OBERSTDORF, Germany – The women’s race in the fifth stage of the Tour de Ski on Wednesday did not offer any radically new occurrences, but allowed Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg to keep the overall Tour lead despite finishing second to her biggest threat, teammate Therese Johaug.
While Johaug outpaced Østberg in the 10-kilometer classic mass start on Wednesday, doing so by a margin of 9.9 seconds wasn’t quite enough to take back the Tour leader’s bib. Fifty-five women raced around the five-lap course, with the loop being the same as Tuesday’s 1.2 k sprint course except for an extra hill in the middle.
The powerful trio of Norwegians (Østberg, Johaug and Tuesday’s sprint runner-up Heidi Weng) started at the front of the mass start and stayed there, immediately setting the pace for the rest of the field. Based on their Tour rankings heading into the race, Østberg wore bib number 1 and started in the front row, alongside Johaug in second and Weng in bib 3.
As Johaug quickly made her way to the frontmost position on the first climb, there was a moment of déjà vu back to the last classic mass start of the Tour.
Stage 2, a 15 k mass start in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, was a boringly comfortable victory for Johaug. She broke off the front of the pack just a kilometer into the race and continued to ski alone the rest of the race, unchallenged. She won in just over 41 minutes, and the next-closest finisher, Østberg, was almost 38 seconds behind her. Weng took third a minute and 16 seconds back.
But from the beginning of Stage 5, Østberg and Weng made it clear that they were not going to let Johaug get away with an easy win. They stuck to her like glue on the uphills and downhills alike.
Despite the narrow, compacting course, just a couple kilometers into the race, these three began to put space between themselves and the rest of the pack. Naturally switching positions and sharing the workload up front, they steadily lengthened their distance ahead of the rest of the field. The nature of the 2-kilometer loop made it like a hamster wheel; with three red Norwegian suits buzzing around, then a break, followed by a battalion for fourth place.
The 5.3-kilometer mark held a bonus-second sprint, which Johaug reached first for 15 key bonus seconds. Østberg in second received 12 bonus seconds, and Weng in third took 10 bonus seconds.
There, just beyond the halfway point, the three Norwegians had put 25 seconds between themselves and the chase group — led by Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla at the time — vying for fourth.
On the penultimate lap, Kalla wiped out on a downhill, sending her and Swedish teammate, Stina Nilsson, into the grass off the track. Kalla recovered but finished eighth, 1:33.1 behind Johaug, thus slipping from fourth to sixth in the Tour. This was the second day in a row that Kalla crashed on a downhill in Oberstdorf, which took her out of contention in both races.
Over the last few laps, Weng struggled to keep contact with Johaug and Østberg. Johaug had upped the tempo around the halfway point and while Østberg responded, Weng began to slip behind. About 3 seconds back at 5.3 k and trailing Johaug by 6 seconds two kilometers later, Weng closed the gap to 4.2 seconds at the start of the last lap.
However, less than a kilometer later at 8.75 k, she was 10 seconds out of the fight for first. Østberg continued to stick with Johaug, climb after climb — until the last significant uphill on the course, where Johaug successfully popped her over the top. Three-and-a-half seconds ahead by 9.3 k, Johaug widened her gap on Østberg over the last rolling hill and into the stadium, beating her by 9.9 seconds at the line.
“At the end, I just had to fight as hard as I could,” Østberg told reporters afterward. “But she was too strong at the end.”
Weng followed nearly 10 seconds later in third (+19.9) and a fourth Norwegian Ragnhild Haga won the race for fourth, 0.7 seconds ahead of Finland’s Anne Kyllönen in fifth. Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter finished 1.4 seconds later in sixth (+1:13.4), Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen was seventh (+1:15) ahead of Kalla, who came through 18 seconds later in eighth.
When asked if she was surprised about Østberg’s ability to stay with her, Johaug replied, “Ingvild is in really good shape, and I have been training with her so much in the summer and autumn, so I know that she is a strong girl,” she told reporters after the race.
With bonus seconds factored in, Østberg remained 12.2 seconds ahead in the Tour. Weng still sits in third overall, 2:33.1 minutes out of first. Kyllönen is fourth (+4:44.4), Niskanen fifth (+5:14.5) and Kalla four-tenths of a second farther back in sixth (+5:14.9).
