The Tour de Ski 3.3-kilometer prologue in Oberstdorf, Germany, looked a little sluggish, with the biggest climb on course – a whopping 35 meters of elevation gain – reducing the world’s best skiers to exhaustion. That was until Liz Stephen hit the course.
The American skier showed up in bib 18 with her trademark quick tempo. Usually a specialist over much longer distances, Stephen’s quick skating added some heat to the competition, which suddenly looked a little more alive. First she turned in the leading time at the first checkpoint, 1.2 k, and then crossed the finish line in the lead.
Although less than a third of the racers had yet to finish, Stephen’s tempo went unmatched until Heidi Weng of Norway set off up the hill more than 20 minutes later.
“I think the course being a little longer than the Oberhof distance of 2.5 to 2.75 k, depending on the year, as well as the four solid climbs on this course and the fast, but not scary decent definitely suited the type of skier I am,” Stephen wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
But light and quick – matching the body’s speed with the idea of the speed needed to win a 3.3 k race – wasn’t the only way to excel on the challenging Oberstdorf loop. When Stephen was dethroned, it was by her teammate Sadie Bjornsen, who had skied with a slower tempo up the big climb, but used more power.
While the pair stayed 1-2 for quite some time, they were eventually replaced at the top of the leaderboard by five Norwegians and Nicole Fessel of Germany. Still, they ended up seventh and eighth overall, just seven seconds from the podium.
“My reaction was just pure excitement because I would’ve never guessed I could do that in a skate race,” Bjornsen said in a phone interview. “It’s tied for my best result in classic, so I was pretty ecstatic.”
They were joined in the points by teammates Jessie Diggins, who placed 14th, and Kikkan Randall in 22nd.
“It’s also sweet to see the team, the group of girls, I think we all had an awesome break and I think we’re all ready to fight now,” Bjornsen said. “It’s like a little mini army ready for the battle. I think it’s going to be great for all the girls. We’re all in a good place and we’re all ready to just see what can happen, and we’re all in good spirits and that’s the best way to start.”
Sophie Caldwell placed 44th and Ida Sargent was 58th to round out the U.S. women’s team results.
Crashing the Party, Not Their Skis
A number of the Americans are fans of the prologue format, which helped them prep for today’s race. Diggins has had success before – she finished fifth in the Tour de Ski prologue last season. She even shared her prologue training workout with FasterSkier earlier this week.
“I’ve always kind of liked the prologue format because I feel like it’s a long sprint, which I would always prefer,” Bjornsen laughed.
“Skate prologues are one of my favorite events and it was fun to start racing again after a couple weeks of training over the Christmas break,” Randall agreed in an email sent to members of the press.
A race so short would seem to mean hammering hard the whole time, but the key to the Americans’ success was actually to start fairly conservatively.
“What I like about it is that it’s long but it’s a really skiable grade,” Diggins said of the climb. “It’s not like, ‘Well, should I herringbone on my skate skis?’ It makes sense. It’s just challenging because it’s very long, and if you start hammering on the bottom, about halfway up there’s a little part where you can throw in some V2 and if you’re not feeling quite fresh enough then you’re going to lose steam there.”
Being able to accelerate up the hill on the second of two laps was essential.
“I didn’t have much of a strategy other than to remember to stay light on the uphills so that’s what I was kind of thinking about the whole time,” Bjornsen said. “Based on the splits, I had a more conservative start, but I really was trying to go hard from the start. It’s the usual thing for me, that I feel like I’m doing a sprint-race pace, but it’s maybe not the case. But I think it worked out well for me today because I had some energy to really hammer the hill the last time.”
Diggins agreed that she had started perhaps too conservatively, but it worked out in the end.
“I did practice for the prolog specifically, but it was at altitude,” she explained. “Then I came down and I was a little bit conservative, especially on that first lap. It was better than blowing up, but at the same time, if I was going to do it again, I definitely would have hit the gas a little earlier on. I think that’s been a pattern for me this year, not wanting to blow up because I’m scared of falling on the downhills if my legs are too tired.”
