Eight-hundred meters into Saturday’s 15-kilometer classic mass start — the second stage of the Tour de Ski — it was all over. Therese Johaug, the Norwegian World Cup leader who’s won every distance race this season, had already put five seconds between herself from the rest of the 65-athlete women’s field. Several teammates fought to hang on behind her, with Heidi Weng skiing in second, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in third (+5.7), Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen in fourth (+6.6), and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in fifth (+7.3).
Jessie Diggins positioned herself in sixth by 0.8 k, less than a second behind Østberg, and another American, Sadie Bjornsen skied another 2.5 seconds back in 10th.
But that was less than a kilometer into the four-lap mass start in Lenzerheide, Switzerland: a classic distance race on a thin strip of snow amid a brown field, in temperatures just above freezing.
Around 2 k, Johaug had nearly 13 seconds to play with. The order remained the same behind her, except Sweden’s Stina Nilsson crept into sixth, 22 seconds back. Diggins stuck in ninth (+25.8) and Bjornsen in 14th (+30.9).
The rest of the race continued to be all about Johaug, as the 27 year old raced to a 37.9-second victory over Østberg in 41:26.4, and took the overall lead in the Tour de Ski by 4.5 seconds (thanks to 30 bonus seconds she captured at the 5.8 k and 9.6 k checkpoints).
“The plan was not to get a gap so early,” Johaug explained in a post-race press conference.
But she felt good, so she decided to go for it.
“When I have this gap in the front of the girls, I had to do my own race,” she said. “I had to focus on the technique and my job. I am sure I have perfect skis and the body was really good. It was a good feeling here.”
Fifteenth in Friday’s skate sprint at the first stage of the Tour, Johaug had 44.4 seconds to overcome in order to catch Østberg as the leader. Another Norwegian, Maiken Caspersen Falla had won the sprint, but decided not to continue the Tour in order to prepare for other World Cups later in January.
That put Østberg, who had been second in Stage 1, in the lead heading into Saturday’s distance race.
Best known as a sprinter, Østberg hammered the last five kilometers to drop Weng (whom she skied in second and third with in pursuit of Johaug for about seven kilometers) around 10 k and minimize the distance back to Johaug. With about a kilometer to go, Østberg trailed Johaug by 42 seconds. Østberg recovered 4 seconds on that final kilometer.
“It was a great day for me, maybe my best 15 k ever, so surprised I’m not [farther] behind Therese,” Østberg said in the press conference.
When Johaug was asked if this was her ideal start to the Tour, she replied, ‘Yes.’
“I’ve got the perfect start,” Johaug told VG. “I have never gone with the [Tour leader’s] red jersey until the nine years I have gone, so I am very pleased to have with me 45 bonus seconds today, plus the difference to the others. So I’m very, very happy.”
Weng finished third, 38.3 seconds after Østberg and 1:16.2 behind Johaug. It was another 16.5 seconds to fourth, with Anne Kyllönen edging her Finnish teammate Kerttu Niskanen by 0.2 seconds. Kalla crossed the line 0.7 seconds later in sixth. Finland had four in the top 10 with Laura Mononen 2:19.3 back in seventh and Krista Parmakoski 2:30.7 behind in 10th.
“The last lap, I was very stiff,” Weng recalled in the press conference. She now ranks third in the overall Tour standings, 1:45.2 behind Johaug. “I was very slow so it was very hard. I think that the other girls come back, will take me to the end, but I still take the third place so I was very happy.”
Part of a seven-skier chase pack behind Østberg and Weng until about a kilometer before the halfway point, when the group started to faction off behind the leaders, Jacobsen missed the top 10 by 11.5 seconds in 11th (+2:42.2) and lay on the ground after the finish for a long time. Several teammates and competitors, including the U.S. women checked on her, but Jacobsen needed help from medical staff to get her back on her feet.
“I just talked to Astrid, and the intention is that she’ll race tomorrow,” Norway’s national-team doctor Fredrik Bendiksen told NRK, according to a translation.
Sunday’s race, Stage 3, is a 5 k freestyle pursuit for the women and the final race in Lenzerheide.
Women’s coach Egil Kristiansen expressed concern about Jacobsen.
“I do not know what it is, but it is not quite good,” he told NRK. “I guess it might have something to do with the breath. She has had no cases of it before.”
As for the 5 k, Johaug wasn’t sure the distance was long enough to her liking.
“Oy, It is really short race,” she said in the press conference. “Ingrid starts only 5 seconds behind me, so I know it’s gonna be tough, but I will do my job and focus on my stuff, and, yeah, then we see how it goes.”
Østberg saw it from a different viewpoint. Five seconds to Johaug was still a lot to overcome, she said.
“I’m not quite sure if I’m going to try to keep up to Therese or just focus on my own race,” she said. “My plan today was to focus on my own race and stay calm, that’s been a really good plan for me this season in distance races, so I guess I have to do the same tomorrow. But for sure, it would be fun if I could keep up with Therese. She’s really strong in distance races … so it will be a hard fight tomorrow.”
Stay tuned for another report on the U.S. women, with Diggins and Bjornsen leading their team in 12th (+2:44.7) and 13th (+2:45.3), respectively, on Saturday. Bjornsen currently ranks eighth in the Tour (+3:02.8), and Diggins ninth (+3:05).
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.