Saturday morning was sunny in Oberhof, Germany. Jessie Diggins probably wasn’t the only one surprised to wake up to that, and she and the U.S. women’s team packed raincoats anyway.
“I’ve actually never seen the sun in Oberhof,” Diggins said on the phone later Saturday.
It started raining well before the 2 p.m. start of the women’s 3-kilometer freestyle prologue – the first of seven races in the Tour de Ski. Organizers emergency salted the course to keep the few precious uphills on the 1.5 k course in tact, and “there were apparently 300 dudes out shoveling the snow from the woods,” Diggins said.
She, for one, was impressed. Had they not added snow to the manmade track and re-salted the course, course times would’ve been 30 seconds slower – easily.
The 65th starter out of 80, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen quickly accelerated along the flat-and-twisting course. The rain stopped just before the women’s race, but it wasn’t pretty out there. The snow felt slow, even for Bjørgen, and without time or much use for splits in an all-out 3 k, it was hard to know how one was doing.
With each passing checkpoint, it became evident that Bjørgen was on her way to the podium. At 0.8 k, she was two-tenths of a second faster than 23-year-old teammate Ingvlid Flugstad Østberg (first at the time, she ended up 13th). By 2.3 k, Bjørgen, 33, had extended her lead by 2.5 seconds on another Norwegian at least seven years younger than her, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen.
“I found it difficult to find the right speed along the way,” Bjørgen told NRK, according to a translation. “I thought to myself, ‘This can not go fast. This does not go fast.’ ”
But she willed her way to the finish and held her speed for the duration, winning in 6:34.4 minutes, bumping Jacobsen out of the non-existent leader’s chair by 1.9 seconds. The 57th starter, Jacobsen, 26, ultimately placed second.
Earlier in the race, Diggins in bib 33 finished with the fastest time of 6:43.6, besting Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek by 1.5 seconds. Soaked to the core, Diggins said she kept poking her head out of the changing tent to see if she was still in the lead, or in the top three once Jacobsen came through 7.3 seconds faster. Two starters after Jacobsen, German Denise Herrmann edged Diggins by 0.8 seconds for second place at the time, then Bjørgen bumped Herrmann back and Diggins off the podium.
A Polish woman other than Justyna Kowalczyk made the podium in third, as 27-year-old Sylwia Jaśkowiec captured a career-best third, 7 seconds behind Bjørgen. The 67th starter, she moved Diggins to fifth, another 2.2 seconds back.
“This was a big surprise for me. I’m very happy,” Jaśkowiec said in a press conference.
Bjørgen congratulated her. “It’s great to have a new Polish girl on the podium,” she said at the press conference.
On Saturday morning, Kowalczyk, the overall winner of the last four Tour de Skis, announced on Facebook that she was withdrawing from this year’s eighth edition of the Tour. The decision came from her frustration with Tour organizers who changed several races due to low-snow restrictions – making five of seven races freestyle.
A perennial rival, Bjørgen wasn’t happy, either. Norway has yet to win the Tour, and with Bjørgen and teammate Therese Johaug as two strong favorites, this isn’t the way they wanted it.
“Possible victory, mine or Therese, has no taste or value without Justyna,” Bjørgen told NRK, according to a translation.
Johaug finished 11th on Saturday, 13.1 seconds behind Bjørgen, despite a fast start in which she clocked the sixth- and ninth-fastest intermediate checkpoint times. Bjørgen gained 15 bonus seconds for the win, putting her 28.1 seconds ahead of Johaug in the overall Tour.
With back-to-back freestyle sprints next – Bjørgen’s forte – that’s not necessarily the greatest start for Johaug.
“I’m not stopping,” Johaug told NRK. “I’ve been training for sprints, so it will be good.”
After Diggins, three Finns made the top 10 with Anne Kyllönen in sixth, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen in seventh and Kerttu Niskanen in 10th. Cebasek finished eighth and American Sophie Caldwell tied her individual World Cup best (like Diggins) in ninth, 11.8 seconds back from Bjørgen.
“It was a great way to start for sure,” Diggins said. “It was really sweet to see Sophie do so well and see the other girls start the Tour strong. Our skis were rocketing; it was amazingly fast.”