Note: This recap has been updated to include quotes from Andy Newell.
Whether the distance is 3 or 4 ½ kilometers, it’s all a blur when you’re pushing from start to finish. Prologues have no additional rounds, no time to hold back, yet a racer stands to lose everything if they go out too hard.
The first of seven stages in the Tour de Ski, Saturday’s freestyle prologue was no different. Jessie Diggins didn’t hear splits as she rounded the 1.5 k course twice in Oberhof, Germany; her U.S. Ski Team (USST) coaches had told the athletes beforehand that they wouldn’t call out information during the individual start. Even if they did, there was hardly time to think, let alone change a pacing strategy.
Diggins distinctively remembered two points of her 3 k race. First, she heard the Caldwells – her teammate Sophie Caldwell’s mother, father, sister and brother – cheering while hanging over the fence.
“I’ve never heard Izzy so loud; it was awesome,” Diggins said of Caldwell’s sister. “The other person I heard was [coach Jason] Cork yelling at the top of one of the hills.”
His cues were exactly what the 22-year-old Minnesota native needed: push over the top, remember technique. Diggins was trying to get on top of her poles throughout the race and she was pretty sure it worked, even in the slushy snow on a rainy afternoon.
“I’m one of those girls that tries really hard, but isn’t always very efficient,” Diggins said.
She churned out a fifth-place performance, tying her career-best World Cup individual finish (from two seasons ago in the 10 k freestyle mass start in Rybinsk, Russia). Last year, Diggins opened the Tour with 62nd in the 3 k freestyle prologue in Oberhof. She went on to place 50th in the classic pursuit there, then 21st in the overall Tour.
This time around, she’s set a goal for a solid overall performance.
“I don’t need any ‘A’-plus days, but if I can get some ‘B’-plus days … it’ll be a really good Tour,” she said.
Saturday was a good start. Starting 33rd of 80, Diggins crossed the line with the fastest time by 1.5 seconds over Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek, who ended up eighth behind Norwegian winner Marit Bjørgen. Her split through 0.8 k held up as the third-fastest overall and she ranked fourth through 2.3 k, finishing 9.2 seconds after Bjørgen in fifth.
“Every once in a while I would pop my head out to see if I had been knocked out of the top three and if so I could go and get pants.” — Jessie Diggins, fifth
But for about 15 minutes, Diggins was the top dog. Soaked and freezing in the 36-degree temperatures, she would’ve loved to warm up in a large blanket while sitting in the leader’s chair. However, there was no leader’s chair.
“This is probably the one time that I could make it … and they didn’t have a leader’s chair,” she said with a laugh.
Instead, Diggins waited in the finish-area changing tent – but she didn’t have any clothes to change into. FIS media coordinator Jeff Ellis told her to stick around in case she made the podium.
“Every once in a while I would pop my head out to see if I had been knocked out of the top three and if so I could go and get pants,” Diggins said. “It wasn’t until the end there that I realized I was fourth.”
The 65th starter, Bjørgen bumped Diggins to fourth behind Germany’s Denise Herrmann. Poland’s Sylwia Jaśkowiec in bib 67 bested Herrmann’s time by 1.4 seconds for third, Herrmann moved to fourth, and Diggins finally settled in fifth.
“I was psyched,” Diggins said after taking some time to celebrate, then refocus for Sunday’s freestyle sprint in Oberhof. “Since the Tour’s so long you don’t have time to dwell on any one race so it was like, ‘Sweet, that was awesome. It was a good race … and I learned some things for tomorrow, and now it’s time to eat and change and get ready.’ ”
Her teammate, Caldwell also tied a personal best of ninth in her first Tour de Ski. The 54th starter, she ranked third through 0.8 k and was fifth at the finish, 2.6 seconds behind Diggins in first.
“We had really fast skis today,” Caldwell wrote in an email, a notable bonus on a course that broke down with every lap.
After opening hard, she felt fast and Cork confirmed that she was in third less than a kilometer in.
“I thought that was awesome, but it was also at .8k, so I knew times were probably tight and that it could shift around a lot after that,” wrote the 23-year-old Caldwell. “When I came around the 2nd lap, my dad cheered something along the lines of ‘you’re flying!!!’, so I thought I could be having a good race, but that could also just be my dad being nice.”
Through 2.3 k, she was 10th fastest overall, turning it up for the final 700 meters.
“I’m not sure exactly what about this distance, course, or conditions suited me, but I think it paid to relax and try not to be frantic out there,” she explained. “I had been fighting a little sickness since Davos and was really tired after Asiago. I took a few days really easy or off and just enjoyed time relaxing with my family over Christmas. I wanted to come into the tour recharged and healthy and I think I was able to accomplish that by taking the week really easy.”
As for the rest of the Tour, Caldwell plans to take it day by day. She’ll race Sunday in Oberhof and probably the following freestyle sprint on Tuesday in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, but she might drop out before or after the 10 k classic on Jan. 1.
“My goals are to focus on recovering well and getting in a lot of good racing,” she wrote.
