World Cup Kick Off

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Julie Me­lan­son

by Julie Me­lan­son

The World Cup is un­der­way and North Amer­i­can skiers have come out of the gate with strong early podi­ums that could fore­tell their for­tunes at the Tour de Ski and Ski Tour Canada, the big­gest events this sea­son.

Nov. 27-29 – Ruka, Fin­land

The 2015-16 FIS World Cup sea­son kicked off with the Ruka Triple near Ku­usamo, Fin­land. In stage one, Ida Sar­gent was the top Amer­i­can fin­ish­ing a strong sev­enth in the women's 1.4km CL. Sadie Bjornsen looked strong at the start of her semi-fi­nal but took a stum­ble when her wax stuck and she even­tu­ally fin­ished 12th. Maiken Caspersen Falla of Nor­way took the win, Stina Nils­son of Swe­den was sec­ond, with Ragn­hild Haga of Nor­way round­ing out the podium in third.

Three other Amer­i­cans qual­i­fied for the heats and in the fi­nal stand­ings So­phie Cald­well placed 23rd and Jessie Dig­gins was 25th. Emily Nishikawa was the sole Cana­dian in the mix plac­ing 58th.

In the men's race, the USA'S Andy Newell charged out of the gates on a mis­sion, fin­ish­ing just off the podium in fourth place - his best re­sult in two years. The open­ing race saw a Nor­we­gian podium sweep, with Son­dre Tur­voll Fossli grab­bing the vic­tory, Erik Brands­dal in sec­ond and Pet­ter Northug claim­ing third.

“One of my goals was to make the fi­nal,” said Newell. “In one of the most com­pet­i­tive sprints, you re­ally need to be ready to rock when you start the heats here.” Cana­dian Len Val­jas, who was fifth in his quar­ter­fi­nal heat, did not ad­vance.

Bjornsen de­liv­ered a solid re­sult in the sec­ond stage of the Ruka Triple fin­ish­ing 14th in the women's 5km FR race, a per­sonal best, with team­mate Dig­gins just be­hind in 16th.

Nor­way's Therese Jo­haug dom­i­nated with a 17.6-sec­ond lead over Char­lotte Kalla of Swe­den in sec­ond fol­lowed by fel­low Swede, Ida Inge­mars­dot­ter, in third. Nishikawa, the lone Cana­dian, fin­ished 63rd.

Canada's Alex Har­vey, 27, landed his first World Cup podium of the sea­son, claim­ing sec­ond in the men's 10km FR race. Har­vey en­joyed a stint in the hot seat for some time be­fore Nor­way's Martin John­srud Sundby, the over­all men's se­ries de­fend­ing champ, posted the best time for the gold. Switzer­land's Dario Cologna was third.

Har­vey's skate ski­ing was im­proved on the tough hilly course as a re­sult of surgery to his leg last spring to ad­dress com­pressed ar­ter­ies that re­stricted blood flow in both legs. Also hav­ing a strong day on the come­back trail, was team­mate Devon Ker­shaw as he fin­ished 24th in the points. Simi Hamil­ton was top Amer­i­can in 49th.

Bjornsen de­liv­ered a ca­reer-best fin­ish, ski­ing to 14th place on the fi­nal 10km CL pur­suit stage, only 0.4 sec­onds be­hind Ni­cole Fes­sel of Ger­many in 13th. Nor­way's Jo­haug skied away from her ri­vals to win the over­all by a com­fort­able mar­gin. Swe­den's Nils­son broke away from the chase group to claim sec­ond at 22.6 sec­onds be­hind, with Ingvild Flugstad Oest­berg of Nor­way in third. Rosie Bren­nan was the next-best Amer­i­can in 34th and Canada's Nishikawa was in 60th.

US Women's head coach Matt Whit­comb was pleased with the three-day mini-tour. “We're on track. Ku­usamo pre­sented us with the tough­est wax­ing con­di­tions com­bined with some of the tough­est cour­ses, so it is al­ways an in­tense in­tro­duc­tion to the World Cup sea­son.”

The fi­nal tough 15km CL stage of the men's Ruka Triple mini-tour saw Canada's Har­vey fin­ish sev­enth over­all with the 12th-fastest time of the day. Nor­way's Sundby proved un­stop­pable as he took his sixth con­sec­u­tive Tour vic­tory and kept his win­ning streak alive.

