Ingvild Flugstad Østberg outshone her fellow Norwegians in Tuesday’s freestyle sprint race in stage 3 of the Tour de Ski. Setting the fastest qualifying time around the 1.5 k course, she continually proved her speed throughout the day to seize the coveted red leaders bib of the Tour.
Stage 3 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, was a repeat of last Sunday’s race format in Oberhof, Germany. Unlike Oberhof, however, the course was firm and wide, quite different from last Sunday’s slushy and narrow trails in Germany. Temperatures were warm at 39 degrees Fahrenheit, but the snow was cool and compact. The course consisted of two 750 meter loops around the open stadium with one relatively gradual climb that steepened at the end and a descent back to the stadium, where a long final straightaway to the line allowed plenty of space for moves to be made in the final approach to finish.
The women’s quarterfinals kicked off with Østberg of Norway, in bib number one as the fastest qualifier, easily leading the heat to win the heat with Germany’s Hanna Kolb in second.
The second heat featured local favorite Laurien Van Der Graaf of Switzerland leading the first lap of the race until the Norwegian duo of Astrid Jacobsen and Heidi Weng pushed ahead on the final climb. Van Der Graaf had the strongest finish, however, and took the race back from the Norwegians at the last moment, with Weng in second and Jacobsen in third. It was quick heat with Jacobsen taking a lucky loser spot in the quarterfinal.
The third heat featured US skier Jessie Diggins. Getting a slow start, she wasn’t able to make a move in a race that was dominated by Germany’s Denise Herrmann, who won it well ahead of France’s Aurore Jean in second.
Heat four saw Italy’s 21 year old Greta Laurent lead the group from start to finish with America’s Sophie Caldwell skiing carefully behind her to finish second. Caldwell made a strong effort at the finish to pass Laurent, but finished just .06 seconds behind her.
The final quarterfinal heat was something of a group of death with Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek, Sunday’s sprint winner Hanna Erikson of Sweden, and the always quick Gaia Vuerich of Italy. The Germans Katrin Zeller and Stefanie Boehler rounded out the group.
Vuerich was the early leader, with Erikson hanging in behind her. Cebasek took over the front of the heat on the first downhill, before Erikson slipped past her and led the climb on the second lap with Vuerich following to finish in that order. Bjørgen was unable to keep up with the pace on the second lap and fell well behind. Starting the day as the leader of the Tour de Ski, Bjørgen appeared very disappointed, fighting off tears as she left the stadium.
The first semifinal began with Van Der Graaf taking the lead until the second lap, when Østberg skied ahead of her as they rounded the corner into the stadium. As the course began it’s second climb up the hill, Jacobsen took over the lead, with Østberg following and Van Der Graaf in third. As the racers came down the final hill and into the stadium it appeared to be Jacobsen’s race, but tiring at the end, she was passed by a hard charging Østberg and Van Der Graaf, with Jacobsen finishing in third and Kolb in fourth. Luckily for Jacobsen and Kolb the heat was fast, and they both moved on to the final in lucky loser positions.
The second semifinal was led early on by Finland’s Anne Kylloenen, a lucky loser, with Vuerich, Erikson, and Caldwell behind her. On the second lap, Caldwell made a push for the front on the climb and found herself in second place as the heat tucked down the last hill. Caldwell’s skis were clearly fast as she steadily gained ground on Kylloenen, finally overtaking her at the bottom of the hill as they rounded the corner into the stadium. Caldwell skied into the finish to win her semifinal heat with Herrmann overtaking Kylloenen at the end for second, and the Finn in third.
In the women’s final heat Østberg made a move right from the gun, taking the lead for the first lap with fellow teammate Jacobsen skiing right in behind her. On the start of the second lap Jacobsen moved ahead of Østberg and Van Der Graaf, with Herrmann and Caldwell following. On the final downhill it appeared that Jacobsen had successfully managed to stretch the race out with her charge up the last climb, as each skier had a sizeable gap between each other on the descent.
The race was not yet decided though, and on the finally straightaway it became close again with Østberg battling her way ahead and a late sprint from Herrmann brought her up the front as well. Østberg’s power at the end proved to be just enough to win the day, nicking her teammate Jacobsen by a toe to win with a time of 2:58. Jacobsen was second, .10 seconds behind, with Herrmann third, .80 seconds behind Østberg. Van Der Graaf, Kolb, and Caldwell finished the final in that order.
It was a big day for Østberg, she notched her first ever World Cup win while also taking the leader’s bib in the Tour de Ski and second place for the sprint competition. She appeared thrilled with her victory and told FIS after the race, “I felt really good and strong the whole day. I am so surprised and happy to win and to be the Tour leader.”
