LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland—With two tough distance races out of the way, the U.S. sprint team is looking forward to a competition they haven’t seen since the very first race of the World Cup season: a classic sprint.
The sprinters did not go into the Tour de Ski planning to finish it, but skipping a stage means dropping out of the Tour altogether. So to get to Tuesday’s sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany, they had to compete in the 15/30 k classic mass starts here on Saturday, then the 5/10 k skate pursuits on Sunday.
Not that they saw it as too much of a problem to do some distance racing.
“I love racing right now,” Ida Sargent said after the pursuit. “The great thing about the Tour de Ski is that it’s racing every day. If you have a day that’s not so good, you get to do it again the next day – not waiting a week or more, like normal. After the 15 k yesterday I went to bed excited to race again.”
Sophie Caldwell had the best result in the opening sprint of the Tour de Ski, a skate competition where she finished fourth. Teammates Sargent, Andy Newell, and Simi Hamilton also qualified for the quarterfinals, while Sadie Bjornsen and Jessie Diggins went to the semifinals.
Newell, who finished 19th in the skate sprint, has already been visualizing Oberstdorf, where he has made three sprint semifinals in the past, including a fourth-place World Cup finish in 2006.
“I’ve been looking forward to that race for a while,” Newell said on Sunday. “I really like that course and I know if I am feeling at the top of my game, I can be on the podium in Oberstdorf. I’m just happy to have had made it to that race, you know? I made it through today and my body actually felt better today than yesterday, so I’m happy with that. I’m tired but not blown out at all.”
Hamilton agreed that he was looking forward to the competition, saying that Oberstdorf is “a short course which definitely suits me well.”
With a number of sprinters already dropping out of the Tour de Ski after the first stage, there’s also some opportunity for a top finish.
“Everyone’s going to be tired and that’s kind of funny on sprint day, because you now try to feel so quick and explosive and fast,” Newell laughed.
But at the same time, some distance skiers sprint better and better as Tours go on, so a field full of tired sprinters doesn’t make the win any easier.
“I definitely think there will be some tired people there, but people look at it as more opportunity to score some bonus [seconds],” Hamilton said. “You have to be 100% engaged and you can’t really go into the heats and take for granted that all the sprinters are a little tired. You still have to treat it like every other sprint World Cup where you have to lay down as fast as you can in the qualifier and then ski smart in the heats. Should be fun.”
Despite fatigue, the team will be training “like usual” on Monday in preparation for the Oberstdorf competition.
“We’ll be out there doing some speeds and testing skis and stuff,” Newell said. “We won’t take the day off.”
And at the moment, Newell is planning to do one more distance race after the sprint – the 15 k classic, also in Oberstdorf. Then he’s planning to end his Tour, although how his body feels after the sprint could change the balance in either direction.
After all, the U.S. men’s team is looking for one more man besides Noah Hoffman and Erik Bjornsen to score World Cup points (for a top-30 finish) in a distance race so that they can increase their start quota from three to four.
Could that one guy be Newell or Hamilton?
“I hope so!” Hamilton said. “Last year I scored some distance points in the prologue, so generally the short skate races present the best opportunity for me. I may race in Toblach on Friday, so we’ll see it will depend on how I’m feeling. We’ll look at the schedule this year and hopefully be able to jump in some more distance races, especially some shorter skate races. I know that I’m fit and strong and healthy, but obviously the sprinting comes first.”
-Jason Albert 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.