CANMORE, Alberta — High-alpine sun, firm snow and fast tracks were a Canmore Visitor’s Center dream during the Ski Tour Canada’s (STC) Stage 7 freestyle individual-start races on Friday. It was also a dream day for Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway.
Hers is a name all over the top-three results during this year’s World Cup season. Østberg has podiumed in 18 individual races this year, one of which included a distance win at the Tour de Ski’s 5-kilometer freestyle pursuit in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
In the women’s 10 k freestyle on Friday, Østberg crushed the field to win her second race of the season and a coveted Alberta World Cup Academy cowgirl hat along with it.
“The hat is perfect,” Østberg told FasterSkier. “I thought I was going to win a hat the other day when I started the sprint, but then I got this cool belt buckle. Now I got the hat so that is perfect. So that was motivation today.”
The western wear may not be the most conventional nordic head gear, but Friday, Østberg looked like she could have sported the new lid along with her lycra and still dominated.
Østberg climbed, glided the flats and hopped-stepped up the steeps faster and more efficiently than anyone in the 53-women field. The 10 k course took Østberg all of 23:20.1 minutes to complete and she gapped her nearest competitor, teammate and second-place skier Heidi Weng, by a stunning 23 seconds. Finland’s Krista Parmakoski was third, 24.5 seconds back, besting fourth-place skier Norway’s Kari Øyre Slind, by 0.1 seconds.
“This was unbelievable,” Østberg said in the post-race press conference. “I never thought I was going to win this kind of competition, 10 k skate individual start. I thought that was my weakest kind of competition, But today was perfect.”
Østberg was second at the first time check, and first at the second and third checkpoints. By 6.9 k, she was already 24 seconds up on Norway’s Therese Johaug. Despite her obvious speed on the course, Østberg explained she remained in a comfortable zone, within her limits.
“I was so focused on doing my best and focusing on the technique, and tried not to ski fast,” Østberg told FasterSkier. “It was like I felt my speed was average. I guess that is when you ski fast. I heard that I was fighting second and third place. I thought that was good. With two kilometers left my coach said you are fighting for the win. And then I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding me?’ And then all of a sudden I was 23 seconds ahead, that is crazy. I thought it was my weakest kind of race. Turns out that I win, and it is my best. Crazy.”
Looking at Østberg’s podiums from the past few years, it’d be easy to compartmentalize her as a sprinter; a one-dimensional skier who would likely podium on sprint day, but could be feast or famine — most often famine — on distance days.
“Many years now that I am a sprinter, but I’ve always said I am not a sprinter,” Østberg explained to FasterSkier. “Don’t call me a sprinter because I want to be an all-around skier and I want to do good in all kind of distances.”
The 25 year old is mindful that she has a model on the Norwegian team.
“I see Marit Bjørgen and I see that it is possible, and I see myself in her or I see that I am like her, the same type,” Østberg said. “I’ve also said that I want to fight for medals in distance races. When I was in Sochi, I said I want to fight for it on the next Olympics. So I am ahead of my development, how do you say, my goals. This is kind of earlier than I thought I was going to be good in distance races, but it is so fun, I can ski fast and skating and classic and short and long races. Sometimes when Therese wins by one minute, you feel like she is so strong that you can never be as good as her. Today I see it is possible.”
“Sometimes when Therese wins by one minute, you feel like she is so strong that you can never be as good as her. Today I see it is possible.” — Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, after her second win of the season, the 10 k freestyle at Stage 7 of the Ski Tour Canada
Johaug, who sits second overall with one stage to go, exactly 30 seconds behind Weng, found herself in a spot she rarely visits; off the podium in sixth place, 40.1 seconds behind Østberg. Not only was Østberg as good as Johaug, she proved next year Norway could have a four-way fight for the overall Crystal Globe — there’s Johaug, Weng, Bjørgen, and now Østberg.
This year, Østberg is second in the World Cup overall standings with 2051 points. Johaug is first with 2235 points.
