Note: This report has been updated to include quotes from Noah Hoffman.
Another American landed in the top 10 for the first time this season, this time with 30-year-old Andy Newell as the lone U.S. Ski Team member in the heats Sunday at the second stage of the Tour de Ski in Oberhof, Germany.
The wind was whipping and snow pouring down intermittently, yet Newell worked his way into the mix with the best of more than 100 men in the 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint to finish 10th for 11th in the overall Tour standings.
“I was feeling fine but it started dumping snow, which made some sections of the course feel really sticky and slow,” Newell wrote in an email.
Much didn’t change for the heats and most everyone had a similar strategy: sit back and save up for attacking the headwind into the finish.
Newell found himself racing against Sweden’s Jens Eriksson, Germany’s Tim Tscharnke, Switzerland’s Eligius Tambornino and Finland’s Lari Lehtonen. After qualifying in 29th, Norwegian Chris Jespersen opted out of the quarterfinal to rest up for the rest of the Tour, in which he’s hoping for an overall podium finish.
With four men to contend with, and at least three to beat for an automatic semifinal bid, Newell tried to relax early and strike when the time was right. Trailing into the final hill, he accelerated up the outside corner to make gigantic leap to the front, right behind Tscharnke.
“With the headwind in the finishing 300 meters it really came down to having a strong finish,” Newell explained.
He passed Tscharnke and beat the German by five-hundredths of a second at the line while Eriksson edged them both for first in 2:53.45. Just 0.16 seconds back, Newell advanced in second.
“I was stoked to be able to pass the German and out-lunge him,” Newell wrote. “I was happy with my tactics in that heat.”
The semifinal proved more challenging with heavily falling snow at temperatures around freezing. Passing on the narrow-and-curvy course became even harder, but for most, the game plan remained the same.
“It was kind of funny because everyone was waiting until the end to try to make their move,” Newell wrote. “But the new snow and wind was making it very difficult to get around people and ski fast while breaking your own track.”
In the middle of the pack for most of the race, Newell slipped into last behind Ales Razym of the Czech Republic up the last hill. The Swedes were up front, led by Calle Halfvarsson, who went on to win the final. Halfvarsson attacked on the long climb, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino went with him, and Razym dropped from third to fifth as he crested the hill with Newell.
“Some athletes had great skis for the conditions and others didn’t which became very evident,” Newell wrote.
He ended up overtaking Razym along the straightaway and placed fifth, three-hundredths of a second behind Russia’s Evgeniy Belov in fourth. Halfvarsson won it in 3:02.01, Pellegrino was just 0.19 seconds behind in second, and Eriksson advanced to the final in third, another 0.38 seconds back.
Newell ended up 10th overall for his best result of the season in a race that gave him something to think about for the freestyle sprint Tuesday — the third stage of the Tour.
“I’ve never raced the sprint course [in Lenzerheide, Switzerland], but I’m excited to try to make it to the finals again,” Newell wrote. “I know my fitness and speed is at a world cup top 10 level I jut need to make smart decisions out there.”
Another U.S. Ski Team (USST) sprinter, Simi Hamilton placed 35th in the qualifier, missing out on the top 30 by 0.99 seconds.
“I was obviously hoping for a better result today, but there were some pretty wild things happening with the weather,” Hamilton wrote. “You just have to take a day like this in stride. I don’t like to make excuses, so I won’t, but one of the coolest/most frustrating things about ski racing is that things like conditions and wind and rain make for ever-interesting variables.”
Confident in his fitness and speed, the 26-year-old Hamilton added that he was excited to get another chance on Tuesday.
“Andy and Sophie and Jessie had great days and I’m looking forward to feeding off that momentum for Tuesday,” he wrote.
The third U.S. man in the Tour, Noah Hoffman placed 95th of 105.
“I am looking forward to the distance races to start in this Tour,” Hoffman wrote in an email. In terms of results, the sprint I did on Sunday was my worst World Cup Sprint ever. The race was highly effected by a snow storm that moved in as bib 30 was starting. I am certainly hoping for an improvement over that result today. I am glad to have three chances to practice my race execution and my high-speed skating cues before the important races (for me) start.”
“One of the coolest/most frustrating things about ski racing is that things like conditions and wind and rain make for ever-interesting variables.” – Simi Hamilton, 35th
Diggins, Caldwell Make Quarterfinals
In the women’s 1.5 k freestyle sprint, Sophie Caldwell qualified in a career-best fifth.
Starting right behind Germany’s Denise Herrmann, who went on to place second in the final, and just ahead of Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, who ultimately placed fifth to hold onto the overall Tour lead, helped.
“You just need to go as hard as possible and hope for the best,” the USST rookie wrote. “Marit didn’t catch me, so I thought that was a good sign!”
