World Cup Kick Off
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.