Not one of the last three days in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, were alike, with three different American women standing on the coveted podium and three vastly different conditions for the first three stages of the 2018 Tour de Ski.
Technically, it wasn’t 2018 until today — with Jessie Diggins racing to third in the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit on Monday, the first day of the new year and her first podium of the season.
She did so in soft, slow conditions with fresh snow coating Lenzerheide’s 3.75 k distance course — a stark contrast to Sunday’s fast-and-icy conditions that caused a few racers to fly off the course*. American Sadie Bjornsen stayed on her feet and raced to third for her first-career 10 k podium. Saturday’s skate sprint was a snowy one, which another U.S. Ski Team member Sophie Caldwell embraced and raced to second place, for her first individual World Cup podium in two years.
Monday was a suffer-fest for everyone on course and a solo one for the first three skiers. Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg headed out of the gate first, after leading the Tour de Ski (TdS) standings with a win in Saturday’s 10 k classic. Her teammate Heidi Weng started second, 33 seconds back, and Diggins started 32 seconds after Weng (1:05 minutes behind Østberg) in third.
With Bjornsen next in line, another 10 seconds back in fourth, and Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva 2 seconds behind her in fifth, the race was for the podium was more or less a formality, barring anything unexpected for Østberg, Weng and Diggins. Sure, anyone of them could have unraveled, but it wasn’t likely. Regardless, each still had to gut out three long laps on their own, with Diggins eyeing Weng, Weng trying to close the gap to Østberg, and Østberg with only the open trail ahead of her.
“It was like hell today,” the 27-year-old Østberg said after her second-straight win on Monday, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “It was a very hard fight. I felt the snow was not fast. I was gaining seconds on Heidi and then losing them again.”
Throughout the race, Østberg had a maximum gap of 36 seconds to Weng in second (at 1 k) and a minimum gap of 23 seconds (again to Weng at 5.6 k). She crossed the finish line first in 26:48.1 minutes, while Weng finished 27.8 seconds back in second and Diggins another 49.1 seconds later in third (+1:01.4).
Weng, who is currently second in the overall Tour standings, 32.8 seconds behind Østberg in first with four stages to go, told FIS that the race was “very hard for everybody”, but she was pleased with her ability to ski hard on the uphills and flats. For most of the race, she looked like Weng was giving it everything she had — as was Diggins — and Weng ended up with the third-fastest time of day. Austria’s Teresa Stadlober posted the fastest 10 k time in 26:20.6, which put her in 12th at the finish after she started 29th. Weng was 22.5 seconds slower and Østberg 27.5 seconds off that time with the fourth-fastest time of day.
In her third race in as many days, Østberg said she felt tired out of the start on Monday.
“Already after one hundred meters, my legs were tired, but I fight, fight, fight all the way,” she told German broadcaster ZDF. “And I managed to reach the finish first, it was a great feeling.”
This marked Østberg’s third win of the season — all of which have come in Switzerland (she won the Davos 10 k freestyle on Dec. 10). Four years ago, she won her first World Cup race in Lenzerheide in a freestyle sprint.
“In Davos and here in Lenzerheide I had some of my best races, so Switzerland is a good place for me to race,” she told ZDF.
Then there was Diggins, who continued the U.S. Ski Team (USST) streak of landing on the podium over three consecutive days.
“Today my plan was to go out hard and ski a gutsy race, and try to put some time into the girls behind me,” she wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It’s sometimes hard to be skiing alone but I actually loved it because I could just put my head down, hammer, and do my thing!”
Within the first kilometer, she had already put a few more seconds into Bjornsen in fourth place. Meanwhile, Bjornsen, 13 seconds behind Diggins, worked to shake off Nepryaeva.
“Starting in 4th was a pretty exciting position, and even a bit terrifying,” Bjornsen wrote in a mass email to media outlets. “It was my goal to try to catch Jessie, and ski with her, but I knew I needed to get it done in the first kilometer, because she was going to be on a mission. I got darn close, but not quite close enough. I could tell right away I was going to be on a solo mission, and needed to really push hard to stay ahead of the group working together behind me.”
