Norway’s Marit Bjørgen proved once again that she is the hands down favorite to with this year’s Tour de Ski competition by setting the fastest qualifying time in Tuesdays 1.4 k course and continuing that pace all the way to the final.
Stage 3 in Val Müstair, Switzerland featured a two lap course with a climb at the start topping out at a 20 percent grade and several sweeping turns that were getting icy as the qualification round finished up. Early in qualification the inside lines were the ideal setup to capitalize on the icy conditions and fast snow.
The quarterfinals started with the fastest qualifier Bjørgen flying out of the gate fast, getting the inside line on the first turn and quickly pulling away from the rest of the field. Her only issue in the race was a pole plant that ended up between her skis causing her to stumble and lose balance. She recovered and didn’t miss a beat up the hill. Evgenia Shapovalova from Russia was the second qualifier out of heat one, +3.09 behind winner Bjørgen’s time of 3.38.78.
Heat two featured Bjørgen’s closest competitor for the overall Tour de Ski title, Norwegian teammate Therese Johaug. If Johaug, +1:06.8 behind entering today’s race, had any chance to defend her Tour de Ski title from last year she had to advance to keep pace with Bjørgen and earn valuable points.
At the start it seemed Johaug would advance easily attacking early and taking the lead to the first climb. Sophie Caldwell from the United States and Italy’s Gia Vuerich thought otherwise. The duo out sprinted Johaug at the finish to advance to the next round. Johaug went from first to third in a matter of seconds making her Tour de Ski title defense more challenging. Caldwell took the heat with a time of 3:42.25, only +0.05 ahead of Vuerich in a photo finish.
“I am very disappointed now,” Johaug told NRK reporters after her race. “I had hoped for semifinals. Then everything would have looked different, it’s very big difference in the quarterfinals and semifinals in the end.”
In the third quarterfinal heat the United States’ Jessie Diggins got out to an early lead but faded and was passed by Swiss crowd favorite Laurien Van Der Graaff and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson. The pair was able to pull away on the downhill and have their own sprint to the finish resulting in another photo finish. Nilsson first, (3.40.71) and Van Der Graaff was second, +0.05 behind.
Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg highlighted the fourth heat. At the start, Østberg easily pulled away from everybody in her heat and continued the pace all the way to the finish. It was an interesting tactic because she didn’t let up until the very end, expending a lot of energy in the process. Her time of 3:39.58 was +3.16 faster than her teammate and second place finisher Ragnhild Haga.
The fifth and final heat featured Norway’s Heidi Weng who was determined to challenge Bjørgen for the stage win today. She was able to really push the pace at the start and set the fastest quarterfinal heat time at 3:36.35. Teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla was +1.26 behind. As a result of the lightening pace, American Kikkan Randall was able to secure the lucky loser and advance to the semi-final round. Hanna Kolb from heat three was the other lucky loser advancing.
The first semifinal began with Bjørgen taking the same strategy as she did in the quarters, get out front fast and stay out of trouble. The pace was slightly slower than her first race letting the chase group of Nilsson and Caldwell stay within striking distance. Bjørgen made sure they didn’t get to close attacking on the climb of the second lap and pulling away for the win. Caldwell wasn’t able to keep up with Nilsson and dropped back to finish in third. Bjørgen crossed the line in 3:39.04 with Nilsson +0.77 behind.
As expected in the second semifinal heat, Østberg took a commanding lead at the start and skated away from the rest of the field. The chase group of Weng, Falla, Van Der Graaff and Randall tried to match the pace but weren’t able to keep up with the charging Oestberg. Randall was the first to lose touch and fall off. Seeing an opportunity, Weng was able to break off from the group and take second place, +0.40 behind Østberg time of 3:35.84.
As a result of the speed of the second semifinal, Falla and Van Der Graaff were the lucky losers advancing to the finals. They finished third and fourth in the heat!
The finals were set with four Norwegians, Bjørgen, Østberg, Weng and Falla. Nilsson from Sweden and Van Der Graaff from Switzerland rounded out the six women field.
At the start, it was Østberg taking the early fast lead followed by the other Norwegians. Bjørgen opted to stay back in third position and watch her younger teammates set the early pace. The four easily pulled away from the remaining skiers, Graaff and Nilsson. Unfortunately Stina Nilsson broke a pole early in the race and missed all opportunity to join the lead pack as they skated away.
After a lap of sitting back and watching, Bjørgen used her experience to pick the ideal line through the bunch and attacked on the second climb and within seconds distanced herself from Weng and Oestberg who had no response. Bjørgen descended with a huge lead and crossed the line for her third win in as many stages in this year’s Tour de Ski and opened up a +1.11.2 lead over second place Heidi Weng.
The race for second and third was very close; Weng was able to hold of Østberg for second and a charging Nilsson who recovered nicely from her broken pole took fourth. With Falla and Van Der Graaff rounding things off in fifth and sixth, respectively. This was Weng’s third consecutive podium in this year’s Tour de Ski competition.
“It’s really fun to ski when your body is feeling so good. My skis were great, the guys did an awesome job on them today again, and my legs were fast. When you have good skis and good legs, you go fast,” remarked Bjørgen to Norwegian TV reporters after the race.
This win gave Bjørgen a sizeable lead for the overall Tour de Ski title, but she isn’t celebrating yet.
“We have four more races to go,” she told NRK. “We are not even halfway through the Tour, and I have to make it to Val di Fiemme,” adding that “I have two minutes to spare to Johaug, and I’m thankful for that. It’s 10k classic next, but this time, the two of them don’t get the benefit of working together to catch me.”
Her teammate might think that she should be – Johaug seemed to think the Tour was a lock at this point.
“I don’t stand a chance at the overall anymore,” Johaug said to NRK reporters. “Marit beat me by 10 seconds in the qualifier, and I’m too far behind now. The overall title is pretty much determined. But there are still more podiums to fight for. Now I need to get ready for the race tomorrow and prepare to do my best.”
“From the prologue I had a good feeling,” remarked Bjørgen to FIS reporters afterwards. “My goal was to make it to the final to gain some seconds on Therese and Heidi. In the final I managed to build a gap on the big hill. I think I am in a good position before the Tour de Ski stages in Italy.”
Bjørgen now leads the Tour overall by +1.11.2 over Weng in second and +2.00.7 over Johaug in third.
Wednesday’s Stage 4 features a women’s 5 k classic individual start and men’s 10 k in Toblach, Italy.
— Inge Scheve contributed reporting