After a 10 k classic pursuit that saw them start seventh and eighth and finish in 14th and 15th in Oberstdorf, Germany, U.S. Ski Team members Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen have one thing to say about the Tour de Ski: what fun!
“What a fun race to experiment with different paces and strengths,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “This tour business is pretty fun!! Off we go to Switzerland!”
It’s the Winthrop, Washington, native’s first Tour de Ski, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by her skiing. She started off confidently and aggressively, leading a chase group along with four-time Tour de Ski champ Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland for about five of the ten kilometers.
By the time the second lap rolled around, Bjornsen was tiring. She stayed with the chase group, but was no longer leading it.
“Things were spectacular until 5 k, when I had to start hanging on for dear life,” Bjornsen wrote. “As the tracks fell apart, I found myself stiffening up to try to find some kick- so I wasn’t able to keep up the ‘dream race’.”
The pair had front row seats as Norwegians Heidi Weng and Therese Johaug set off in chase of their teammate Marit Bjørgen, never catching her but securing themselves comfortable spots on the podium.
And they had front row seats, too, as Kowalczyk tried to use her classic chops to get towards the front of the Tour standings.
“It was fun to follow Justyna only because it’s her!” Bjornsen wrote. “She is an incredibly strong woman… And any time I can follow her for even five minutes is an amazing time for me!!”
Although she eventually fell back, Bjornsen doesn’t regret for a minute leading the chase group early on. She’s looking at the Tour as an opportunity to gain experience and have fun.
“I don’t regret leading, no,” she wrote. “I made it a goal to get more out of my ‘comfort zone’ this period, and rather than just racing without taking chances, to take some chances this period. Sometimes that may mean exploding, or blowing up, or poor tactics… But I decided this is a better way to learn this period. Being the best is not ‘conservative’, it’s racing on the edge!”
Stephen was seldom as close to the front of the chase group as Bjornsen, but used the uphills to her advantage. Her major regret was that by the fourth time down the loop’s tough and icy descent, he legs were shaking and she didn’t exactly go for it.
“I was a little disappointed with how I skied the downhill today, I had a full-blown panic attack on the last time down it,” she admitted in a phone interview. “My legs were feeling really tired and I definitely didn’t ski it the way I was hoping. So I lost a few places there. But I’m otherwise quite happy with the day.”
In the overall Tour standings, Bjornsen and Stephen are about two minutes behind Bjørgen once bonus seconds have been factored in (the places are the same as the finishing places from the pursuit, but the time gaps are different). But that’s a bit unrepresentative of their chances of a good finish. Bjørgen has a one-minute lead on second place, and the two Americans are only 20 seconds behind fourth place.
“I just wasn’t able to complete the sweet feelings I was having,” Bjornsen wrote. “I am still very happy! That is my best classic race of the season. And yes, I am just feeling confident in the feelings I am beginning to have when I am racing.”
Stephen had the 16th-fastest time on the day (and Bjornsen the 14th), which she’s pleased with – it’s a good classic result for the Vermonter, who has traditionally excelled in skating but is working hard towards becoming a bigger threat in classic races.
“I certainly really liked the course and was able to hang tough with the flats,” she said. “I’m really happy with the classic race. It’s a work in progress, always, but it’s better and better each race and each year.”
Just as in yesterday’s prologue, where she finished eighth, she said that the course profile with its big hills made the venue her friend.
“I’ve always really liked the courses here in Oberstdorf,” Stephen said. “There’s three good-sized climbs on each 2.5 k lap today, and one of them was a real beast.”
A perpetual podium finisher in the Tour de Ski’s final climb up the Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Stephen is right at home in one of her favorite parts of the World Cup season.
“It’s such a really exciting part of the year for me,” she said. “I wish every race series was like this, it’s just so fun.”
The course in Oberstdorf was quite different than just 24 hours before, thanks to torrential rains that spread their way across central Europe. In many places, snow melted completely; in Oberstdorf, it simply transformed, and thanks to strong winds was also covered in debris from the surrounding forest.
Conditions changed substantially over the course of the 10 k competition, which was apparent while watching the race. Several Norwegian skiers lost kick by the final lap.
For U.S. skier Jessie Diggins, it was worse than that – she never had much kick at all.
“In testing my skis were literally perfect, but conditions were changing so fast out there today and in the race I had no kick,” she wrote in an email. “It’s always frustrating when you know you’re in good shape but you’re slipping like 5 strides in a row, and herring boning every hill, but in no way do I blame the techs – it was just a changing day and I ended testing too soon. So I held my own in the flats and corners but just bled time sliding around on every hill.”
After a strong prologue where she finished 14th, Diggins ended the day in 56th, one spot behind teammate Sophie Caldwell, who dropped from 44th to 55th.
“I also caught a rut on the last big downhill and crashed but I am not injured and Sophie did a magnificent maneuver to avoid hitting me, so I’m pretty grateful for that,” Diggins wrote. “(Hashtag #blessed). Gotta find the humor when you can!”
Kikkan Randall also dropped through the rankings, from 22nd to 44th. She told members of the media that “I was hoping to be stronger today – I was mostly focused on the effort and pace over the results and I ended up a little below my expectations.”
One U.S. Ski Team member did climb through the field, though – Ida Sargent, who had been somewhat disappointed with a 58th-place finish in the prologue. She worked her way up to 40th in the classic pursuit.
“I loved the course here with all the hills,” Sargent wrote in an email. “Steep striding and herringboning is my favorite so it was great to have a lot of that out there. I felt really good today which was the first for distance racing this season.”
Starting so far back was a detriment, she wrote, because she had few other fast skiers to work together with.
“I wish I had pushed harder in the beginning because starting so far back some gaps opened up and it was hard to close,” she explained. “A lot of times on the flat I was out there by myself so it would have been nice to have a pack to ski with today. But moving up through the pack was really fun and the race feelings out there were a huge confidence boost.”
Despite being very frustrated with the prologue, Sargent focused on the next day, moving forward, and staying optimistic – and it paid off.
“I put that one behind me and tried to start fresh today and I was really excited for classic skiing,” she wrote.
And, now, for sprinting. As the Tour moved to Val Mustair, Switzerland, Sargent is looking forward to Tuesday’s skate sprint. She has made the heats in three of four sprints so far this season, including a fifth-place effort in the opener in Ruka, Finland.
“I’m really excited for Val Mustair,” she wrote. “It’s a new venue for me and I’m psyched for a sprint!!”
That’s the right attitude, says tour veteran Stephen. The distance specialist is also excited for the sprint – the Tour de Ski sprint two years ago was the first time she made the heats in a World Cup.
The Tour is full of such opportunities, she feels.
“It’s impossible to get bummed out,” Stephen said. “You’re on to the next race, you don’t have time to get frustrated. I’m really excited with how it’s gone for me so far this year in the Tour, and hope we can keep going up.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.