The group she was referring to included Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen and Krista Pärmäkoski. Toward the end of the first lap at 3.3 k, they had distanced themselves from a nine-woman chase group led by Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, of which Caldwell was a part of. After dropping Nepryaeva on the first lap, Bjornsen had the two Finns and the crew behind them to worry about.
“I managed to stay ahead until literally the last downhill, and got passed by Krista, so lost one place, but I left the day pretty satisfied,” Bjornsen wrote after finishing fifth in a three-way battle with Pärmäkoski and Niskanen for fourth place. Pärmäkoski took it, passing Bjornsen in the last few hundred meters and leading her and Niskanen, respectively, into the finishing straight. Pärmäkoski crossed the line in fourth, 29 seconds after Diggins and 1:45.9 after Østberg, while Bjornsen was another 0.3 seconds back in fifth (+1:46.2) and Niskanen finished 0.4 seconds later in sixth (+1:46.6). Behind them, Jacobsen finished seventh (+1:59.9), Fessel eighth (+2:00.3), the Czech Republic’s Petra Novakova ninth (+2:01.0), and Germany’s Sandra Ringwald 10th (+2:11.3).
“It required digging darn deep those last kilometers,” Bjornsen wrote. “I was feeling pretty good for the first lap, but started to really burn for the last two. I’m really looking forward to a day off, and then some classic sprinting! Sounds like it will be darn wet and rainy, but it will be fun.”
Heading into the fourth stage of the TdS, Wednesday’s classic sprints in Oberstdorf, Germany, Diggins is third overall,1:26.9 minutes out of first, Parmakoski is up to fourth (+2:00.9; after starting Monday’s race in eighth), and Bjornsen is positioned in fifth (+2:01.2), just ahead of Niskanen in sixth (+2:01.6).
“It’s really fun to be in podium position right now in the tour, but my plan as always is to just take it one day at a time and focus on each stage separately,” Diggins wrote. “If I can give my best effort each day, hopefully it all adds up well!
“I was really proud of our wax tech team because the past two races have been extremely tricky waxing conditions with varying snow all over the course,” Diggins added. “It was hard to pick skis but my tech Cork was so calm and collected and got me through the pre-race testing!”
Despite not planning to finish the Tour, Caldwell is sitting in a respectful 18th overall (+3:14.2) after finishing 18th in Monday’s race, 2:59.2 behind Østberg.
“10km skates tend to be the hardest discipline for me, and although today wasn’t anything to write home about, it also wasn’t a disaster, so I was pretty happy with it!” Caldwell wrote.
She started seventh, 1:32 back, at the same time as Niskanen in bib 6. Parmakoski started 3 seconds behind them and the three immediately formed a group, with Caldwell leading the first kilometer.
“For some reason out of the start Kerttu just pulled to the side and made me lead, which I thought was interesting since both she and Krista are much better distance skiers than I am,” Caldwell wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “But anyway, I was totally fine taking the lead, but I wasn’t going to push the pace leading, so I just skied a chill pace until they decided to take back over coming through the stadium. The chase pack caught us pretty quickly, which I was actually excited about because the Finns’ pace was a little too hot for me once they picked it up and the chase group was skiing a pace that felt quite comfortable for me for a lap or so.”
With racers like Jacobsen and Germany’s Nicole Fessel leading the large chase pack for much of the race, Caldwell hung in the group for about 5 k in the middle of the race. But with one lap to go, she lost contact and found herself fighting for 18th.
“The pace was definitely picked up at the beginning of the third lap and I started to get tired then, but I just tried to keep my skis gliding and focus on getting to the finish line,” she wrote. “It was cool for me because often I feel like those skate races are red lining it from the start for me, and today I felt in control for two laps and had a pretty fun time with it!
“I’m really happy with how my tour has gone so far,” Caldwell continued. “I had one of my best sprints ever and one of my best distance races ever, so no complaints there! I feel healthy, fit, and happy and it’s given my confidence a good boost.”
“The vibe is pretty amazing among our team right now,” Bjornsen wrote. “To have a podium every day of the Tour is pretty exciting! It’s fun to see things really come together for everyone. I think there is more to come!”
