By the time Sadie Bjornsen sat down in the fur-lined leader’s chair on Sunday, the sunlight that had been shining brightly over sections of the women’s 10-kilometer classic course — blocked by trees and creating shade and temperature drops in some spots — was fading. Just an hour remained before sunset in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, and as she unclipped her bindings and walked out of the finishing pen, the current leader seat belonged to her.
With racers starting in 30-second interval increments and the final starter, Anastasia Kirillova of Belarus, having pushed past the start wand as Bjornsen strode past the halfway point, the 28-year-old American’s time of 27:41.6 would have to withstand 25 skiers — 23 to stay on the podium — if she were to retain her chilly, yet coveted chair.
That would mean staving off the likes of Norwegian powerhouses, Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, as well as Saturday’s skate-sprint winner, Laurien van der Graaff of Switzerland, all of whom started behind Bjornsen.
The U.S. Ski Team (USST) seven-year veteran had already held off Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen and Laura Mononen, Norwegians Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Kathrine Rolsted Harsem, Sweden’s Anna Haag, well as her own USST teammate, Jessie Diggins, who sat in fifth at the time off Bjornsen’s finish.
“I had no doubt that Sadie would crush it – she’s such a classic skiing machine and I couldn’t be prouder of her! She’s on fire!” Diggins, who started six bibs ahead of Bjornsen, wrote in an email.
As each racer finished, Bjornsen remained in the lead, the fog of her breath a reminder of the days falling temps and approaching hours of solar siesta.
Live footage of skiers still on course, broadcasted on the large screen at the stadium’s epicenter kept her on guard. Two in particular were posing a challenge. Weng, who had started 14 bibs behind Bjornsen, was pacing on par with the American by the 3.5 k mark. Østberg, who departed the starting gate two bibs behind Weng, had put 14.7 seconds into Bjornsen by the time she was one-fifth of the way through the race.
By the halfway point, Weng had upped her tempo, and created a 13-second gap on Bjornsen’s time; at the same mark, Østberg had close to 22 seconds on the American.
When Bjornsen finished, Weng’s lead was still cushioned by close to eight seconds.
“I did not feel I was skiing fast but when I got the split times I heard I was gaining time on the other girls,” Weng said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
By the time Weng finished she had a 16.5-second lead over Bjornsen, moving the American into second place. However, Weng’s time in the chair was no more insular than Bjornsen’s. With two-thirds of the race complete, Østberg had 23 seconds on Weng and almost 40 seconds on Bjornsen.
With that kind of a lead, the final 2 k were Østberg’s to win and it appeared only a self-induced mistake would prevent her from taking it all. Perfection ruled the Norwegian’s skis. Østberg covered the final fifth of the race with precise certitude; as if she and the Lenzerheide course were confiding old friends (In fact, they were. In 2016 she won her first non-sprint distance World Cup in Lenzerheide during that season’s Tour de Ski (TdS)).
By the time Østberg finished, she had 25.7 seconds on Weng and 42.2 seconds on Bjornsen, claiming the win in a time of 26:59.4. Her first-place finish in Sunday’s 10 k, combined with her ninth place in Saturday’s sprint, puts her first in the overall TdS standings as racers head into Monday’s Stage 3 freestyle pursuit.
“I knew it was going to be a tough race in these conditions. My goal this season has been to get better each weekend. My shape is very good right now,” Østberg said, according to FIS. “Tomorrow I will be chased and it is going to be a tough race.”
Bumped into third place, Bjornsen earned her first distance podium of the season and second-career stage World Cup individual podium on Sunday (she’s landed on the podium two other times this year, the classic sprint in Lillehammer and the classic sprint in Kuusamo).
“Wow. What a dream day.” Bjornsen wrote in an email to media outlets. “A distance classic podium has been a dream of mine since I first started racing World Cup, so it was so fun to achieve that dream goal of mine today.”
“I had an awesome talk with my wax tech, JP, right before the start of the race, where he told me the most important thing that day was to trust what I do well, and never give up.. so I went with it,” Bjornsen continued. “I thought I was having a really tough race, and then I got my first split at 7.5k when Matt told me I was in second place and could win the race today. Suddenly, I had a fire lit under my butt, and I just gave every last bit for the last 2.5k. It was kinda fun not knowing what was happening, because it felt like a true surprise!”
