Therese Johaug, second overall in the Tour de Ski, skied a dominating race that was far and away faster than any of her competitors. Johaug’s performance went a long way toward her goal of being the first to the summit of the Alpe Cermis on Sunday.
Saturday’s event was a 5 k classic individual start race, held in Val di Fiemme, Italy, under drizzling skies that hovered around freezing.
Japan’s Masako Ishida was the early pace setter, recording fast splits through all the interval timing stations. Starting fifth, she passed through the first timing station at 1.3 k in 4:14.3.
USA’s Jessie Diggins, starting thirteenth, was just over Ishida’s time at 1.3 k, trailing the early leader’s time by 1.4 seconds. Liz Stephen of the US, who started fifteenth, trailed Diggins’ time through the first interval by 7 seconds.
Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen started in bib 21, and set the new pace to beat at 1.3 k at 4:12. Her teammate, Kerttu Niskanen, then came through the first interval a second behind Saarinen. Saarinen’s time would be beaten shortly thereafter by yet another Finn, Anne Kyllönen, who skied past the first timing point 3.3 seconds ahead of Saarinen. The Finns now held the top three positions.
Johaug, wearing the black sprint leader’s bib, started in 36th, two places ahead of the final red group skier, and Tour leader Astrid Jacobsen of Norway.
Johaug wasted no time in setting a fast pace on a slow day. Using her quick tempo and fast skis to her advantage on the hills of Val di Fiemme, she undercut Kyllönen’s time at 1.3 k by 3.2 seconds to set the leading pace.
If Jacobsen had hopes of winning the day, she knew she was in trouble early on. Placing third at 1.3 k, she was 5.1 seconds off of Johaug’s pace and did not appear to be climbing as well as her teammate.
The second timing interval, at 3.3 k, was held early by Ishida. Diggins, 8.1 seconds behind, was unable to break it. The Finnish women again took over the race as they passed the station, with Kyllönen, Saarinen, and Niskanen separated by just 1.6 seconds.
The Finnish times looked favorable until Johaug skied through, slashing Kyllönen’s time by 11.1 seconds. All eyes awaited Jacobsen’s arrival at the interval station, which confirmed that she was losing a lot of time to her compatriot. At 3.3 k, Jacobsen was 13.7 seconds behind her teammate, sitting in 5th place behind Johaug and the three Finns. Cameras showed a Norwegian coach instructing Jacobsen extensively as she labored up a climb.
Whatever was said must have a had an effect. Jacobsen, knowing that she was at risk of losing her entire 43 second advantage to Johaug through lost time and the fifteen bonus seconds Johaug would surely collect for winning, began to really battle through the final kilometer and half.
Johaug, meanwhile, tracked a skier at the edge of the finishing lanes, and tore through the finish line to set the winning time of 13:58.4, some 19.2 seconds ahead of then second place Kyllönen.
Jacobsen arrived at the finish not long after, powerfully double poling her way across the line. Her late effort had paid off—she had stanched her time hemorrhage to just 1.2 seconds to Johaug over the last 1.2 k of the race, and most importantly, finished second, outskiing the Finnish contingent that had tired. Jacobsen seemed pleased with her result as she crossed the finish line and looked at the timing board, she raised her arm happily before succumbing to exhaustion. Her rally at the end was key to her chances tomorrow as she won a further 10 second bonus that preserved some distance between her and Johaug.
Jacobsen had another reason to celebrate: she won back the black sprint leader’s jersey, and no matter where she ends up on the Alpe Cermis, she is guaranteed to keep it.
Diggins had another great day of skiing, finishing in 10th, her best classic race ever in the World Cup, 30.3 seconds out of first. Liz Stephen was 21st, 52.4 seconds back. Holly Brooks left the Tour and did not start.
Johaug’s victory, her first of this year’s Tour de Ski, puts her in a good position heading into Sunday’s final stage up the Alpe Cermis. Still in second overall behind Jacobsen, Johaug’s effort shaved 14.9 seconds off of her teammate’s advantage. Johaug will start Sunday’s race just 23.8 seconds behind her teammate.
Speaking to FIS after the race, Johaug said, “It was a great day for me. I have been in a very good shape. My skis were just flying, I had the best skis I can ever remember. My plan was to go full speed from the beginning. I like competing in difficult weather conditions. I will try to recover well to be ready for tomorrow’s Final Climb.”
Jacobsen, for her part, said to Dagbladet, “I fought myself to the second place on sheer will. I did it because I wanted this more than the others.”
Kyllönen was once again third, the same position she holds overall. She will start Sunday’s stage 1:31 behind Jacobsen. It was another fantastic day for the Finnish women who went 3, 4, 5 and 7. Finnish newspaper Helsingen Sanomat reported that Kyllönen has told her teammates that she hopes they will, “stream by to do some work.” Krista Lähteenmäki, who has twice in the past finished fourth in the Tour, told the newspaper that she dreads the final climb. “Every time, I have been really tired and thought in the morning that I can not go skiing. I have no idea what is coming tomorrow.”
The Alpe Cermis will now be especially difficult for Jacobsen as Johaug will be starting close enough to her to keep her in eye contact on the climb, if she doesn’t catch Jacobsen before then. “It was important to take the second today” Jacobsen said to Dagbladet, “Now I have her back from the start. I just have to go steadily throughout the race.”
Jacobsen has downplayed her chances of winning the Tour since she took possession of the leader’s bib. “Last year I lost 1:30 up the last hill, so any logical sense tells me that 24 seconds is not enough,” she conceded after the race. But she added to FIS, “I feel I am in very good shape and I can compete with almost everybody. I do not think much about the overall result in the Tour de Ski. It’s already a great achievement for me to be in the leading position before the final stage.”
Johaug, for her part, isn’t willing to take a victory for granted yet. “Astrid has shown that she is in great shape so far, so nothing is settled,” Johaug said. “But all indications are that it will be a Norwegian victory for the first time tomorrow, and we on the girls team are very happy,” she reported, smiling.
With Norway in an advantageous position to go 1st and 2nd tomorrow, Norwegian National Team Coach Egil Kristiansen is also hungrily looking at the possibilities of Heidi Weng, currently in 6th and just over half a minute behind Kyllönen, to move up to third and make the Tour a Norwegian treble.
“We have to work for it, but it should be our goose,” he said.
The Tour continues Sunday with the final stage, a 9 k freestyle pursuit race that finishes at the summit of the Alpe Cermis.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.