DAVOS, Switzerland — Sitting in the leader’s chair in a World Cup event is a big deal, no matter how long it lasts. On Saturday, Jessie Diggins of the U.S. Ski Team posted a fast early time in the 15-kilometer freestyle individual start in Davos, Switzerland, which held up for 11th place overall.
After starting 16th, Diggins was the woman to beat after 19 finishers, giving her reign of the leader’s chair — long enough for her to put another layer of clothes. Germany’s Nicole Fessel in bib 20 was the first to best Diggins’ time (by 9.1 seconds), but Fessel was immediately bumped by the 24th starter, Therese Johaug of Norway, whose time of 35:40.3 would stand as the fastest of the day by over one minute.
With all four U.S. women starting 18th or sooner, Diggins and her teammates had to wait to see where they stood after 48 potential finishers. When the final results were posted, Diggins’ time ranked 11th, 2:03.9 behind Johaug. Caitlin Gregg also cracked the top 20 in 20th for her best result this season and second-consecutive top 30, 2:45.5 back. Liz Stephen and Rosie Brennan rounded out the American contingent in 30th (+3:13.9) and 34th (+3:32.1), respectively.
On Saturday, the Norwegian women were in a league of their own, taking the top five positions led by another dominant Johaug victory. The first non-Norwegian was Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen in sixth (+1:40.6).
By and large, skate races are the bread and butter of the U.S. women’s team, and the individual-start freestyle race was reminiscent of Diggins’ and Gregg’s historic double podium in the 10 k skate at 2015 World Championships last February in Falun, Sweden. Similar to Falun, Diggins posted a fast time early on Saturday and had to wait to see how that stacked up. But this time, the World Championships silver medalist and her teammates didn’t have to wait long as the top-seeded skiers, starting with Fessel, selected unusually early start positions.
Higher-ranked athletes often start later to gain a better idea of how the race is playing out and hone in on times to beat, however, the potential for deteriorating course conditions on a 5 k loop likely influenced the start order on Saturday. Johaug chose to start 24th and headed out four minutes after Diggins.
Because of a lack of snow, the annual Davos distance race was held on a manmade course, which featured a gradual climb out of the valley, followed by a long descent back into the stadium. The women had to round it three times; the men six.
The snow reportedly held up well despite above-freezing temperatures at the start, which continued to rise during the late-morning race.
“Davos is one of the classic World Cups,” U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb explained. “Fluela Pass is a cold river valley that the race course runs up. It is a very unique course, one of the most unique. There is a lot of gliding and a lot of V2 with a long gradual grind and a long gradual descent that stumps a lot of people. It’s a little bit of a niche course.”
The interval start on a difficult course more than 5,000 feet above sea level made for a physically and mentally challenging race.
“There is no rest, it is all gradual up or down,” Diggins explained in a post-race interview. “It is really hard to figure out the pacing. My strategy was to be conservative on the climbs and rip the downhills so my last lap can be quality.
“I think I could have done a better job,” Diggins added. “I’ve done better than in the past, but didn’t quite nail the pacing, but it was a step in the right direction.”
In U.S. Ski Team press release, Diggins said she felt “a little disappointed” at the finish because she felt like she had some energy left.
“If I could do it again, I would have gone for a faster first lap than I did,” she said. “But it was better for me to err on the side of being able to finish hard than blow up, so I’m still learning things every time I race this course!”
Whitcomb was impressed with Diggins’ 11th-place finish — nine seconds behind Fessel in 10th.
“She can really produce a lot of speed through the flats and the downhills and she really sends it through those technical downhills,” Whitcomb said.
“Davos is a challenging race mentally because it is such a gradual climb and you are out there by yourself,” Stephens explained. “My approach was to have specific goals for each kilometer and execute them as best as I could.”
To keep engaged, Diggins focused on technique on the long, steady climb.
“I was just thinking about getting tall, crunching down on my poles, and really stacking my core,” she said.
“Davos is a tricky course with the altitude and not a lot of rest — it is a fine line of pacing and skiing every section well,” Brennan said. “I felt really good on the V2 climb and I skied the downhills better than I have previously.”
Pacing was a big part of Gregg’s approach as well.
“I have the tendency to get excited and go out pretty hot,” the World Championships bronze medalist said. “I wanted to make sure I had something left for the last lap. I gave myself a B+ on that because I definitely felt the wheels come off a bit the last lap.”
Despite trying to control her pacing, Gregg, who started 14th, set the time to beat at 2.2 k, which held up to rank 12th overall at that checkpoint.
“The hardest thing about interval starts is to keep pushing and not get complacent,” Gregg said. “You just have to think ‘Keep fighting, keep fighting.’ ”
Whitcomb was pleased to see two U.S. athletes in the top 20, but said the team’s overall results on the day were a mixed bag.
“We expected more out of today. We feel like our team is in better shape than our results expressed today,” he said. “But we are very comfortable with where everybody is, even those who did not put races together … It’s the World Cup so margins are small so If you miss by a little bit, you miss the whole thing.”
Sunday’s race is a freestyle sprint, another strength for the U.S. women, and Whitcomb has high expectations.
“I’m looking for big results tomorrow,” he said. “That’s an expectation that is not of greed, but one of observation made this week watching our athletes ski on these tracks. The team is looking really good and I think the sprinters are going to show that tomorrow.”
Canadian Emily Nishikawa, of the Senior National Development Team, placed 39th ( +4:05.5) of 46 finishers.
— JoJo Baldus contributed reporting
About the Author: New to the FasterSkier team, Kaitlyn Patterson is a silent sports all-arounder, competing in cross-country skiing, cycling and triathlon since graduating from the University of Michigan where she ran cross country and track. Kaitlyn is intrigued by the complexities of cross-country ski racing and is excited to start in the elite women’s field at the 2016 Birkie.