And those downhills – they were momentum-killers. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, who has four Tour de Ski victories under her belt, was denied a podium position on Saturday in part because she snowplowed the fast, slick downhills.
Downhills have been a challenge for Stephen so far this year, but today she tackled them head-on and excelled.
“I have been really working on the mental side of the downhills as I mentioned and this one went well for me today,” she explained to FasterSkier. “Attack over the top and don’t overthink it. Look ahead, ski it a bunch in training and just go for it.”
Diggins, too, was surprised to find that the downhills were a huge source of help today. She chalked it up in part to some time she spent alpine skiing in Davos, Switzerland, over the holidays.
“I think the alpine skiing really paid off!” she exclaimed. “As well as our wax techs making us some amazing skis. I had the fastest downhill split both laps. So I was proud of my aggressive downhills and not falling down.”
All in all, it added up to one of the Americans’ best days so far this season. Even though the team had a goal of peaking for World Championships, the squad was sometimes frustrated not to be starting off the season at full speed.
In fact, the U.S. women only had two previous individual top-10’s so far this season: Sargent finishing fifth in the opening sprint in Ruka, Finland, and Randall placing ninth in the last sprint of period one in Davos, Switzerland.
By doubling that tally in a single day and putting two more women in the points, the team is looking more like the squad that finished fourth in the Nations Cup standings last season.
“We were aware that this event has been good to us in the past, and that many athletes on the team are rested and ready,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb wrote in an email. “2 top 10s was the goal, but it’s a thing of its own to make that come to fruition. It feels good.”
Break Makes It Better
One key to that success was a relaxing holiday break, which the U.S. athletes spent in Europe. Diggins’ family came to join her in Davos, where Stephen, Sargent, and Randall also stayed to ski; Bjornsen headed to Meribel, a ski station in France, with her boyfriend. For all, it was an essential mental break from racing.
“There wasn’t much snow,” Bjornsen reported. “I think it forced me to actually take some rest, which is maybe a blessing in disguise, and I was getting to do more things like hiking and jogging… then we went to Villard de Lans, where there was excellent skiing, so I had some time to do some intervals and just get the race feelings back. It was good to just take a break from the group and a break from the really focused mental place, I was spending time with people that are not racers and for me I think that’s really important, to just have that break in them middle of the season, you know?”
Diggins absolutely agreed.
“I think mentally I’m in a really good place because I had a really good break with my family,” she said. “I really needed that. I had some time to get away from racing and just be really happy – not that racing doesn’t make me happy, but you know – some time to do some alpine skiing and all that fun stuff and now I’m just really psyched to be back.”
The team now has a calm attitude towards the upcoming travails: many more competitions in the span of days, starting with a 10 k classic pursuit on Sunday. Not all the women are planning on completing the Tour – Bjornsen specified that she’s only doing the first four stages, at least at this point – but regardless, it’s a lot of racing in a short amount of time.
“It’s hard to have so many goals in the Tour de Ski because I don’t really know what to expect,” Bjornsen said. “I’ve never done it before. We’ve done Spring Series where we’ve done a lot of racing in a row and so I’m [getting] good at recovering and coming into each race day knowing I did a good job recovering from the day before. I think it’s just going to be a mystery how the results are. Maybe one day it’s going to be great, maybe the next day…. You can never get worked up in the results and that’s maybe the ideal world.”
Diggins, on the other hand, has some Tour experience. Her takeaway is similar — not to stress the small stuff when it comes to results.
“For the Tour, you don’t really need any standout races,” she explained. “But if you can put together a collection of A-, B+, B efforts, and string them all together, it turns into a really great overall tour. You don’t have to have any A+ days… knowing that we’re getting the wax dialed and everything is working smoothly, having all those pieces in place to put out consistent days, is a really big part of getting through a Tour well.”
–Alex Kochon contributed reporting
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.