The U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen is known for being an expert in the final stage of the Tour de Ski: a brutal climb up the Alpe Cermis outside of Val di Fiemme, Italy.
But the day before?
Stephen proved that yup, she can get you then, too, when she placed fifth in the 10 k classic mass start in Val di Fiemme on Saturday. She trailed a close-knit Norwegian trio, Therese Johaug, Marit Bjørgen, and Heidi Weng, as well as Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland. That was all. (You can get the play-by-play here.)
Stephen was 1:39 after Johaug, and the fifth-place finish represents the best result she’s ever recorded classic skiing. Her previous best was sixth in a lightly-attended 10 k classic in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, last season.
Stephen is now ranked sixth in the Tour de Ski overall standings, going into her favorite event.
“The energy in the American camp is at a fever pitch as we head into the final stage of the tour,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb wrote in an email. “Liz will start tomorrow in 6th and within 1 minute of 4th place and a just over 1/2 minute from 5th. She has a fantastic Czech skater and climber starting right behind her in 7th. She is focused and will come out of the gates with her sleeves rolled up.”
We reached Stephen on the phone in Italy to catch up about the big day.
FasterSkier: Were you celebrating your race today?
Liz Stephen: I wasn’t really celebrating celebrating, but tomorrow we’ll take care of that. But yeah, it’s definitely a little high for sure. A really fun day today. It was a really good race for me, and really fun day. Perfect klister skiing. It’s so fun to be back in Val di Fiemme.
FS: Is this how you imagined the race was going to shape up?
LS: I don’t think I’ve ever imagined a classic race shaping up into fifth. But yeah. This was definitely – I knew that if I had a good one today, I could help myself with the overall Tour position. It had seemed like quite a bit to make up for a top five, but now it’s definitely in the cards if I can have a good one tomorrow too.
So it was fun to see it all shape together today. My body felt great. I lost a lot of time on my last kilometer – I was just looking at splits and it was maybe 35 seconds or something that I lost in the last kilometer of the race. I got really tired.
But it was really fun to fight the whole way and have Aiko [Saarinen] just in front of me on the last couple of laps. I think for the first time it was like, I can do this. It feels weird to be in fifth, but there’s no reason that this can’t be me today. That was the mindset out there. I felt really focused.
We had our whole alpine women’s tech team training just up the valley, and three of them came down and watched today and cheered super loud. It was really cool to have those girls take time out of their day to come down and watch me race. It meant a lot. That was really fun.
FS: You know Aino-Kaisa pretty well. Did it help to have her be the person you were chasing?
LS: For sure. Even at the Tour, we’ve been chatting a lot.
Yesterday actually she gave me this necklace, which is made by Suunto and is their first jewelry endeavor. The idea of it is that you keep it for a week or so, and you hand it on to another woman that inspires you or makes you feel proud to be a woman, or who you are inspired by because they are strong or nice or whatever. An adventurous, beautiful woman. It’s supposed to make its way around the world.
It was really cool to be the person that she gave it to yesterday, and then have both of us have such good races today. It was really fun.
FS: The climb is kind of your thing. Are you excited for tomorrow?
LS: For sure. It’s one of the races I get more nervous for – whenever you have a race were you set your expectations quite high, you get more nervous. For whatever reason, hill climbs, even the Climb to the Castle, make me unbelievably nervous.
But I have to say, I was really nervous going into today. I think when you wait around until 3:45 p.m. to race, and you watch the guys race and just kind of kill time til you get to go do your thing, it definitely plays with the nerves a little bit more than usual.
I’m actually, at this point, I’m just really excited to go race the climb, and end the Tour on the highest note I can. Everyone’s tired, and I definitely look forward to going up a hill. My goal is to catch fourth, and we’ll see what’s going on. Just keep my head up the hill and do the best I can.
I’ve had a really fun time working with the staff the last couple of days. It’s amazing to have six techs and coaches for one athlete, as well as my own personal masseuse. I’m quite set up and taking recovery as seriously as I can. We have such a great staff as it is.
FS: What are your plans after the Tour?
LS: Jessie [Diggins] and I and Jason Cork will go up to Seiser Alm (Italy) and do some training and resting and recovery up there for eight days, through next weekend and early next week. Then we’ll drive to Munich and catch the charter flight to Rybinsk.
FS: So getting in some recovery.
LS: Getting in some recovery, and then a little bit of training. Not so much intensity. Bring it back a notch. But I’m really happy with where I feel like I am right now with the season. After tomorrow I can set my eyes on Rybinsk, but then definitely World Championships after that.
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.