Weng, third on the overall World Cup standings and first in the Ski Tour Canada (STC), knew the race was Østberg’s, but the STC could be hers.
“I start very slowly I think, but in the last lap I wasn’t very tired and Ingvild was so strong, so that’s good,” Weng said in the press conference. “I take some seconds to Therese and that was very good to hear. It’s been a good day.”
By placing second on Friday, Weng earned a 10-second time bonus, and a buffer from the always charging Johaug heading into Saturday’s final stage, a 10 k classic pursuit.
Diggins Digs in
Norway, Norway, Norway, Norway reads the STC’s top-four women’s overall standings. Finland, Norway, Finland, Finland, Sweden reads sixth through 10th. Sandwiched in between all that Scandinavian power, fifth overall, is U.S. skier Jessie Diggins.
Now a top-10 staple, Diggins skied aggressively on the twisting, technical, and energy-sapping course. Her three official time splits were fifth, sixth and sixth place. When the day’s serious challenger’s had finished, Diggins was fifth on the stage, one spot and 7.5 seconds ahead of Johaug.
Diggins explained each day on a Tour is unique. One day the body is good, the other, maybe bad.
“You know, I felt better than the last race,” Diggins said. “Not as good as I was hoping to feel, but also you just don’t know during the Tour. You just have to get out there and do the best that you can. You’re body is going to feel awesome or it’s not and it was a solid race. Not what I was hoping for, but it’s OK. It kind of goes in waves out there you feel good, you recover, or you don’t.”
The other grinding tour on the World Cup calendar is the Tour de Ski. It features the mother of all hill climbs, the Alpe Cermis, as it’s final stage. That beasty climb is atypical on the race circuit. Diggins noted that Saturday’s stage, a pursuit, will have its own drama, but a drama most skiers are more familiar with than those on the Cermis.
“A hill climb, it’s like not ski racing,” Diggins said. “It’s its own category. It’s totally, totally different. With the hill climb, you’re either really good at it or you’re not and people change by minutes. I mean minutes are made up and lost out there and it’s going to be more like seconds [on Saturday].
“It will be very interesting to see it as a normal pursuit race instead of a hill climb and I think that you might see less dramatic shifts, unless there’s some explosion out there,” she added. “I think it’s more fair in the interests of ending a tour. If you’re ending overall it’s nice to end it with a race that we do all year, instead of something we do once a year. I think it’s probably the most fair way to do it.”
Sadie Bjornsen, also of the U.S. Ski Team, skied to 17th on the stage (+1:25.0).
“It was okay,” Bjornsen said of her race. “It wasn’t great, but I went as hard as I could with all the rest of my energy. Seven days in, I’m tired. My second lap itself felt considerably slower than the first one and I think it was just hard to fight from the back of the pack today for those top positions.”
Her sensations were spot on. Bjornsen skied her first 5 k lap in 11:57.3. Bjornsen’s second 5 k was approximately three quarters of a minute slower.
Despite the interval start and a two lap course, Bjornsen skied on her own for much of her race.
“I didn’t really ski with anybody,” Bjornsen said. “I was kind of skiing on my own most of the day today, which with skate skiing, that’s been is a battle that I’m trying to figure out. I find that if I can skate behind somebody I can figure out the skate pacing. But today my goal was to work on my individual pacing and see what I could do. You know I feel like maybe I went out a little too hard and got tired, but at this point in the Tour, why not send it and see what you can do.”
With a solid race on the final stage, Bjornsen’s stars could align — she’s currently 11th overall in the Tour (+6:35.4), one spot out of the top 10 and 47 seconds behind tenth place Charlotte Kalla from Sweden.
“I’m really excited,” Bjornsen said. “Tomorrow is going to be, probably one of the toughest races of the year — and maybe in my life. We’ll see what can happen. It’ll be fun. Although honestly every race here in Canmore has felt somewhat like that hill climb. At this point it’s almost the same thing as a hill climb.”
The third U.S. Ski Team (USST) women in the top 20 was Caitlin Gregg, 19th and 1:26.9 out of first.
