LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland — Based on their starting positions, the top two U.S. women in the Tour de Ski knew that their game plan for the 5-kilometer freestyle pursuit was to pack up and ski hard.
Sadie Bjornsen started in bib 8 just seconds ahead of teammate Jessie Diggins in bib 9.
“My strategy today was to hang onto Jessie for dear life, because she’s one of the best skiers in a pursuit or relay style race,” Bjornsen said. “She caught me pretty quickly and I just stuck on her like glue.”
And Diggins? She had her own strategy, involving Finland’s Krista Parmakoski, who started another four seconds back.
“I knew she’d be trying to catch us and I thought, you know, if I could just get on her and stay on her, she’s having a great year, so if I can keep up with her we can hopefully work and reel in some people,” Diggins said. “Krista and I would take turns leading. I’d lead the flat, she’d lead the hills.”
The trio worked together for the whole race, solidifying their positions in the top 10 of the Tour de Ski.
“Those two were switching leads, which was good because I think they were the ones pushing the pace, and I was just trying to stay with,” said Bjornsen, who finished third out of the group and in ninth overall. “I’m stoked. Things are going well so far, and today was a test to see if I can be strong in the head in skating. It was good.”
Diggins thought she could get Parmakoski at the finish, but ran into slight trouble on one of the last corners.
“The very last one, I slingshotted her and I came into the corner like, ‘I’ve got this,’ ” Diggins said. “But I hit this ice patch. I knew the ice patch was there, and I just didn’t set it up right. I drifted wide and gave up the line.”
Parmakoski took seventh and Diggins ended up eighth. She and Bjornsen are now 3:42.9 and 3:43.6 minutes back in the overall Tour de Ski standings behind Norwegian leader Ingvild Flugstad Østberg.
While she wanted to beat Parmakoski, Diggins had her eyes on the prize – that is, the final Tour standings. She didn’t get too hung up on the details, as either way the pair would have ended up with nearly identical times in the overall Tour.
“In terms of the Tour, it doesn’t matter at all,” Diggins said. “I didn’t have the amazing body feelings that I was hoping to have, but if you can have a lot of B+ days in a row, that becomes really, really good. If you can keep it consistent, even if you’re not having an amazing day, you can hold your line, hold your place, and that’s what you need to do.”
Looking forward, both Diggins and Bjornsen plan on resting up on Monday before the classic sprint and distance race on Tuesday and Wednesday in Oberstdorf, Germany.
“We have classic sprint, I mean we haven’t done that since Kuusamo, and I’ve forgotten how to do it,” Bjornsen laughed, referring to the very first weekend of World Cup racing. “Like I said yesterday to you guys, I think that the cool thing is just I love any race right now.”
Diggins also loves racing and wants to string together more solid days, but found herself wishing that there were more skate competitions left in the Tour. Of the remaining five races, just two are skate.
“I’m starting embracing my love of classic skiing,” she said. “But deep down, I feel that it is inherently unfair. Of course, the world is not fair, but I think it is a shame that it couldn’t be balanced because if you’re going to put four times the World Cup points at the end of the Tour, it should be fair … even if it was all skate, I would be think it’s not fair, it shouldn’t be that way.”
Stephen Makes Up Ground
Their teammate Liz Stephen started the pursuit in bib 27 and now sits in 22nd in the Tour de Ski standings, thanks to the 14th-fastest split time of the day in the pursuit.
“It was really short, but you know that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easier, it just means that it’s not as much time that you can make up,” Stephen said. “It was really fun. The group I was skiing really left out of the gate hot, so I was struggling to keep up and wasn’t able to, until kind of basically like 2 k to go, and then I was able to pass most of them and end up in the front of that group. I was happy with the finish.”
Fifth in last year’s Tour de Ski, Stephen still has ground to make up. She’s currently a minute and 22 seconds behind her two teammates, and just over five minutes behind Østberg.
But saying that the Tour de Ski “picks up every day,” Stephen, a distance specialist who relishes the Tour’s final climb up the Alpe Cermis in Italy, is confident that she can keep moving up.
“I have to get through one more sprint,” she said. “Hopefully, the course in Oberstdorf will have some hills, although I know the big hill’s not in it. If not, I still have Val di Fiemme and Toblach to look forward to, mostly Val di Fiemme, and of course Cermis. The Tour de Ski is not over until you cross that Cermis line. And a lot can happen between now and then. The key for me is keeping my head up, and not really dwelling on like a bad day or a good day, and just kind of keeping going.”
Americans in the Mix
Meanwhile, Sophie Caldwell was happy to find herself in the top 30 of the Tour standings. Since she plans to stop after the Oberstdorf stages, she hadn’t made a goal of where she would rank in the overall standings. But after two solid distance races, she sits in 27th.
“My biggest expectations were for the skate sprint, or both sprints, I guess,” she said. “I knew I was feeling good and rested, so I wanted to have some solid distance races too, and I feel like they’ve taken a big step in the right direction since the distance racing I’ve done before.”
Caldwell finished 34th in the 15 k classic mass start on Saturday, despite breaking a pole. She thought that if she hadn’t, she might have been in the World Cup points.
“I mean, it’s easy to say what if, but I was happy with how I felt,” she said.
And she considered crossing the line in 27th in the 5 k pursuit to be one of her best distance races ever.
“My goal was to hang on for as long as possible,” she said. “I did that and imploded big time going up the hill the last time, but I hung on… I’ve been working hard on improving my distance racing, because not only do I want to become a better distance racer, but I think it will help as I move through the [sprint] heats as well.”
Ten places behind her in 37th, Caitlin Gregg was also happy with her race. Gregg had a tough go in the 15 k, falling in the beginning and skiing in nearly last place around the first lap. But she eventually made her way through the pack to a solid 39th-place finish, and now has a goal of continuing to improve in races.
“My second half of the 15 k was really great,” Gregg said. “I felt better and better and better. Hopefully it’s a good metaphor for me in the Tour. In the end we race a lot of kilometers, and that’s more like my forté. It’s a game of attrition for me – I feel like each day I’m going to get better and better. It has been the case. I keep moving up in numbers. I’m having fun.”
Gregg, Rosie Brennan and Ida Sargent were all in the wave starts at five and five-and-a-half minutes behind the leader, which gave them a different race experience than their other teammates.
Brennan finished 42nd and Sargent 51st.
“It’s like a mass start 5 k,” Gregg said. “I feel like a J4 or something.”
“It was really fun being in the wave,” Sargent said. “Just skiing with people. If I’d look up and still see Caitlin, I’d think, huh, I’m having a good race! She’s still in sight!”
The pair also talked about sharing skis; each have tested and raced the other’s skis now that Sargent has switched to Madshus.
“We’re competitors, but we want to make sure that everyone has the best race possible on the team,” Gregg said. “I’m rooting for Ida to kick ass whether she’s on my skis or not. It brings the level 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.