Liz Stephen had no illusions of winning the final climb up the Alpe Cermis in Italy today. So having the second-fastest time in the final stage of the Tour de Ski, a nine-kilometer point-to-point that gained over 1,350 feet of elevation, left her perfectly happy.
“I think Johaug clear and away is the best climber I’ve ever seen in my whole life, so I didn’t have expectations to win the day, but I did want to get on the podium,” the American told FasterSkier from the slopes of the alpine ski hill after the race. “So this is really exciting.”
Stephen finished 39.5 seconds behind Therese Johaug of Norway, who surprised nobody by winning the day (though not the Tour), and her exploits moved her from 22nd to 15th in the overall Tour de Ski standings. It was inarguably the highlight of the day for the American team.
“We’re psyched to be done, we’re psyched to be in the sun, and we’re really psyched that Liz was on the podium today!” Kikkan Randall said.
It was “an exceptional day, for sure,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier.
Randall started the day in the best position – seventh – and finished as the top American as well, in 12th place. She told FasterSkier that she was happy with her overall placing, but that she hadn’t been able to do what she wanted on the climb: to hang in there with a pack on the worst of the uphill, and find another gear over the top.
“I kind of missed my goals a little bit, but still put in a good effort and it was still a good Tour for me,” she said. “I still have some work to do on this final climb.”
Randall started in a group where each skier was separated by a few seconds, and quickly joined with the others on the initial flat part of the course. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden did much of the leading, followed by Astrid Jacobsen of Norway, Krista Lahteenmaki of Finland, and Randall; another Finn, Anne Kylloenen, started further behind but caught on.
As they rolled through the flats, it seemed like these five skiers would be fighting for fourth place. The podium was unattainable, over a minute ahead of them. But then they hit the beginning of the climb.
“It felt like a really weird transition,” Randall said. “I went from being right there and on them, and then they started to pull away and the climb started. I made a big effort to get on to them in hopes that I could latch onto them on the climb, and I just need to work on mentally being able to make that transition into the steeps a little better… I tried to spark things a little bit, but I would say I was definitely in survival mode.”
It has still been a strong Tour for Randall, who won the opening prologue as well as the skate sprint. Despite all that, she lost two places from last year, when she finished tenth.
Chasing Towards The Top
But today was about Stephen, who has had fast times in both winter and summer climbing races in the past few years. She, Jessie Diggins, and Holly Brooks all started in a wave seven minutes after the first woman, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland. While Brooks knew going into the race that she was tired – and then broke a pole, ending illusions of sticking with her teammates – it seemed possible that both Diggins and Stephen could have among the top times of the day.
“Basically the gameplan was to control the wave start, and Jessie took it out hot in the beginning and blocked wind for Liz,” Whitcomb explained in an interview. “They switched off a little bit back and forth, then an Italian took over, and Liz was able to break away. By the time they got to the climb they had swallowed up a couple of athletes, including the third-place climber last year, [Valentina Shevchenko of Ukraine]. So they knew they were moving well by the base of the climb.”
According to Diggins, there was one other tactical advantage of leading the wave start.
“My teammates warned me that the stretch of trail from the stadium to the base of Cermis was super narrow and really only one skier wide, so I got right out in front and me, Liz, an Italian and French girl all took turns leading,” she wrote in an e-mail. “That really made a difference, too – drafting was so much easier than when it was your turn to pull! But we worked together and made up time before the base of the climb.”
Then, Stephen said, “the strategy was just go.” Unlike most skiers, she doesn’t really dread the climb.
“It’s always hard to go up a mountain, I can see why most people want to go down, but it’s amazing how you don’t suffer that much when you feel good,” she laughed. “Of course it’s hard, but it’s a way harder experience when you’re feeling bad, going up a mountain, than when you’re feeling good. I wouldn’t call it a sufferfest. I’d call it a hammerfest, for me. “
Stephen did have one misstep, caused in part by changes in the layout of the course.
“It was way more switchback-y this year than last year,” she said. “And I actually went the wrong way at one point and went missing a couple of gates, and had to ski down and around. But it was fine. I missed maybe eight seconds – it wasn’t a minute, not like, ‘I would have beat Johaug if I hadn’t gone the wrong way!’ More like a, ‘Damn it, damn it!’”
At the top, all was well and Stephen was happy to be on the podium and pleased with her overall performance.
“I went into the Tour wanting to get a top ten, but I’m very, very happy with a top 15. It’s better than last year by nine places, so I’m very happy with my 15th.”
As for Diggins – the only one of the American women who has never raced the Tour before, and didn’t know what was coming at her with this whole Alpe Cermis business – she just tried to do the best she could.
“I’d watched the race video from last year to get a feel for what the hill looked like, but the cameras show the athletes coming up, it doesn’t show what it looks like from the viewpoint of the person actually racing,” she wrote. “So although I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, I definitely had one of those ‘Oh-my-gosh-where-IS-the-finish-line????’ moments out there!
She finished not far behind Stephen, looking as exhausted as only she is capable of becoming and lying in the snow for a long time after crossing the line in 21st overall; Diggins had the 20th-fastest time of the day.
“Wow, Cermis was really, really tough,” she wrote. “This was definitely the hardest race series I’ve ever done! And it feels so great to have completed it healthy and in one piece. I am so proud of my teammates and all the staff for such a positive and energetic ride through all the stages – because that was the most fun I’ve had on the World Cup yet!”
Brooks finished 38th, one spot better than last season; for more from her, stay tuned for a separate piece tomorrow.
Along with the women, Whitcomb was soaking up the atmosphere on the side of the mountain waiting for the men’s race to get underway.
“I feel really good,” he said. “Everything revolves around results in February, and we’re sitting here on a sunny day, at the end of the Tour, at the World Championships venue, and we’ve got a week to train here. So things are looking good.”
He didn’t think that the Tour took too much out of his team – at least, not too much to overcome. The team has a required recovery block for anyone who competed in the Tour, and he said that they would not be contesting the next World Cups.
“We basically use the Tour as an event to target great results, but also as a way for preparing for World Championships,” Whitcomb said. “It’s certainly exhausting, but it also triggers the body to adapt to a higher level of performance. So as long as we are able to recover after this event, then we’ve had good preparation for World Championships. And if that works, maybe for Sochi next year.”
And, in terms of World Championships, the Tour has been a valuable learning experience. While the women’s energy was good for the mass start classic race yesterday, Whitcomb wasn’t satisfied with the team’s preparations, and says he now knows they need to do better. But other than that, the venue preview was a success.
“I would say these are exceptional courses for our team,” he explained. “They’re really hard. Six significant hills per 5 k lap on what will be the women’s 10 k skate course, and some other courses. What we skied yesterday was exactly what the women will ski in the 10 k skate.”
Before the women can even think of that, though, they’re going to get some much-needed rest and recovery.
“We’re all kind of on different plans,” Stephen said of the upcoming week. “Kikkan is going to go train in France for a while and take Jeff [Ellis, her husband] with her for the week. Holly is going to go see friends over near Venice for this week. And I’m just going to hang out in Predazzo, maybe take some day trips and check out the area, and just chill the heck out for a little while. There’s a lot of recovery that needs to happen for all of us.
“But first we’re going to drink some prosecco.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.