Bjornsen finished yesterday’s sprint in 14th and with Sunday’s finish is now ranked fourth in the overall, just one place behind her teammate Diggins, who finished Sunday’s 10 k classic in seventh place (+1:04.4).
“For me, I was really proud of how I held it together out there,” Diggins wrote in an email. “This is not my kind of condition and it was really hard to find kick out there – I felt like I was running, herringboning and bounding up the hills! But just a few years ago a day like today would have wrecked my overall tour time and now I’m able to hold my technique together and keep it flexible as conditions change, so I’m really happy about that!”
“Looking forward to tomorrow skate distance!” she added. “I’m starting in a little bit of no-mans land…but I love the chase and I’ll just put my head down and hammer!”
Rounding out the top 10 on Sunday was Niskanen in fourth (+48.9), Haag in fifth (+52.6), Germany’s Nicole Fessel in sixth (+58.2), Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal in eighth (+1:08.3), Germany’s Stefanie Böhler in ninth (+1:08.8) and Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic in 10th (+1:10.9).
Also scoring in the points for the U.S. on Sunday was Sophie Caldwell in 21st (+1:40.6), Liz Stephen in 28th (+2:04.8) and Ida Sargent in 30th (+2:06.7).
Caldwell placed third in Saturday’s sprint and is now ranked seventh in the overall tour standings heading into Monday’s pursuit.
“My body felt surprisingly good after yesterday! When I woke up I was definitely a little tired, but my body felt good racing.” Caldwell wrote in an email. “The conditions were extremely tricky today, and our service team did an awesome job of making us the best skis possible.”
Though many sections on course were glazed over and the downhills iced over, Caldwell indicated the challenge was one she embraced.
“I enjoy tricky conditions like this where you really have to work to make the kick work because I think making skis kick is one of my strengths,” Caldwell wrote. “The downhills were icy and sketchy, so wax would inevitably wear off some, but I tried to really pace the first lap and be in control so I felt like I still had something to give on the second lap. I was really excited to see I ended up in the points! And of course seeing Sadie on the podium again put a huge smile on my face.
“Being in seventh in the tour right now is beyond any expectations I had,” she added. “10 km skates are generally the toughest discipline for me, but I will do my best and be running for dear life from everyone chasing me!”
After two stages out of seven in the TdS, Sargent ranks 30th and Stephen 37th.
Despite battling illness prior to the tour and feeling it worsen during Saturday’s sprint, Sargent started Sunday’s 10 k and was pleasantly surprised to see that her finish was within the points.
“I actually wasn’t sure if I was even going to race today but warmed up and decided to go for it. It felt really hard and I felt like I was struggling a lot so I have to admit I was very happily surprised to hear I was 30th,” Sargent wrote in an email. “I think this is the first time I have scored distance points at altitude. I’m looking forward to another race here tomorrow and then a day off and I have my fingers crossed that my body continues to come back around.”
Another USST member, Rosie Brennan skied to 38th (+2:20.5) on Sunday, putting her in 33rd overall.
The seventh USST member, Kikkan Randall did not start and withdrew from the Tour after experiencing pain in her left foot following the races in Davos three weeks ago,
“[I] have been trying to rehab the foot since with alternative training. Yesterday showed me I am making some progress with my foot and I didn’t want to set myself back with a classic race today. Classic seems to aggravate the injury more.,” Randall wrote in an email. “It was a tough decision but the Olympics are my big goal and I still have time to get my foot healthy if I am smart over the next couple weeks. I am looking forward to sharpening for the sprints in Dresden in two weeks.”
“Awesome to see the team take another podium today!” Randall added. “I’m so proud of our girls!”
In both Stage 1 and Stage 2, the U.S. has had five women in the top 30 and one on the podium. Four of the U.S.’s six starters for Monday’s skate pursuit will start in the top 30.
“It’s really motivating to have had two really strong days as a team,” Caldwell wrote. “I think the fact that we have a handful of people who could be on the podium or in the top ten on any given day says a lot about how strong our team is right now. I think we do a really good job of lifting each other up and pushing each other and it’s cool that there are so many people leading the team in so many ways.”
| –Harald Zimmer contributed reporting