With the conclusion of the 9 k classic pursuit and the second Tour de Ski stage in Oberhof, Germany, three American women sit in the top 30 of the overall standings. Kikkan Randall, following an impressive win in the prologue, leads the way in 14th, 1:48.3 seconds behind Tour leader Justyna Kowalczyk (POL). Liz Stephen ranks 23rd (+2:29.6) and Holly Brooks sits just behind her in 25th (+2:34.2). After falling in the prologue, Jessie Diggins moved up 12 places to reach 50th at the end of the pursuit (+4:04.6).
The U.S. women, whose wildly successful early season results include an historic relay podium, a sprint relay win and a handful of individual podiums and personal-bests in sprint and distance, have kept right on rolling.
“It’s been really fun so far,” Randall said on Saturday after winning the prologue. “When we came into the season and had some good results those opening weekends, especially with the whole team skiing strong, we really felt a lot of encouragement and momentum from the U.S. ski community.
“Then to be racing in Quebec, where so many American fans came out to watch, that was super cool. We carried that into Canmore and it’s like a snowball, it just keeps rolling. We’re definitely feeling a lot of support and I’m glad we have a lot of people waking up early to see ski racing.”
Randall slid to 14th on Sunday — “I still need to find that spark in my classic skiing,” she says — but felt that overall she had a decent second stage. A skate sprint is next on the schedule in Val Müstair, Switzerland, where sixty bonus seconds are awarded to the sprint stage winner. Depending on how Randall does relative to the women ranked in front of her, she stands a good chance of gaining back time in her strongest event.
Behind Randall, Brooks too is also having a good run, and began with a stellar prologue on Saturday in eleventh. Hold that up against where she was this time last year, gritting her way through nine stages with a broken wrist, and Brooks is able to ski on a whole different level.
“I was really surprised with my result — elated and relieved actually,” Brooks wrote in an email after the prologue. “I’ve been feeling crummy for a while — tired in Canmore and then dealing with heavy legs since arriving in Oberhof Christmas Eve.”
The slushy conditions worked to her advantage, and with some good strategic instruction from her coach Brooks turned around the sluggish feeling to produce her second-best World Cup result ever.
“I got some really good advice…from Erik Flora. He said, ‘The prologue is a lot like running the mile: first quarter find the pace, second quarter be patient and fast, third quarter make the race, last quarter hold on and kick for the finish’… I was able to ‘ski into the race’ rather than go out hard and messy, and then die towards the end,” Brooks said.
In the 9 k classic the following day Brooks had a harder time hitting her stride and finished the pursuit in 25th. The soft, warm conditions were difficult for many and caused much of the field to herring bone up the hills as the course broke down with each lap.
“More practice on Eagle Glacier needed, I suppose!” Brooks concluded. “I had hoped to finish top 20 today but 25th is right in there and my goal was to minimize the time loss.”
Brooks’ goal is to finish the Tour in the top 20 and collect as many distance points as possible in order to finish Period 2 in the Red Group if she can.
Stephen, in her first two races back on the circuit in almost a month, raced similarly well between the first two Oberhof stages. She opened with a 21st in the prologue and lost only two places in the pursuit.
“It is great to be back on my feet again after having had to sit out in Canmore due to illness,” Stephen wrote in an email on Saturday. “It is always a good reminder after being sick or tired or not yourself how good it feels to have energy back again and be able to be a positive part of the team. Being healthy is so dang fun. Man oh man. And the Tour de Ski is my favorite event as well so I’m pretty fired up.”
Stephen’s goal over the next five races is to finish the Tour in the top ten and she’s off to a solid start so far. Her strongest chances will be in the remaining distance races, and if she is in good position by the time the Tour reaches the Alpe Cermis, watch out.
Diggins, in her first career Tour appearance, had an unfortunate fall in the opening prologue on Saturday that put her at a 1:02 deficit going into the pursuit. “I crashed near the top of the course’s only big hill and spun around twice so I lost all my momentum and recovery time,” she said.
Ever positive, Diggins saw the silver lining in the mishap. “Now the pressure is off for the Tour and I get to do what I like best — hunt places without stress or expectations! In a way it’s a blessing in disguise and a good chance to practice the power of having a positive mindset and being able to look forwards, not back.”
Which is exactly what she did, picking up twelve places in the pursuit. Like Stephen, Diggins was sick in Canmore and has been off the race skis for longer than usual. Though she was happy to have moved up, she was also hoping for more. Her skis, like so many others in the slushy snow, failed to grip up most of the climbs.
“Ski selection didn’t go the way I had hoped and I definitely should have done a better job of getting more kick since I herringboned about half the uphills,” Diggins said. “But that is classic racing — you need to be able to hit all the variables just right.”
She added that other parts of her race went well, namely staying on her feet. “I was able to stay calm and relaxed through the chaos of everyone starting so close together, and skied the downhills the way I wanted to,” Diggins said.
— Matti Rowe contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.