Saturday’s Tour de Ski stage 6 individual classic race saw Jessie Diggins notch her best ever classic race. Diggins came in 10th, while Liz Stephen finished a solid 21st, and Noah Hoffman in 47th had an off day. The race, 10 k for the men, 5 k for the women, in Val di Fiemme, Italy was a challenging affair coming at the end of a long series of races. The long race yesterday saw Stephen finish 12th, Diggins 13th, and Hoffman ski his way up to 27th. At this point in the Tour, exhaustion is inevitable. Hoffman and Stephen reported feeling some fatigue, while Diggins, on the other hand, said that she felt “pretty good energy-wise, by some miracle.”
It was a difficult day condition-wise as well. The air temperature in Val di Fiemme hung around the freezing point, and a slow drizzle fell steadily throughout the day. Despite the adverse weather, Whitcomb felt that the US team had mastered the conditions from a technical standpoint. “The ladies, for instance, had really good skis and one of them was on zeros and one was on klister. Jessie was on klister, Liz went with the hairies. You are trading a little kick for a little speed in each instance. I guess whatever the athlete is comfortable with before the start. You test a whole quiver of them and take the best.”
Diggins was pleased with her skis, as was Stephen. Diggins said of the conditions in Val di Fiemme, “It was raining the entire day, and it was really grey and foggy and the tracks were really wet. Most of the time they were pretty hard and almost glaze-y from the rain. But it happened that the kick was pretty straightforward; it was either zeros or klister, and I went on klister and my skis were really good—the techs nailed it. I had pretty good kick, and exceptionally awesome glide. The tracks were soaked and mostly hard and fairly fast, and my Salomon’s were running great, thanks to our crew.”
Stephen said in an email to FasterSkier, “My pre-race plan was to pick the right skis for the day and go like hell. I think I tested more skis today than I ever have before on the day of the race, with 3 pairs of zeros, one pair of handmade harries, and 4 pairs of klister skis. Huge thanks goes out to my Tech, Oleg, and to the other members of the staff who made today so smooth and easy, AKA: Cory Wubbles, Matt Whitcomb, and Jason Cork. Those guys were soaked all day long and never complained or slowed down for a second and gave us great skis to boot.”
Diggins said of her race plan, “I just thought about going out as hard as I could, and to try and ski as smooth as I could, and stay on top of my poles.” Diggins was the first starter for US women, in bib 13, and her splits throughout her race put her in second place behind Japan’s Masako Ishida. For Diggins, though, split times were not a part of her race strategy. “I didn’t ask for splits out there today because I knew I had a pacing strategy and would be going as hard as I could,” Diggins said by email, “so I asked the coaches to yell out technique and encouragement, which definitely helped a lot!”
This was Diggins’ best performance in a distance classic race on the World Cup. “I was really psyched on the race today because it was my best classic race on the World Cup by far, and a great confidence booster for me as classic skiing is still something I’m trying to figure out,” she said.
Whitcomb, however, was not surprised with her result. “She has been very competitive in classic before,” he said. “She likes a nice strong mule kick, and she got that today and she was able to do really good things with it. She is in awesome shape and was rested pretty well, ready to go. So today wasn’t a big surprise; it was certainly really exciting for us to see her get tenth.” He added further that “Jessie is just in a different place this year, she is doing a great job with recovery, putting together really sharp performances, and she is seeing big progress in both sprint and distance races.”
Stephen started two bibs behind Diggins in 15th. Her post-race splits show that she made a big effort in the two kilometers between the 1.3 k and 3.3 k intervals. Stephen, in 23rd at the first time check, moved up to 17th at 3.3k, before tiring a bit to finish in 21st.
Stephen said of her race that she “definitely got a bit fatigued towards the end of the course, but I pushed hard, skied the best I could and am happy with the result and where it places me for tomorrow’s hill climb.”
About Noah’s race, Whitcomb said, “He admitted that he couldn’t get out of a 30 k pace. He said that he just felt beat up while we were warming up—it just wasn’t his day. The Tour is great in that you have seven shots and you can do really well in the tour with a few ‘uninspired races’, as he said. Today was that, but tomorrow we have every reason to think he will do exactly what he did yesterday in Toblach. I’m feeling pretty excited to see the Hoff tear it up tomorrow. He is skating exceptionally well, and I see no reason for concern or any reason to look into today’s race other than to just put it behind us and start getting the skate skis ready. He is in the ice tub right now.”
Six races, eight days, and three countries later, the Tour wears on the body. Whitcomb had this to say of fatigue: “Everybody responds a little bit differently each day of the Tour. Hoff certainly put in a Herculean effort yesterday and for him to be tired makes perfect sense. I think he is going to recover quickly relative to the field. You enter the last stage hoping to be less tired than everybody else. Everybody is absolutely exhausted and it is just a matter of keeping things in perspective and doing your best on each stage. I think Hoff can tear it up tomorrow.”
Whitcomb did not think that skis played a part in a tough day for Hoffman, “I think Noah had competitive skis today. It was just tricky skiing out there—you saw a lot of guys slipping around. I can’t say it was exactly a 50/50 mix of klister and hairies, but I spent a lot of time looking at skis at the finish and there were guys in the top-five on a little bit of both. I think Noah would agree that the limiting factor today was not skis. It was just a combination of being tired and having to ski tired through difficult conditions. It is a tough combo.”
Whitcomb and his three American athletes are looking forward to Sunday’s climb up the Alpe Cermis. “Out of the three athletes we have starting tomorrow,” Whitcomb said, “they have all had really excellent hill climbs. I would guess that all of them should expect to have really strong climbs and there is no doubt that this is Liz’s marquee event and she is positioned well and ready to rock.”
Stephen’s strategy tomorrow is pretty straightforward, “I am hoping to ski the flats with Anna Haag and carry good speed to the bottom of the climb and then put my head down and hammer,” she said.
Diggins, for her part, said she is “excited for tomorrow’s climb, mostly because of the feeling you get once you’re standing at the top. It’s this rush of emotion when you realized that you just finished an impossibly, insanely hard climb at the end of a long series of races, and it was crazy hard but you did it.”
The Tour de Ski continues Sunday with the final stage, a 9 kilometer freestyle pursuit to the summit of the Alpe Cermis.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.