Caldwell clocked the fifth-fastest time after Norway’s Ingvlid Flugstad Østberg, who won the qualifier in 3:08.6. The American was 3.05 seconds back and Bjørgen 2.76 second behind in fourth.
With a tactic of staying relaxed early then “hammering the hills,” Caldwell squared off in the quarterfinal against five Germans (Herrmann, Lucia Anger, Katrin Zeller, Sandra Ringwald, and Claudia Nystad) on their home course.
“It was a little intimidating toeing the line against all Germans in a sprint heat in Germany, but I just pretended the crowd was cheering for me,” Caldwell wrote. “I tried to treat it like I would a sprint final with any other people … only two people from the heat move on, so there is only so much team tactics they could have done.”
The lone woman in black in a sea of yellow, red and black suits, Caldwell jumped to an early lead as the five Germans chased her around a tricky downhill corner. Caldwell let off for a moment to find her balance around the slick turn and immediately lost the lead.
“I probably stood up a little early from the downhill and the Germans were both in my draft and had great skis, so I found myself going from 1st to 4th or 5th pretty quickly,” she wrote. “Everything happens so fast that it’s hard to say it was one thing or another, but if I were to do it again, I would have changed a few things tactically.”
As Herrmann went off the front, Caldwell tried to stay within a few meters of her as she tucked in second down a gradual descent.
Herrmann attacked the climb and accelerated over the top, leaving her teammates and Caldwell behind. Caldwell led the chase group into the final stretch, but lost steam as she broke the wind for those behind her.
“[I] got pretty tired out by the final stretch,” Caldwell wrote. “Because of the wind and the long final stretch, you could conserve a lot of energy by following and I couldn’t get quite close enough to Denise to reap any of those benefits.”
Herrmann won the quarterfinal in 3:16.38. Anger came through in second, 1.55 seconds later, and Zeller was third, another 0.1 seconds back. Ringwald was fourth (+1.87) and Caldwell edged the last German, Nystad, in a photo finish for fifth (+2.7).
Ultimately, Caldwell placed 22nd, and after a ninth-place finish in Saturday’s prologue, that put her in 13th overall (with the added boost of bonus seconds for her qualifier result).
“I’m really happy with both days of the tour so far,” she wrote. “I’m still learning a lot from each sprint heat I do and have a lot of areas I can improve, but it’s also nice to come away with some confidence … There’s a big difference between being able to qualify in 5th and place 5th in the finals and I’m not there yet, but last year sneaking into the top 30 in qualification was an awesome day, so I keep reminding myself of that to put things into perspective!”
Caldwell plans to race Tuesday’s skate sprint, but may drop out of the Tour after the third or fourth stages.
One American who intends to do all seven races in nine days, Jessie Diggins placed 18th on Sunday to put her 14th in the Tour standings (Diggins was fifth in the prologue and qualified for the sprint heats in 18th.)
Like Caldwell, Diggins made sure she was in front early in her quarterfinal, getting low on the downhills and attacking around the technical corners. France’s Aurore Jean hung in second behind her, then attacked up the first major climb.
Diggins stayed with her, tucking behind on the downhill and resting up for the last ascent toward the stadium. But when she went to plant her poles, they sunk deep into the snow. Somehow, her pole basket flipped around 180 degrees, leaving her with little power to the top.
Norway’s Therese Johaug passed her on the way up, and Jean and Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek pushed for the quarterfinal win up the finishing straight while Diggins chased in sixth.
Jean and Cebasek tangled just before the finish and went down on the left side, while Diggins pushed on to take fourth in the heat, 2.11 seconds behind Poland’s Sylwia Jaskowiec, who skied by the carnage to win in 3:19.35. Johaug placed second to advance and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen was third (+0.87).
“I got a little tired near the end,” Diggins wrote. “It was a solid day but my body wasn’t feeling the way it was in the prologue. That’s the beauty of the Tour de Ski – it’s about the long run, not each individual day.”
Two other U.S. women, Liz Stephen and Holly Brooks nearly made the heats in 33rd and 37th, respectively.
“I’m psyched for Andy’s top 10, Sophie’s amazing qualifier, and our team was SO close to having 3 more in the quarters – especially Liz!” Diggins wrote. “Watch out world, Liz is getting her skate sprint going, and it’s awesome.”
Stephen was 0.78 seconds away from qualifying, and 33rd remained her second-best sprint result and put her 37th in the Tour. Last year in the Tour skate sprint in Val Müstair, Switzerland, she qualified in 30th and placed 25th.
“I am super happy … and so stoked to get another shot at it in a day,” Stephen wrote.
The only time she works on sprinting is team camps, she explained, attributing Sunday’s results to an extra-long warmup.
“Newell told me what he does and I did that, and I really, really wanted to qualify,” Stephen said. “Got my head in gear and went as hard as I could.”
– Seth Adams contributed reporting