Teammate Holly Brooks decided to start the Tour as well after what she described as “an abnormally slow start to the season.”
“I felt like I needed more racing to get up to speed,” Brooks wrote. “Besides the tour provides lots of race chances and that’s why I train so hard year round!”
Brooks finished 21st on Saturday, 21.4 seconds back from Bjørgen, after leading through 0.8 k as the 22nd starter. Her time there stood as the ninth fastest.
“I had a good split at .8k today so perhaps it will bode well for tomorrow’s one lap race!” Brooks wrote. “I feel like I’m headed in the right direction. While not ecstatic with my result today I have to be satisfied because it’s [my] best result this season to date. That said, last year in this race I was 11th and in the Falun skate prologue I was 7th so I was hoping for better.”
Above all, she was excited for Diggins and Caldwell and thankful that Oberhof race organizers were able to host the event with above-freezing temperatures and no natural snow.
“I just heard this evening that the base of our course came from crushed ice from a fish processing plant 500 [kilometers] away!” she wrote. “They are putting some serious resources into making this happen!”
The other U.S. woman who plans to race the entire Tour, Liz Stephen placed 34th (+25.1). With the 44th-ranked time through 0.8 k, she improved to 35th by 2.3 k.
“My goal was to build into the race,” Stephen wrote. “I had the goal of being in the top 30, but was just out, and I am happy with my performance today. The conditions were tough for everyone, but the organizers have worked some sort of magic to have been able to pull these races off at all. I am really impressed given the weather they have been given so far this winter.”
In the men’s 4.5 k prologue, Americans Andy Newell placed 20th, Simi Hamilton 42nd and Noah Hoffman 82nd out of 106 finishers.
“The team’s performance was amazing today,” Stephen wrote. “To have Jessie and Sophie both in the top 10, Holly and Newell in the points and Simi and I just out is a good day. Noah’s days are coming, but first we distance skiers need to channel our sprint gears!”
They’ll have a chance in Sunday’s 1.5 k freestyle sprints – the same one-lap race for the men and women.
“I am really excited to get my skate sprinting on,” Stephen wrote. “I have hopes of qualifying like I was able to do last year, but these are big fields here so far, so I will have to do everything just right, but really fun to get two chances in a row to try out some strategies.”
Newell Leads U.S. Men in 20th
Newell was a strong early starter in bib 12, posting a top-10 time through 0.8 k. Skiing with Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave for his first two laps, Newell went on to finish 20.4 seconds behind Canadian winner Alex Harvey and less than seven seconds off the podium. Musgrave tied two Russians, Evgeniy Belov and Alexander Legkov, for 17th, which put Newell as the next finisher in 20th.
“I felt pretty good out there and started right as Musgrave was lapping through,” Newell wrote. “I
thought about jumping in behind him because there were some points on the course where the wind was really ripping, so it would have helped to follow someone. Pacing is so important in a short distance race like this so I decided I just couldn’t chance skiing someone else’s pace, so ended up pulling him around for a lap or two.
“It was my goal to be in the top 15.. and it turns out I was .7 seconds from 15th,” he added.
Hamilton started last and hovered around the mid-40s throughout the race before finishing 3.5 seconds out of 30th.
“I’m happy with how today turned out, although being only 3 seconds from my first distance points is kind of a hard pill to swallow,” he wrote. “It was tough skiing out of the back as conditions were deteriorating a bit throughout the day, but that’s just something I’ll have to deal with for a bit as I recover from the fact that illness allowed me to only ski 3 distance races last year.”
With three laps to tackle, Hamilton reflected that he might have been too conservative the second time around.
“It was hard to find relaxation at any point in the course because of the terrain and the conditions, and I felt like I lost some valuable seconds because of that,” he added. “Tomorrow should be a good day. It’s a short course that should suit me well.”
Canadian Women Finish Strong
Two Canadian women plan to do the first few stages of the Tour, and Dasha Gaiazova led them in 37th, 1.8 seconds behind Stephen and 3 seconds out of 30th. Perianne Jones was 47th, another 1.9 seconds back.
“Both the ladies finished strong; they finished last half a k with quite good speed,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said. “That’s a good sign for fitness, a good sign that they’re coming back. I want them to do these first three stages and do the process, too. We’re still aiming for Sochi, so every race we’re aiming to be the best we can in all respects, but they both put in solid races today and I’m really happy with how they finished the last part of the race.”
In an email, Jones explained she could’ve started harder, but was cautious in her third international race of the season.
“After not having done too much hard work longer than a few minutes in the recent months I was maybe a little bit apprehensive,” she wrote. “I was able to ski faster on the second lap, which came as a bit of a surprise. It’s a good sign that my fitness is coming.
“When I knew the finish line was around the corner I definitely dug deep and used every last bit of energy I had,” she added. “Tomorrow I’ll be doing that right from the start! … Although the result wasn’t great today it was a positive indicator for me that things are coming around, and I had much better feelings than last weekend, so I can’t wait for these next two races.”
— Seth Adams and Pasha Kahn contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.