“It was very tough,” Weng recalled, “But I [didn’t] lose so many seconds and it’s the best distance race for me this year so that was very good.”
Despite losing the race, Østberg was thrilled to stay ahead of Johaug overall.
“It’s a great day,” she told reporters. “Maybe my best 10 k ever, and ten seconds or something behind Therese … That’s incredible. It was a fun day to race her in Oberstdorf.”
Asked how she was able to stay with Johaug, who has won every distance race longer than 5 k this season, Østberg replied, “I was a bit surprised. I felt strong throughout the day and had really good skis. I am really satisfied with the day.
“There are three really hard competitions left now, and it’s a long time since I have finished the whole Tour,” added Østberg, initially known for her sprinting. “I am just happy for every day that I can feel strong and my body still feels really good.”
The Tour continues on Friday in Toblach, Italy, with the women’s 5 k and men’s 10 k freestyle individual starts. It wraps up with the final two stages in Val di Fiemme, Italy, with another 10 k classic mass start on Saturday and final freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis on Sunday.
“I know that I have to fight with [Ingvild] to get the first position to the top of Alpe Cermis,” Johaug said. “But it’s really cool that we are so close to each other.”
Diggins Ranks 12th, Bjornsen 14th Overall
In the scheme of the overall standings, Jessie Diggins leads the U.S. in 12th (+7:01.7) after placing 23rd on Wednesday. Starting in bib 10, she skied in the top 10 for the first lap then slipped to 13th, 19 seconds behind the leaders, by 3.3 k.
About halfway through the 10 k, Diggins and teammate Sadie Bjornsen remained in the top 20, with Bjornsen (in bib 13) skiing in 17th and Diggins in 20th, 47 and 54 seconds back, respectively.
“I took it out hard, and I was really happy with my first lap, and I think I paced OK on the second lap,” Diggins said during in-person interview afterward. “But more than that, what I struggled with was not being decisive enough in ski testing and being a little timid about it, and therefore I did not ask for enough kick wax. I’m not blaming the wax staff. It was my bad to not ask for more, but I did not have enough grip on my skis as a result of that.”
In certain past races when she lacked kick, Diggins recalled falling apart.
“Today I was like, ‘You know what? No! I am fighting. I am in it. I am in a tough kind of day, I want to stay there so bad,’ ” she said. “So I just herringboned, kept my head down, went for it, kept fighting until the very end, for every second that I could get the time, and I was really proud of that.”
At 6.75 k, Bjornsen found herself in 23rd and ultimately placed 26th (+2:23.8), 7.6 seconds after Diggins, for 14th in the Tour (+7:29.6).
After the race, Bjornsen told FasterSkier she struggled with both kick and glide.
“It was really challenging today,” Bjornsen said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have the skis to be able to compete with the field and that makes it extra hard; you are just kind of working against something. At the end of the day, I have to remember that I’m a good classic skier and at this level, the difference between a race like a couple of days ago, and a race today can sometimes come down to what is under your feet. All you can you do is be the most prepared with what you have.”
Behind them, teammates Liz Stephen finished 33rd on the day for 28th overall (+9:26.1), Rosie Brennan was 35th (for 40th in the Tour), and Sophie Caldwell, coming off her first World Cup win on Tuesday, placed 36th for 23rd overall (+8:31.3), though Caldwell does not plan on finishing the Tour.
Caitlin Gregg placed 49th on Wednesday (for 44th overall) and Ida Sargent finished 55th (for 55th overall).
“My energy feels really good,” Stephen told FasterSkier. “This course was challenging on the downhills for me. A couple of those, I was very timid on them today. It probably cost me quite a few places.”
At the same time, Stephen was pleased with her pacing — just disappointed with her descending.
“I had great skis today, so my wax tech is definitely doing a great job, and I’m on a high from Sophie’s win yesterday,” Stephen added. “We are roommates this Tour and neither of us could sleep [last night]. I felt like it was half my win yesterday. I was just so happy for her. So it’s definitely a cool feeling and this Tour, it is so fun.”