coming back to me.”
Randall bridged up to the first chase group with a couple of kilometers to go.
Using the lessons learned in Saturday’s sprint and her superior speed, she moved toward the front of the group on the long uphill drag to the finish, winning the sprint out of her group and edging Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg by one-tenth of a second for eighth place, about 40 seconds behind the main chase group.
Sargent pulled the same rabbit out of her hat, winning a six-up sprint for 14th, 0.3 seconds ahead of France’s Aurore Jean, achieving her best-ever World Cup distance result for the second time in two distance races.
Kowalczyk never looked back once she had her lead, and won by nearly 35 seconds, raising her hands over her head as she approached the finish and waving to the large crowd, much to the delight of a sizable contingent of flag-waving and lustily cheering Polish fans.
Fairbanks’ Becca Rorabaugh was 53rd, 7:21 behind the winner and just in front of Whitehorse’s Dahria Beatty.
Rorabaugh started in the 10th row, but described it as “pretty relaxed back there. It was hard to kick on the steep uphill, but my double-pole was good and the classic leg felt pretty good to me.”
The men’s 30K featured the Hoffman and Freeman show, a study in contrasting strategies, but with very similar outcomes.
Hoffman likes to ski from the front, perhaps doing a little more work than is optimal, but making it easier to stay out of trouble and avoiding the deceleration and acceleration that comes with the accordion effect experienced by those farther back in the pack.
“I think I’m more comfortable skiing in the top five,” said Hoffman, “especially with the yo-yo effect farther back. I wanted to stay up front and be aggressive, but not as aggressive as Thursday.”
Freeman, on the other hand, prefers to lay back, hanging toward the back of the pack, but not all the way back, and doing a little less work, hoping to save energy for the later stages of the race.
After a typical pack race, with a couple of abortive breakaways, it was France’s Maurice Manificat, a skier not possessed of tremendous finishing speed, who decided on the final lap that his only shot at the winner’s circle was to take a flyer a long way from home.
Once Manificat left the roost, the other dominoes fell rapidly. Italy’s Roland Clara lit out after the Frenchman, at which point it became a free-for-all.
Manificat and Clara were able to create gaps big enough to prevent a slingshot pass at the bottom of the final downhill, and held the first two positions all the way to the line.
Hoffman and Freeman skied smart and strong at the end, nailing down eighth and tenth in the lead group of 18 skiers.
Post-race, a very positive Freeman commented on their different approaches.
“Hoff doesn’t like skiing in a group, so he goes to the front. I’d rather get sucked along in the draft,” Freeman said. “I’m still looking for that elusive podium, but it’s coming. I’ve been praying for a teammate who can push me, and now I’ve got that.”
Fairbanksans David Norris and Reese Hanneman were 55th and 58th, respectively. Finishing the race was no mean feat, as skiers who were lapped by the leaders were pulled from the competition.
That was the fate that befell former Alaska Nanook John Parry, pulled with a couple of laps to go.
“I got about 5K in when I started getting dropped by the leaders when they were heading toward the sprint preme.” said Norris, adding he felt best beginning about halfway through each leg, but “the last lap of the skate I was fading.”
“It was my first World Cup distance race, a 30K, which is not exactly my strong suit,” noted Hanneman. “I felt good in the classic leg. I lost some places [in the skate] – I started to cramp in my triceps and upper quads.”