If there’s one word that sums up the recent performances of several members of the U.S. women’s cross-country team, it’s consistency. In Stage 2 of the Tour de Ski, the women’s 15-kilometer classic mass start, Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen proved particularly consistent in their pacing, consistent in their technique, and consistent in their results on Saturday in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
On a day when Norway swept the podium, with Therese Johaug taking the win in 41:26.4, Diggins placed 12th, 2.44.7 minutes back, and Sadie Bjornsen finished in 13th less than a second later (+2:45.3). Liz Stephen, who started in bib 62, climbed with a vengeance up the leaderboard, finishing 20th (+3:15.2). Also for the U.S. team, Sophie Caldwell placed 34th (+4:17.8), Caitlin Gregg was 39th (+4:49.3), and Rosie Brennan finished in 41st (+5:03.6).
The buzzword, consistency, is a baseline many athletes aspire to. The ability to obtain solid results again and again, not to tax the psyche and the body with roller coaster performances can seem ethereal.
“That’s been my goal the last couple years, to be a consistent racer, and of course it’s really fun when you have your huge breakthrough races,” Bjornsen said in a post-race phone interview. “Sometimes I get frustrated that I didn’t have those like top-10’s or top-5’s, although, I’ve been having couple top 10’s this year. So that’s actually been my goal since working with [Alaska Pacific University coach] Erik Flora, is to be a consistent racer.”
Saturday’s 15 k classic was a grind-it-out race. The kind of race where one’s consistency could manifest with a solid result.
From the starting gun, Diggins and Bjornsen kept with the high pace. At the 5.6 k checkpoint, the duo clocked through in 11th and 12th, respectively. At 10 k, Diggins, in 13th, led out a group that included Bjornsen a few seconds back in 17th.
“I knew that they were doing a parade lap and there is that corner down there — I knew had to really had to gun it like the first 2 k or else I’d get shuttled to the back and then never be able to get around,” Diggins said. “So I just decided my goal was to out as hard as I could the first bit and then try to settle into this kind of L4 pace, that’s just under my race pace because I know at altitude, if I blow up I’m dead.”
Diggins did keep it balanced between heavy on the throttle and subtly dialing it back.
“I know that if I’m able to really be good and relaxed and comfortable, then I can really power-stride,” Diggins added. “This is a really good course for me so I was literally thinking, ‘Right, left, right,’ kind of like glide it out and stay relaxed.”
Keeping Diggins in her sights was motivation for Bjornsen.
“That made it extra fun because when she was quite a ways in front of me and sometimes I was catching her so we were just kind yo-yoing,” Bjornsen said. “Seeing your suit is a helpful thing. … You kind of have an extra motivation because your teammates are real humans. So you know you can race at the same level and be with them.
“When you look up and you see a Norwegian suit, sometimes I get turned off a little bit because they are just amazing,” she added. “So when it’s your teammate, with me, it’s an encouraging little voice in my head.”
Yo-yoing or not, Bjornsen held on. She finished just behind pace-setter Diggins, which put her eighth in the Tour standings after two stages. Diggins is currently ninth.
For Diggins, after placing eighth in Friday’s skate sprint, staying with the front pack was a goal from the outset. Like Bjornsen, who found motivation seeing a stars-and-stripes suit ahead of her, Diggins found motivation having a teammate along for the ride.
“It was really sweet. I knew that Sadie was with me so that was awesome because it was like, ‘All right’ and the two of us we were going around passing people together,” Diggins said. “Pretty cool.”
For Stephen, the harder the course, the steeper the hills, the more she likes it. She described Saturday’s course as “kind of a course that eats at you each lap,” she said in a post-race in-person interview. “So if you are patient, people just keep coming back to you.”
Not known for her sprinting, Stephen started the day in bib 62. In order to rise to 20th in the 15 k, Stephen reeled in skier after skier.
“I didn’t want to ski my bib again. It’s been 62 two days in a row now. So I think I’m done with that,” she said.
As the Tour transpires, she’s aiming for better bib numbers with each race.
“I was certainly getting tired by the end , but I think that’s the right pacing strategy … here, you don’t want to be saving a whole ton,” Stephen said. “No need to really conserve any energy, in my opinion, any day of the Tour.
“As the tour builds it’s in my favor,” she added. “If I’m just patient and don’t look too much at each day’s results, but rather what the goal is at the end of the Tour, I think I will stay positive and I’m in a really good place to be able to move up.”
For Bjornsen, who has never completed a full Tour de Ski, she’s entering new territory. But her consistency thus far this season, has her looking forward to the pain to come.
“At that point like everybody is just in a pain train,” Bjornsen said. “I think that the most fun part about it is anytime you are feeling exhausted or tired — like today when I went out to warm up, my legs just felt awful — you literally can just tell yourself everybody is feeling the same way.
“It’s not only the sprinters doing the sprint race and just the distance skiers doing the distances, everybody is having to do everything,” she added. “It’s just a matter of who wants to hurt enough. I don’t know, I love the idea of it.”
The idea of the multi-stage tour as a test of strategy, fitness and suffering can pivot and become a misery. At the end of the day, consistency may not always win the day, but it does win the Tour.
Racing continues Sunday with the women’s 5 k and men’s 10 k freestyle pursuits.
Johaug, the Tour leader, will begin first. Bjornsen, now eighth in the Tour, will start 3:03 behind in bib 8. Diggins will start in bib 9, two seconds later.
Friday’s fourth-place sprint finisher, Caldwell will wear bib 23, starting 4:25 behind the leader. For Stephen, it’s no longer bib 62, she’ll start 27th (+4:27). Gregg will start 38th, 5:55 back, Brennan will go out 42nd (+6:09), and Ida Sargent will start 47th (+6:31).
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.