Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Jessie Diggins after an unintended oversight.
There’s something about La Clusaz, France, and Liz Stephen can’t put her finger on it, but it works for her.
Two years ago, the US Ski Team (USST) veteran notched her first World Cup top 20 in the small alpine village near the Swiss border, some 3,500 feet above sea level. It could’ve been the hills, maybe the thin air, but Saturday, Stephen (who turned 26 a week ago) figured it was the memory of placing 18th there in the 15-kilometer freestyle mass start that carried her to another career best.
Stephen led the North American women in Saturday’s 10 k classic mass start, placing 15th for her best classic result. She was 1:13.8 behind Norwegian winner Marit Bjørgen, and 47.2 seconds ahead of the second American, Jessie Diggins, who posted a solid 24th despite a pole mixup before the race.
“Less than 3 minutes to [before the start] I realized I’d grabbed the wrong poles and had two different spare ones, with loops instead of handles,” Diggins explained in an email. “I ran back to the start area looking for my poles but ended up grabbing a spare Canadian set. So when the gun went off my heart rate was already in L4!
“I was psyched on today, and even more pumped seeing Liz have a great one,” Diggins added.
“I was certainly remembering my first ever top 20 here 2 years ago with Morgan Arritola the other day,” Stephen wrote in an email. “I think once you have a good race somewhere, you have a good memory and feeling of the place in your mind and your confidence is higher going into the competition. So, La Clusaz may be one of those places for me.”
Sadie Bjornsen, who earned her starts as the early season U.S. SuperTour leader, also made it into the points in 28th (+2:29.1) and USST teammate Ida Sargent followed in 29th (+2:35.7). For the Canadians, Dasha Gaiazova led the way in 27th (+2:26.2), her second-best distance result since placing 25th in a 10 k classic last year in Poland.
Kikkan Randall (USST) struggled with icing skis in above-freezing temperatures and variable conditions. She crashed on the last lap and finished 32nd (+2:50.9). Canada’s Perianne Jones was 38th (+3:27.9) and Chandra Crawford did not finish after her skied iced up early on, and she decided her body wasn’t feeling it and pulled out.
On a day marred by struggles in difficult waxing conditions, Stephen came out on top – relatively speaking – placing 15th for her second straight race. It was her second-best individual result this season since finishing 13th in a 5 k classic at the Kuusamo World Cup in November. Perhaps most notably, in her previous race she was second fastest up the final climb in the last stage of the Tour de Ski, putting her 15th overall.
A 9 k freestyle ascent up the infamous Alpe Cermis is where most people would expect Stephen to thrive. But Saturday, she made herself known in a gritty classic race.
“She’s always been sort of a skater and doesn’t really like that,” U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said with a laugh. “She’s learning to gain confidence in her kick. She’s learning to work with her new tech [Oleg Ragilo] and dial in just some better classic performances.”
Stephen credited the wax techs and the entire coaching staff for making the difference for her team Saturday. While most everybody struggled with snow and ice clumping beneath their skis in the moist and variable tracks, the Americans were able to generally shake it off, literally, and glide more than most.
“With a small team like we have, it takes all hands on deck to make good skis,” Stephen wrote in an email. “Our guys never seem to slow down for a second. I mean, they penciled in a 10-minute lunch break between our race and the dudes and didn’t even get to it today.”
With temperatures into the mid-30s before the 11:15 a.m. start and mid-40s by the end of the race, it only got warmer as the day went on. Most men opted for hairies for their afternoon race, but for the women, it was a bit of a crapshoot.
“I think we did a good job hitting for our efforts today,” Whitcomb said. “We had very competitive skis. By no means were they perfect, they were just really good and our girls were able to [work with] that.”
Skiing in the top 30 from the start and making her way to 18th by the 2 k checkpoint, Stephen explained that she tried to ski smart even though there were plenty of places to pass on the three-lap course.
“With the conditions being what they were, staying in the track was best for not icing on the uphills,” she wrote. “I forced myself to stay in the tracks as much as I could, which was easy with the rollerski kick I had. I made most of my moves on the uphills, just consistent turning up the speed throughout the race and staying relaxed, trying to ski smooth and controlled and hang tough.”
Meanwhile, Randall and Diggins skied together around 23rd and 24th two kilometers in. Randall climbed as high as 18th near the halfway point while Stephen hung in 17th. At 5.3 k, Diggins led the rest of the Americans in 29th. Seven seconds back in 30th, Bjornsen worked to keep Diggins in sight, and Sargent an additional 10 seconds behind in 31st.
“I wasn’t skiing with any one person for long but mostly trying to hang with the pack as long as I could,” Diggins wrote. “Once I got a system for double poling while smacking the snow off my skis I was able to ski the hills with more confidence.”
Skiing separately but feeding off each other, Diggins, Bjornsen and Sargent continued to pick off the places while Randall started to slip.