Asked if this was in line with what the U.S. team was expecting for a start to the Tour, USST Head Coach Chris Grover said it surpassed expectations, but wasn’t unanticipated.
“There was some opportunity in this field this year with [Sweden’s Charlotte] Kalla and Stina Nilsson not starting, with [Norway’s Marit] Bjørgen and Ragnhild Haga not starting, for example, so that left some opportunity for some of the other women to have some breakthrough results,” he said on the phone. “But at the same time, the women that have been on the podium from the U.S.A. the last three days have been on the podium this year or in past years and have been kind of knocking on the door of those results…
“Overall it’s a better start to the Tour than we could’ve wished for,” he later added. “It’s been really exciting to see a podium from a different woman on the team each day. I think once we get to Oberstdorf there’s going to be fresh opportunities for all those women once again to reach the podium. I’m just hoping that right now that everybody can stay healthy, get some good rest, and really look forward to seeing what they can do in the next couple stages.”
With four stages to go, the U.S. has six women in the Tour, with Liz Stephen improving to 31st on Monday (up from 37th at the start), Rosie Brennan maintaining her overall place in 33rd, and Ida Sargent in 55th (down from 31st at the start).
“I was hoping to make up some more places and thought getting into the top 30 was doable. But last lap I lost a little steam and couldn’t keep up my pace,” Stephen wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
En route to the 26th-fastest course time, Stephen picked off four places between 3.3 and 4.3 k.
“The race started really fast, as usual for the World Cup, so I try to be patient and bank on people coming back to me, which they did after about a lap,” she wrote. “I was focused on making up time consistently around the whole course and not just killing myself on the uphills. However the second 1/2 of the course was a lot of climbing so I focused on those sections and tried to get in peoples drafts for the long downhill into the stadium.”
Now in 31st overall, she is 4:22.7 out of first. Brennan is another 10 seconds back in 33rd (+4:32.9).
“I am happy to have scored my first points of the year yesterday in a classic race on very icy, scary conditions, which is not my strong suit, and then again have a top 30 performance,” Stephen continued, referring to her 28th place in Sunday’s 10 k classic. “My year has certainly started slower than I wanted it to, but the Tour is always a good way for me to get a lot of racing in a short period of time and bring my fitness up. So, every day I focus on making a few more spots and look forward to Alp Cermis!”
While Sargent is fighting illness and had initially planned to withdraw from the Tour after Stage 4 or 5 in Oberstdorf (to focus on the World Cup sprints after the Tour), Stephen and Brennan intended to finish it.
“I know Ida is kind of feeling on edge … I know she was kind of a questionable start for yesterday’s classic race so we’ll see what happens with her going into Oberstdorf,” Grover said.
He described Kikkan Randall’s foot injury as one that’s crept up over time that and doesn’t involve a stress fracture.
“She is planning on starting in Dresden right now, both in the sprint and the team sprint so I think she’ll continue to be somewhat selective with the races she chooses,” he said of Randall resuming her season with the next regular-season World Cup races Jan. 13-14 in Dresden, Germany. “She may or may not go at all to Planica [Slovenia, Jan. 20-21], since those are two classic races, but she will for sure race in Seefeld [Austria, Jan. 27-28], where there’s two skate races. So right now her plan is, keep trying to make progress with the foot, get it healthy, be ready to race in Dresden, be ready to race in Seefeld, be ready to race at the Games.”
— Harald Zimmer contributed
*Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff, the Stage 1 skate-sprint winner, crashed out of contention in Saturday’s 10 k classic, and finished 35th to put herself 16th overall in the TdS heading into Stage 3.
“…I skied out into the deep snow, I had problems to brake at all and went straight ahead and unfortunately crashed and lost quite a few seconds there,” she told Swiss broadcaster SRF, according to a translation. “Otherwise I felt good. It was a special race, a bit more attention on me than usual, but it was cool, I am still happy about yesterday. Aside from my crash I enjoyed it. My nose is pretty banged up. … It really hurts.”