Jessie Diggins (CXC/USST) has her eyes set on bigger and better things down the road, but that has not stopped her from turning in an impressive series of races in West Yellowstone.
On a cold, sunny morning in Montana, Diggins hammered through the 5km classic race in a time of 14:58.2, good for a 13.7 second victory over Kate Fitzgerald (APU).
Jennie Bender (CXC) concluded the opening SuperTour weekend with another strong race, taking third, just .9 seconds in back of Fitzgerald.
With a win in the classic sprint on Wednesday and today’s victory, Diggins has erased an idea that she is a stronger skater. Skiing with her characteristic bounce, she built a commanding lead on the now-familiar 5k West Yellowstone loop.
The single lap allowed for racers to attack the big climbs with an intensity that would hve had dire consequences in Friday’s two lap 10k.
Second place finisher Fitzgerald said of the shorter distance, “I feel like you can be way more aggressive about going out and staying at an aggressive pace.”
She continued, “good course to keep pressing—not too much rest. Lots of work out there.”
With temperatures dropping below zero Fahrenheit overnight, the classic tracks were rock solid and kick straightforward.
Diggins, who said she felt “pretty good,” today, described her kick as “bomber,” noting that she could kick all the way up steepest pitch on Telemark Hill, one of the two big climbs on the course.
Fitzgerald, who broke out with a victory, a third and two fifths last season in West Yellowstone, continued to make her mark as one of the top domestic skiers in the US.
She ended the week with a second, third, fifth and seventh.
“It felt so much better than yesterday,” Fitzgerald told FasterSkier. “I felt like I had more power. We have been here five days now, so the hemoglobin is going up.”
The APU team trains at sea-level in Anchorage, Alaska, so the transition in West is significant. The fourth day at altitude is often one of the worst, but day five can mark a shift as the body adjusts.
Bender, another “lowlander” racing for CXC in the Midwest bounced back from a subpar skate race where she finished 18th to earn her second podium of the week.
“I felt really strong,” Bender said. “I feel like my classic has improved in the last year quite a bit.”
That was evident as both her top-3’s came in the classic events—Bender took 2nd in the classic sprint (and was a not-so-shabby ninth in the skate sprint).
And like Diggins, she raved about her kick. When asked about Telemark Hill, she responded “I felt like I took that much better than in the sprint. I had to hop out of the track then, and I was able to stride the whole thing, so I was happy about that.”
DeYong currently sits in fifth in the overall SuperTour standings after finishing no worse than fifth in the four races. The long-time SVSEF skier has shifted focus a little, working a job in a local hospital in addition to training, but is clearly still pursuing skiing at a high level.
Less than four seconds off the podium today, Rorabuagh improved in every race in West.
“I keep setting these goals,” she told FasterSkier. “Yesterday my goal was to do better than the day before, and I did better by one place. So I said ‘I need to set a more aggressive goal’. I said top-5 and today I got 5th so It worked out pretty well.”
Like her teammate Fitzgerald, Rorabaugh felt much better at altitude today.
“This whole morning I was pretty sure it was going to happen [a strong race]. Partly because I woke up feeling so much better, being more acclimated on our fifth day.”
Even for those adjusted to the elevation, the course poses plenty of challenges. Many skiers found the seemingly endless gradual terrain the most challenging.
Rorabuagh actually was relieved to get to the big climbs.
“Getting to the big climb in the middle of the outer loop is a relief and it’s awesome and a lot of fun,” she said.
“The climbs don’t feel that different from sea level,” she explained. “You are used to going into oxygen debt on climbs. The part where it hurts is afterward when you don’t recover.”
Diggins concludes the four-race West Yellowstone swing with two victories, two seconds and a solid lead in the SuperTour standings. But with a berth on the US Ski Team (USST) in hand, and a plan to head to the World Cup in mid-January, the twenty-year-old is more interested in gaining experience and improving her skiing then specific results goals.
With four of seven first-period SuperTour races in the books, Diggins stands a good chance of holding the coveted overall leader’s bib after the opening block of races come to a close in Bozeman next weekend.
The top man and woman in the standings earn a World Cup start spots for December, but Diggins will take a pass, even with travel expenses covered by FIS.
According to USST coach Matt Whitcomb, Diggins will stick to the plan and continue to race domestically through US Nationals before heading to Europe.
Diggins told FasterSkier that because of her age and relative lack of experience, she wasn’t in a place to be “chasing points,” instead focusing on the long term.
This means that if Diggins maintains her 26-point lead over Caitlin Gregg (CXC) the World Cup start spot will go unused.
Gregg had another strong day today, following up her third in the 10k freestyle with a sixth. Traditionally stronger in the skate technique, Gregg was less than nine seconds out of second place.
Fitzgerald sits third in the overall standings, eight points behind Gregg. It would take a major downturn or an illness to derail Diggins in Bozeman, but with points frontloaded, there is plenty of room for changes in the rankings.
While it varies by team, the general plan for the American skiers is to race the Bozeman SuperTours, then head to SilverStar for the opening NorAm races, but then disperse for home and some rest before US Nationals.
This means that the Rossland NorAm will not feature as robust an American contingent as last year.
Next weekend’s races in Bozeman include a freestyle sprint qualifier-only, a 5km freestyle individual start, and a 15km classic mass start.
– Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.