Maybe it was because she wanted redress. Maybe it was because there was less pressure to perform. Or maybe it was because the yellow Tour de Ski (TDS) leader’s bib was with Sweden, calling her Norwegian name.
Whatever it was, when Ingvild Flugstad Østberg lined up for the women’s 5-kilometer classic mass start on Sunday in Val Müstair, Switzerland, she was ready to race for the win.
After being eliminated in the semifinal of Saturday’s freestyle sprint, the 26-year-old turned the lost chance at a podium into an opportunity to prove her place as a top contender.
“I was irritated with myself after yesterday,” Østberg told NRK.
“Such a result sometimes makes you give your best,” she added, according to a International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
Wearing bib 5, Østberg had her Norwegian teammates, Maiken Caspersen Falla in bib 2, Heidi Weng in bib 3, and Kathrine Rolsted Harsem in bib 4, as well as the Stage 1 TDS leader, Stina Nilsson to chase down.
That didn’t stop Østberg from rallying to the front off the gun, leading the mass of skiers through the first lap, with Weng just behind. As the women started their second lap of the 2.5 k course, a gap began forming between the Norwegians and a second front group, Nilsson and Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski.
Moving up through the pack into the top 10 by lap one was Finland’s Anne Kyllönen, who started in bib 29, as well as her Finnish teammate Laura Mononen, who started in bib 19.
Switzerland’s Nadine Fähndrich, who started in bib 15, had also joined the front chase group, along with her Swiss teammate Laurien van der Graaff (bib 7). Just behind the Swiss duo was American Jessie Diggins (bib 6) positioned in eighth. Diggins’s U.S. Ski Team (USST) teammate Sadie Bjornsen, who had started in bib 21, had burned her way up to ninth.
Bjornsen’s hot start, however, didn’t last. The American began to fade, falling back into the low 20’s and eventually just outside of the points in 35th, where she ended the day.
“I was behind Nadine [Fähndrich] and Laurien [van der Graaff] and picked the innermost track, so in principle the best lane, and exactly on that lane Bjornsen bonked, totally, she couldn’t move anymore,” Switzerland’s Natalie von Siebenthal said during a television interview. “And I couldn’t get past left or right. Then the other athletes started to go by on my left.”
USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb explained that hard start was part of Bjornsen’s plan. The way her body reacted was not.
“She took it out aggressively, which we told her to do and is always encouraged to do and just didn’t feel good today,” Whitcomb said on the phone after Sunday’s race.
Bjornsen explained that while the result was not what she hoped for, she is ready to move forward with no weight on her shoulders.
“Today was a day to forget and refocus,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I had a strong start, and felt great, but felt like I was working extra hard with some potentially slow skis. As soon as I crossed the red line, I wasn’t able to recover as I was hoping, and suffered a pretty bad explosion … Now I am focused on the next two events in Germany, and will hopefully find the good shape I know I am capable of!”
Maintaining position was the name of game for the remainder of the race for those still in the top 10, with Diggins sticking to her spot in eighth and Østberg holding off any attack attempts from Weng.
“I’ve been struggling a bit with the high altitude here,” Weng said according to a FIS press release. “Before the race I was afraid about the downhills but I’m happy I did not fall.”
While Weng was able to avoid any crashes, American Kikkan Randall was not so lucky. Though she had been skiing around 15th for most of the first lap, after starting in bib 17, she fell and had to make her way back into the top 20.
“My shape feels a lot better and sharper than it did in period one of World Cup,” Randall wrote in an email to several media outlets. “Really pumped to feel my race gears coming around and loving the chance to race, race, race!”
“It was so cool to watch an athlete have a breakthrough like that,” Whitcomb said of Randall’s performance. “To start off the Tour with two good races in the points, we all feel really good about that and the team is really proud of her.”
Eventually, with a close to 20-meter gap, Østberg finished first for the win in 13:21.2 minutes. Weng claimed second place, seven seconds back, while third went to Pärmäkoski who finished 11.4 seconds after Østberg.
Diggins crossed 32.6 seconds after Østberg for eighth.
“It was tricky to pace and if I could do it again I would have paced it slightly differently, but I was happy with my skis and I’m chipping away at that striding technique!” Diggins wrote in an email. “Overall I think I’m in a solid place for the tour and I’m really looking forward to the next set of races!”
Randall was the second American after Diggins in 15th (+42.4) followed by Bjornsen, who placed 35th (+1:02.6) in a photo finish with Slovenia’s Petra Novakova. Also racing for the U.S., Sophie Caldwell placed 38th (+1:09.4), Rosie Brennan 39th (+1:10.5), and Liz Stephen 44th (+1:21.2).
“There’s not a whole lot of movement that’s possible in a 5 k classic mass start … when you’re starting out of the top 20,” Whitcomb said. “Rosie and Liz were fighting from the back. … For their position in the start, I thought they skied phenomenally.”
As the USST makes its way to Oberstdorf, Germany, for the third and fourth stages of the Tour — a 10 k skiathlon and 10 k freestyle pursuit — Whitcomb remains positive of where the U.S. women are currently positioned. Diggins currently sits in sixth in the overall Tour standings, 1:01 minutes behind Østberg, Randall 15th (+1:45.9) and Bjornsen 25th (+2:05.4). Caldwell, who is ranked 22nd overall (+2:03.3), planned to withdraw from the Tour after Sunday. Brennan in is 41st (+2:33.1) and Stephen 46th (+2:49.9).
“We don’t put any specific goals or demands for any athlete on any one particular race,” Whitcomb explained. “What we try and do is link together as many quality races in a row as we can. If you can string together a bunch of decent days, and then pop one great one, it can move you way up in the tour.”
Østberg now leads the Tour followed by Weng 10.3 seconds back in second and Nilsson in third (+23.8).
–– Aleks Tangen and Harald Zimmer contributed