While Norwegian Marit Bjørgen continues to grab headlines in the 2015 Tour de Ski, American Sadie Bjornsen is quietly having a fine Tour of her own.
Bjornsen finished eighth overall in Wednesday’s 5 k classic interval start in Toblach, Italy, 22.7 seconds behind winner and Tour leader Bjørgen who finished the course in 12:48.5. The 25-year-old – who is participating in her first Tour – is now seventh overall in the Tour standings.
Despite her high standing, Bjornsen, like the majority of her American teammates, is deciding not to compete in the last three stages. She said over the phone that she would like to save her energy before World Cup races in Otepää, Estonia, two weekends from now.
“It’s really hard to stop now … but I made the decision already. I’ve been talking about it for a month, and that was the plan,” Bjornsen said.
In Wednesday’s race Bjornsen explained she did not want to start out as conservatively as she has in recent races. To help herself out, she broke up the course into six sections and treated each section as a separate interval session.
“I was just going to go out there and lay it all out,” she said. “I was going to go absolutely as hard as I could on every uphill section. And I think that I started more aggressive than I maybe ever have.”
Throughout the race she could hear her splits and knew she and eventual fourth place finisher Emma Wiken of Sweden were neck-and-neck. However, Bjornsen said she “forgot to conserve some energy for that last climb” and lost some momentum while attempting to pass another skier in the final descent into the stadium, which resulted in lost time.
Despite what could have been, Bjornsen is still excited about how her final 2015 Tour race played out.
“I’m pretty stoked … it’s good to finish the race and know you went as hard as you could,” she said.
The excitement extended to USST Head Coach Chris Grover who said Bjornsen’s performance was the highlight of the day.
“She seemed to have good energy all day, and I know she had been really looking forward to this particular race, being a strong classic skier and knowing that the 5 k is a good event for her,” he said in a phone interview. “Fortunately we were able to get her some pretty good skis.”
Meanwhile American Jessie Diggins skied to a 19th place finish, 52.1 seconds behind Bjørgen.
“I’m really psyched with [the result]. Any time I can score points in a classic race is a good day, and especially a top-20 in a classic race for me is a really good thing,” she said in a phone interview.
She explained that Wednesday’s strong finish was a much needed effort after a frustrating 10 k classic pursuit on Sunday, where she finished 56th and lost nearly four minutes to Bjørgen.
The 23-year-old skied the 38th fastest split 2.1 k but made up time on the second half of the course, which featured a long downhill section. She said her goal was to be as smooth as possible on the uphills and be aggressive on the downhills.
Although Diggins’ kick and glide looked smooth and focused on the short course, the moments before the race were stressful due to the difficult waxing conditions. According to Grover, the USST the team was “scrambling” to find the correct wax combination, as hard-wax too slick and and klister was too slow.
“With all the man-made snow and all the strange weather, the waxing conditions have been really tricky. It was actually really stressful before the race because we couldn’t be on the course until after the boys were done,” she explained.
Unlike Bjornsen, Diggins plans to finish the Tour. She said that during the last few years she used the Tour as “a huge training stimulus” before the World Championships and Olympics – a strategy that Diggins said has continued to work in her favor.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” she said.
Teammate Liz Stephen will join Diggins in the remainder of the races. She is ranked 16th overall in the Tour after a 29th place finish (+1:01.6) in Wednesday’s race.
The 27-year-old wrote in an email that she was able to ski with plenty of energy, despite historically having difficulties in short classic races.
“The conditions were great. I had great skis and though it is green grass all around, the course was in great shape,” she wrote, adding that she is looking forward to the next three stages. Stephen has historically performed well in the final hill climb of the Tour, where she clocked the third fastest time in 2014.
Kikkan Randall led the remaining Americans in 42nd (+1:20.6) after a fast start where she clocked the 17th fastest time after 1.7 k. Sophie Caldwell was just behind in 45th (+1:25.6). Neither will finish the tour, though Randall will race in Thursday’s 15 k pursuit in Toblach.
Caldwell wrote in an email that she got off to a slow start due to fatigue, but picked up the pace in the second half and managed to climb from 49th position after 1.7 k.
“Usually the opposite of what happens to me,” she explained of her slow start.
“I wouldn’t say it was a great race, but I felt okay and feel like my distance skiing is moving in the right direction,” she wrote.
Ida Sargent was 46th (1:31.0) despite having the 20th fastest time after 1.7 k and the 22nd fastest after 2.1 k. She wrote in an email that she went out too hard and just “blew up.”
Though Sargent will not complete the final three stages of the Tour, she explained the experience was valuable.
“This has been my first time racing it,” the 26-year-old wrote, “and overall my results are definitely not what I was hoping for. But it has been a really good experience to race and travel this much.”
Once Randall finishes Thursday’s 15 k pursuit, the team, with the exception of Diggins and Stephen, will travel to Ramsau, Austria where they will recover and train before the World Cup classic sprint and freestyle team sprint that will take place Jan. 17 and 18 in Otepää, Estonia.
Both Diggins and Stephen will compete in the remaining three races of the Tour, after which they will rest in Italy with U.S. assistant coach Jason Cork and travel to meet up with the rest of the team in Russia in late January.
— Lander Karath contributed reporting