Stephen Leads U.S. in Tour Mass Start

Topher SabotJanuary 2, 2014

Following on the heels of stellar sprint day, the U.S. Ski Team managed to place a single skier in the top-30 as the Tour de Ski continued in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

Liz Stephen led the way in the women’s 10 k classic mass start, placing 26th, 54.6 seconds behind winner Kerttu Niskanen of Finland.

Seeded based on the Tour standings, Stephen started in the middle of the pack with bib 37. She described the start as “chaotic” especially with the first kilometer covering the previous day’s sprint course.

Liz Stephen (U.S. Ski Team) on her way to 34th in Saturday's 3 k freestyle prologue at the first stage of the Tour de Ski in Oberhof, Germany. (Photo: Marcel Hilger)
Liz Stephen (U.S. Ski Team) on her way to 34th in Saturday’s 3 k freestyle prologue at the first stage of the Tour de Ski in Oberhof, Germany. (Photo: Marcel Hilger)

“With 75 girls all on classic skis and bunched together as it was only one minute into the race it made for an exciting and slightly sketchy situation right off the bat,” Stephen wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Luckily there were no crashes that I saw, though one very close call which would have taken out more than half the field had it all played out.”

Stephen wrote that she was gunning for the top-10, but with the altitude of the Swiss venue, she knew she had to be patient, skiing “relaxed and strong,” until “dropping the hammer” with a lap to go.

While she didn’t make it up to the top-10, she was pleased with her race. Her goals entering the day were to crack the top-30, and put herself in better position prior to the Toblach pursuit.

“I feel really good about the outcome as I accomplished both of those things and will have some great people to ski with on Friday,” Stephen wrote.

Teammates Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell were not far behind in 32nd and 33rd respectively. The pair finished just under a minute-and-a-half off the lead.

Diggins, a stronger skater, was 7.4 seconds out of the points, with Caldwell another 4.7 back.

The result was a career-best for Caldwell in a World Cup distance race. She will drop out of the Tour ranked 16th overall, leading the U.S. women.

Holly Brooks rounded out the squad in 50th.

On the men’s side, Noah Hoffman led the way in 55th, 1:18.8 seconds behind winner Alexey Poltaranin of Kazakhstan.

Hoffman, starting with bib 89, advanced through the pack, moving up consistently throughout the race.

Andy Newell, and Tuesday’s sprint winner, Simi Hamilton, placed 68th and 74th respectively.

Newell wrote to FasterSkier in an email that he has been hoping to battle for the points, but faded at the end, and dropped significant time.

He began the day in 6th overall, and had a good position at the front of the pack.

“I don’t mind starting out front, if anything it’s nice to get out near the leaders and stay out of trouble,” Newell wrote. “Typically with mass start races I just try to ski with the leaders and stay relaxed, which is what I tried to do today.”

Simi Hamilton (U.S. Ski Team) leads his quarterfinal in the third stage of the Tour de Ski. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)
Simi Hamilton (U.S. Ski Team) leads his quarterfinal in the third stage of the Tour de Ski. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

But after the second of two intermediate bonus sprints the pace started to feel “a bit fast,” and he dropped off the main pack.

“Starting my last lap I had a hard time skiing with some of the people that were skiing through me. Even when the Hoff [Hoffman] passed me I should have tried to ski with him ,but was already shutting it down by then … I needed a bit of a rest. So it wasn’t a great day for me,” he concluded.

Like Caldwell, and Hamilton, Newell’s Tour has now come to an end. This was the plan all along, regardless of performance.

Hamilton, who has never cracked the top-30 in a World Cup distance race, struggled to find his rhythm after what he described as a “freak crash” just 5 k into the 15 k event.

“My body just tensed up and I couldn’t get back into that relaxed classic feeling that is necessary to ski those 15 k’s with. In the end, I felt like I had a good last lap and it was just nice to get out there for another distance start without much pressure,” Hamilton wrote in an email.

Hamilton fell when he got squeezed on a sharp turn into the steepest climb on the course.

“I had a middle line in the very center of the big pack,” he explained. “I got pinched in tight and both of my skis got stepped on simultaneously as I was cornering which ended up with me face first in the track.”

The combination of the adrenaline from his victory, and a fireworks show lasting until 2 AM near the team’s lodging left Hamilton under-rested. Yet he was still ready to go.

“I woke up this morning with a huge smile on my face because I realized what I had accomplished yesterday and it was basically the best feeling in the world,” Hamilton wrote. “I had a great feeling going into the 15 k today, but I think my body was a little bit on the tired side, and I didn’t ski the race like I envisioned it going.”

Those athletes not continuing with the Tour headed to Davos, Switzerland for recovery and training prior to the next World Cup weekend in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.

Tour de Ski racing continues on Friday with 15 k freestyle pursuit for the women, and the Cortina to Toblach 35 k pursuit for the men.

 — Alex Matthews contributed reporting

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Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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