LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland — Sophie Caldwell’s fourth-place finish in the World Cup freestyle sprint was a highlight for the U.S. Ski Team on Friday. But it certainly wasn’t the only one on this first day of racing in the 2016 Tour de Ski.
Six athletes making the quarterfinals? That was one metric. Caldwell was joined by Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins and Ida Sargent in the women’s quarterfinals, while Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell made the cut in the men’s race.
“The great thing is that we are regularly qualifying four people now,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said of his squad. “And that’s an important step in a direction that gives us a better shot at huge results every day. Throwing more darts at the board you get more bullseyes.”
Some athletes came close to a bullseye; some didn’t. Sargent finished fourth in her heat and 20th overall, which she said was good for a skate sprint, but not perfect.
“It was good there is just – I need more hill,” Sargent said. “I can make up time on the uphill, but there you can V2 almost that whole hill and maybe there’s ten seconds of V1. I would have liked a little more than that, but it is what it is. And I just didn’t have a strong finish today.”
Newell also landed fourth in his heat after being near the front early, and finished 19th overall.
“I feel a lot better than the result’s going to show,” Newell said. “I tend to like those races where you can go on an uphill and get away, which you can’t really do on a course like this. I should’ve been a little more aggressive on the top of the hill… it’s just one of those races where it is tactical, it’s going to come down to the last hill and into the finishing stretch. Sometimes it works in your favor, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the way sprint racing is.”
But some of the team did come close to bullseyes. Metric number two: three of those ladies finished in the top eight, with Bjornsen and Diggins just barely missing the semifinals.
“For all three of those girls, it was heats skied exceptionally well,” Whitcomb said. “There was never a time when one of them was dangling off the end, unable to hang because of fatigue or fitness or poor moves.”
Bjornsen called it “some of the better skiing I’ve done”, and was disappointed to miss the finals by just one spot – and two hundredths of a second, after failing to outlunge Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter, who went on to take second place on the day.
“It was a drag race there at the end and I was bobbling a bit,” she said. “I think it was a very close photo finish. I’m very satisfied.”
Diggins was in the same semifinal and missed the final by another 0.65 seconds, but was also happy with her skiing.
“It was one of those things where I got a little flooded on the wrong part of the course, but I was looking for the windows and I felt great,” she explained. “Which is awesome on the first day of a Tour. I’m really excited for the whole thing. I’m really proud of how I skied the quarter.”
Like Newell in his quarterfinal, the course’s tactical nature and razor-thin time margins tripped up more than a few racers.
“There’s not a whole lot of passing because the whole thing is turning, basically, except for up the hill,” Diggins said. “Even there it winds a bit and there’s a best line. So when you pass, you have to just be so decisive. If you don’t have the power in that moment then you’re not going to make the pass. In my quarter it worked. I had the right amount of power. Then in the semifinal, it wasn’t there when I went to try to make the move.”
But enough about the women — metric number three? Even when things didn’t go so well, the team had a good attitude.
Hamilton qualified in 13th and was feeling good coming off a World Cup podium in Toblach, Italy, before Christmas. He had also won the sprint the last time it was held here as part of the Tour de Ski.
But in his quarterfinal he crashed with Switzerland’s Jovian Hediger in the final. That left him in 27th place overall, far from where he wanted to be.
That could have been a major disappointment for Hamilton, but the Stratton Mountain School T2 skier took it in stride.
“I came into [the corner] with a lot of speed, and skis just kind of get piled up there,” Hamilton said. “I’m, for sure, bummed… But it’s ski racing, we all come out on the good end of things, we all come out on the bad end of things, stuff like that happens. So you’ve just got to, I think, roll with it. Stay positive, and look forward to all the racing in the future.”
Hediger didn’t take things so lightly, turning around in the finish and angrily pointing at Hamilton before telling Swiss media that the American took him out, even though he stayed on his feet and finished fourth in the heat.
“Simi is clearly in podium form, but crashed on the final corner because of just sort of a race incident,” Whitcomb said. “Each of them were too close to the middle of the track. But the cool thing that made me more proud than anything today is that Simi got up and waved to the crowd and skied it in with a smile on his face. He’s going to keep his focus here.”
“He’s got a little bit of a short temper, but he’s a nice dude, everyone’s a nice dude out there,” Hamilton said of Hediger. “I think racing kind of turns up that dial for some people a little bit.”
The team seemed to universally be looking forward to the next stages of the Tour de Ski, starting with 15 and 30 k classic mass starts on Saturday.
“It’s my first Tour and I’m stoked to see what happens,” Bjornsen said. “I have no idea what to expect, but it will be fun.”
Even Diggins, who usually enjoys skating more than classic, was excited.
“Super pumped,” she exclaimed. “Yay classic skiing! It’s a good thing I’m loving it more this year. So I’m excited to go out there and show off all the months and months and months of hard work.”
And even the sprinters, who are focused on turning in good results in the classic sprint stage in Oberstdorf, Germany, in a few days, were positive. The sprint emphasis won’t stop them from going hard in distance races before then.
“I’m going to race for real tomorrow,” Newell said. “It’s a mass start classic race, and I’m going to try to forget the fact that it’s 30 k, and just try to go with it and ski and try to have fun out there. I’ll be racing hard tomorrow, then assess things one day at a time and make sure I’ll be ready for Oberstdorf.”
Sargent, who resists being pinned in the sprinter box, agrees.
“I haven’t done many distance races – I’m mostly really excited for classic races,” she said. “It will be really good because the only distance races I’ve done so far were in Kuusamo when I was still sick, and they didn’t go very well. I am looking for some redemption now that I’m healthy.”
“This is a team that’s on the roll right now,” Whitcomb concluded.
– Gerry Furseth 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.