A late surge by Northug of Nor­way saw him fight his way past Italy's Francesco de Fabi­ani to move into sec­ond place. A fi­nal lunge by Finn Haa­gen Krogh made it an all-nor­we­gian podium. Canada's Ker­shaw climbed six spots in the stand­ings to fin­ish 23rd over­all while the top Amer­i­can was Erik Bjornsen in 48th.

Dec. 5-6 – Lille­ham­mer, Nor­way

For the sec­ond week­end in a row, the USA'S Sadie Bjornsen set the pace lead­ing four Amer­i­cans into the points as she placed 20th in the women's 15km Skiathlon won de­ci­sively by Nor­way's Jo­haug. In the bat­tle for sec­ond, Nor­way's Heidi Weng pipped Swe­den's Kalla in a sprint to the line.

USA'S Liz Stephen placed 25th, scor­ing her first points of the sea­son. Dig­gins was 26th and Caitlin Gregg grabbed 30th while Nishikawa was 52nd.

Canada's Har­vey bat­tled it out mov­ing up 17 spots dur­ing the skate to claim 10th in the men's 30km Skiathlon as four North Amer­i­cans landed in the top 25. Sundby led a Nor­we­gian podium sweep again win­ning gold with Nik­las Dyrhaug in sec­ond while his team­mate Hans Chris­ter Hol­und was third.

Graeme Kil­lick fin­ished 21st for Canada earn­ing his first World Cup points. Three sec­onds be­hind was Ker­shaw in 23rd with Ivan Babikov in 24th as Amer­i­can Noah Hoff­man also put in a fine skate leg to grab 25th. Cana­dian Michael Somppi was 60th.

In the 4x5km women's re­lay Dig­gins an­chored Team USA with a stun­ning dis­play of prow­ess and never-give-up strat­egy for a well-de­served bronze medal, as Nor­way I took the gold and Fin­land cap­tured the sil­ver. The Amer­i­can women's squad, and their now-fa­mous knee-high socks, were on the re­lay podium here back in 2014 with Kikkan Ran­dall. This marked the third time that the USA has been on a re­lay podium.

Dig­gins was fifth when tagged by Stephen, who put in a tremen­dous leg her­self mov­ing up from sev­enth, and went to work first chas­ing down Kalla of Swe­den and then catch­ing and over­tak­ing Nor­way's Haga for a bril­liant bronze. Dig­gins' an­chor time of 13:07.1 was the fastest of the leg and the sec­ond fastest of the day – only Jo­haug had a bet­ter time of 12:49.3. “It was a great day for Team USA,” said Dig­gins.

Nor­way I dom­i­nated the 4×7.5km Men's Re­lay, win­ning gold as ex­pected with a podium sweep. Team USA, sparked by Erik Bjornsen's bul­let-proof Clas­sic race, cat­a­pulted from 15th place to fifth in the sec­ond heat.

The first leg saw Newell tag Bjornsen in 15th, two spots be­hind Canada's Ker­shaw who handed off to Har­vey. Bjornsen was on fire and dropped Har­vey as the Cana­di­ans had missed the wax and soon the young Amer­i­can was gain­ing more ground, putting in the fastest time of his leg. Bjornsen tagged Hoff­man who found him­self in no-man's land in be­tween the lead and chase pack but still held onto fifth.

Hoff­man handed off to an­chor Simi Hamil­ton as Nor­way's Northug danced away for Nor­way I with a com­mand­ing lead. Hamil­ton was un­able to bridge to the lead­ers and was even­tu­ally swal­lowed up by the chasers.

In the end, sil­ver and bronze went to Nor­way III and II as Rus­sia, the pre­vi­ous win­ners in Lille­ham­mer back in 2013, set­tled for fourth. Hamil­ton crossed the line in 12th with Canada's Kil­lick 13th.

(top) Canada's Alex Har­vey (l) landed his first podium of the sea­son at Ruka, Fin­land claim­ing sec­ond in the men's 10km FR with Martin John­srud Sundby (NOR) win­ning and Dario Cologna (SUI) third. (above left) The USA'S Andy Newell was just off the podium

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