Østberg told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet that she has no intention of getting an early bedtime tonight ahead of tomorrow’s 10 k classic race. “It’s probably someone who settles before midnight tonight, but it will at least not be me. I have always been up to midnight on New Year ‘s Eve and there will be no exception tonight. I should use it to digest everything that happened today” she said.
The result has been a long time in the making for Østberg, who excelled as a Junior but has been slow to find success on the World Cup level, at least by Norwegian standards as she has been overshadowed by her illustrious teammates.
“I have been patient and developed every year. I managed to improve my performance every winter, but it may not have always been easy to see, for there have always been some Norwegian who has been better than me” She told Dagbladet.
Herrmann, finishing in third, is now the Tour de Ski sprint leader, and she told German TV broadcaster ZDF after the race, surprised, “Wow, that was enough for the podium again.”
Sophie Caldwell delivered another breakthrough performance today, reaching the final heat of a World Cup sprint for the first time after winning her semifinal heat, an achievement deemed huge by Head US National Team Coach Chris Grover. She finished sixth in the final heat and Grover explained that exhaustion played its part. “In the final she just ran out of steam, she skied great all day, skied technically well, she made smart moves out there, she just ran out of gas in the A final, and that’s just because she’s a little bit younger and still developing. She’s going to be a big name for the future.”
Caldwell discussed her race in an email with FasterSkier, highlighting her growing confidence and experience. “I’m getting more and more confident in my qualifiers, especially skating, and that feels really good…knowing that I can qualify if I have a decent day is definitely a boost of confidence.” She has also become savvier tactically. “In Oberhof I learned that I can conserve a lot of energy by following and leading usually isn’t the best strategy for me at this point. In both my quarter and semi, I settled into second place in the inside lane and tried to hold my own.
“I felt awesome in my semifinal, I don’t know what got into me there! I had talked a bunch of strategy with the coaches, especially about positioning with that final corner. I thought that I might be able to pick up a place or two by pushing not only over the top of the hill, but a little ways down the hill. I believe I was in 2nd over the top, and I pushed hard and my plan worked! I came into the corner first, so I was able to guard the inside and pick my lane into the finish.”
As for the final heat she said, “I’d like to say I made a tactical error out there, but I simply just got tired. I actually had one pretty decent move that put me into a good position coming around the lap, but then it was downhill (figuratively) and uphill (literally) after that.” Caldwell added that, ” I don’t think I could wipe the smile off my face after the final, even after I was exhausted and got a very solid last place.”
Like many of the other sprinters on the Tour, tomorrow will be Caldwell’s last race. “I’m going to race tomorrow and apparently I’m sitting in 6th for the Tour now, so that will be pretty cool to be on the front line for the mass start! I’m going to drop out of the Tour after tomorrow and rest up and spend some time with my family for a few days. After that, it’s back to the World Cup for a little eastern European section and then we’ll start to gear up for Sochi!”
Likewise, tomorrow’s classic race will be Østberg’s last day on the Tour de Ski before she heads home to rest and train for the World Cup races in Nove Mesto on January 11th and 12th. In any case she is not optimistic about holding onto her leaders bib, saying, “I am realistic enough to see that I will probably lose the jersey tomorrow. I just hope it turns to a different Norwegian girl” she told NRK.
Norwegian National Team Coach Egil Kristiansen defended the decision to send Østberg, and possibly Jacobsen as well, home after tomorrows race despite Østberg being in the leaders bib. “She is good enough to win the Olympic gold now. We must not lose focus on what’s most important this season” said Kristiansen.
Jacobsen is in fourth place overall, and second in the sprint category for the Tour de Ski, and Kristiansen says he has found himself in a difficult position with whether to let her continue the Tour after tomorrow. “The plan was that she should go [home] after the race tomorrow, but…Astrid is one that can stand on the podium here, we need to discuss what is most natural to do.”
For her part, Jacobsen seems eager to continue racing, but averse to openly challenging her coach’s decision in the Norwegian media. “What I think is that I’m happy to be in great shape” she said. “It is up to the boss if I can continue or not.”
Bjørgen was dealt a setback today as she looks to gain as much time on her teammate Theresa Johaug as she can before the final stage and its climb up the Alpe de Cermis that favors Johaug’s smaller frame and high tempo. Norwegian broadcaster NRK deemed it a “Sprint Fiasco” for Bjørgen. When asked if she thought this affected her Tour chances, she responded simply, “No.” But her tears after her quarterfinal heat indicated her disappointment. Gro Eide, a spokesman for the Norwegian National Team announced, “It’s nothing serious, but Bjørgen is struggling with stomach trouble.”
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.