“Today was awesome,” Gregg said. “My best finish of the season. Pretty psyched. Really, really close to the top 15 and you know I think considering I did a lot of racing in the last couple, last week. And after coming back from the Birkie, I feel like kind of on top of the world. That’s pretty sweet.”
The sweetness the 35-year-old Gregg has experienced recently included her fourth American Birkebeiner win.
Asked if she thought the renowned 50 k race set her up for success as the STC, “I would say probably not,” Gregg said. “I mean maybe, if we had a 30 k in here, it could have been. But it’s a lot of shorter racing and it’s just a different kind of racing, a different kind of event. But I’ve been pretty happy with my range, I suppose, of my ability. I was pretty close to qualifying in the sprint last week in skate. Then today to be a solid 19th. I think it speaks volumes to just the older you get, the more you can do in terms of length, but then keeping that speed going. So I’m pretty happy.”
Starting in bib 23, Gregg’s checkpoint split times reveal a consistent race: 20th, 19th and 18th.
“To be honest I wanted to go out kind of conservatively, which doesn’t seem to happen for me,” Gregg said.
She gained ground steadily on the women in bib 22, Italian Giulia Stuerz — Gregg’s new World Cup ally.
“But I was really lucky,” Gregg admitted. “I met up with an Italian girl, I caught her from 30 seconds ahead of me. She pushed me really well in the second lap. We worked together and I think it was her first time ever in the points. We raced together now in the mass start back in Quebec and we raced together I think in the skiathlon. We’re kind of joking, we’re like teammates now. We’re just pushing each other every race to get better and better. So I have a friend in Italy. … I’m known to make a lot of friends on and off the trails and so it’s always fun when they help you get your best and you help them get their best.”
After the stage, Gregg is 34th overall (+14:17.6)
The last North American in the top 30, and well within it, was Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier Chelsea Holmes. On Friday, Holmes earned her first World Cup points by placing 22nd (+1:35.1).
Despite her World Cup career best, Holmes admitted she felt less than optimal. “But I think everyone did,” Holmes said. “Which is something you have to remember.”
Holmes made her European World Cup debut this season on Jan. 16 in Planica, Slovenia.
“This year when I was in Slovenia, I had a hell of a time, I was so distracted by all the impressive people,” Holmes said of the high-octane international racing. “I just try to not pay attention to anyone else, it’s really hard otherwise. It’s really easy to get caught up in everything else going on around you.”
Seven stages through, Holmes has proven each day is unique and each race day begins with a blank results sheet.
“I thought about what I wanted to do and I knew it was going to be really tough today because the skiathlon was super rough,” Holmes said. “I definitely knew the first kilometer was like, ‘This is not going to go well.’ ”
She recalled U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb and APU Head Coach Erik Flora telling the team the night before that you don’t have to feel good to ski well.
“So you just have to keep going, I guess,” Holmes said.
Holmes will keep going. She has the privledge of racing the STC’s last stage on Saturday. She currently is 32nd overall (+13:39.9).
Also for the U.S., Rosie Brennan placed 31st, 0.8 seconds out of 30th (for 25th overall). Just over a week after her World Cup debut, Katharine Ogden, of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) and USST D-team, placed 34th. Ida Sargent, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) and USST was 38th, Annie Hart (SMST2) 39th, Kaitlynn Miller (CGRP) 41st, and Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation) 49th.
Leading the way for Canada, Emily Nishikawa (Canadian Senior Development Team) placed 35th (+2:11.3). Dahria Beatty, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and national U23 team, was 40th, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (CNST) 42nd, Cendrine Browne, of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) and U23 team, 44th, Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) 46th, Annika Hicks (Canmore Nordic) 48th, Sophie Carrier-Laforte (CNEPH) 52nd, and Jenn Jackson (Thunder Bay National Development Centre) 53rd.
Racing continues for the women on Saturday with the final stage, a 10 k classic pursuit.
— Gabby Naranja, Gerry Furseth and Alex Kochon contributed
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.