“For a while there was a line of four Americans with Kikkan, Jessie, Sadie, Ida, working in the mid-20s and making us proud,” Whitcomb said. “Today was by no means a big focus race for Kikkan. In a lot of ways, if there is such a thing on the World Cup, it was sort of a training race.”
Randall didn’t make any excuses, he said, but had a hard time after 7 k. In an email, she wrote that she was satisfied with the first two laps of her race, with her skis first starting to ice during the end of loop two.
“Going into Lap 3 I was getting tired but still moving well and gaining places until I hit the first big climb,” Randall wrote. “There my skis began to ice more and more, and soon I was only running on stilts. I tried to knock the snow free several times but the snow kept packing on more.
“I crashed once on the downhill when my skis grabbed while I was trying to kick free. I finally stopped at the top of the 2nd to last hill and slid my skis across each other to clear the snow,” she continued. “I started icing again up the final hill but was able to kick off over the top to at least have a sprint-off.”
Randall edged German Nicole Fessel and France’s Anouk Faivre Picon, who were 33rd and 34th, respectively.
“I don’t think I was at 100% physically today but I was certainly a lot better than my result showed,” Randall wrote. “Unfortunately, with my technique, when I get tired, I have a tendency to run more and glide a little less which I’m sure contributed to the icing on the skis. … I am certainly a little frustrated with today but not too concerned.”
Bjornsen, 23, shared similar frustrations, but was pleased to land in the points in a distance race. (She previously recorded a career-best of 25th in the 10 k classic mass start at the Canmore World Cup, but explained finishing 28th in Saturday’s competitive field meant more to her).
“I think today you either had skis that were working – or skis that were testing your patience and perseverance,” Bjornsen wrote. “Today I was in the second category – but I am also very excited for how things went considering.”
After spending most of the offseason coping with injuries, Bjornsen explained that it took her a while to get back into race shape. After working her way back to the World Cup, she couldn’t be happier with the opportunities ahead.
“Now it is time to jump in between the other US girls momentum and follow them!” she wrote. “I am very excited for the girls relay tomorrow. Even though I will be standing on the sidelines cheering – our team is a six-woman relay team, and I believe in those girls 100%.”
According to the start list, Holly Brooks (who did not start Saturday race because of limited spots), Randall, Stephen and Diggins will represent the U.S. in the 4 x 5 k relay. At the World Cup opener in Gallivare, Sweden, three of those women (plus Sargent instead of Randall) placed fifth in the event.
Although she wouldn’t be racing, Sargent was excited to watch the relays Sunday after posting one of her best distance results.
“Anytime I’m in the points is a good day,” Sargent wrote. “I was also excited that after a long break from a distance race (Canmore was my last one) that the body still feels really good.”
In Canmore in mid-December, Sargent was 14th in a 15 k skiathlon. In two races since, she had yet to crack the top 30 in an individual World Cup.
“Great to have 4 girls in the top 30 today,” she wrote. “It was a tough race.”
Canadian classic-sprint specialist, Gaiazova was also positive after one of her top distance results.
“I just wanted top pace myself a little bit and relax behind other skiers,” Gaiazova said on the phone. “I was trying to pick good lines and good rides, follow people around the course, pass them on downhills or over the tops of the hills were my skis weren’t so sticky. At the end, I know a lot of people got tired from their skis getting stuck. I was able to see people ahead of me and coaches were telling me I was close to top 30.”
That was all she needed to carry her through to 27th, a result that helps the Canadian women secure another spot on the distance quota next season.
“I’ve been feeling really good the last few weeks,” Gaiazova said after achieving a career-best fourth in the Liberec classic sprint last weekend. “It’s exciting; I’m really happy with where my skiing is right now.”
Jones wrote in an email that she was not “super stoked” with her result, “but I can’t be too disappointed, either. It’s my first distance race of the season so I hope to build on it.”
“Every time I do a distance race I hope to be in the top 30 so I have some work to do!” Jones added. “The conditions were super tough … people were icing up like crazy and having all kinds of trouble. We were pretty lucky we didn’t have it that bad at all!”
Crawford was on the fence whether to race Saturday.
“With a lot of bad pumped out feeling in my body lately the plan was to see how warm up felt and then decide whether or not to race, with not racing being likely the best option,” she wrote. “My decision was swayed by my optimism, love of racing, appreciation of a great opportunity, good conditions and skis, so I started.”
After falling more than a minute back by 2 k, Crawford realized she didn’t have her normal speed and her skis were icing up. She pulled out before 3.3 k.
One woman short of a relay, the Canadians will next race in two weekends at the World Cup in Sochi, Russia. Crawford wrote she’s “going to keep training and make a great plan with my coaches to get this worked out in the four weeks until world champs.
“Some easy training and chilling out will help for sure,” she added. “Setbacks are set ups for comebacks, eh!”