CANMORE, Alberta — To avoid being shaken, play the shadow.
That was how Norway’s Heidi Weng secured her second win over Norwegian teammate, Therese Johaug in the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon on Wednesday. It’s also how Weng has the distance queen’s winning reign on hold.
“I am not surprised she matches me,” Johaug told FasterSkier after Wednesday’s race in Canmore. “I am training a lot with her this whole season so I know she will be really strong at the finish line.”
Taking the stage win in 39:41 minutes, Weng never questioned her chance at a showdown with Johaug or her ability to maintain the Tour lead.
“We ski [with] each other often and I think that is why we are very good,” Weng told FasterSkier.
“It was very good to go with Therese and give her a little bit of a fight,” she added during a press conference.
With only two more days of racing left in the Tour, Johaug is currently ranked second behind Weng in the STC overall standings, 2.9 seconds back.
“Of course, the race on Friday will be very important because I am only three seconds behind Heidi,” Johaug said, referring to the Stage 7 women’s 10 k freestyle. “[And] Heidi is in really good shape at the moment.”
Despite the pressure some racers of her repertoire might feel to perform, Johaug claims she has none.
“I don’t feel a lot of pressure [to win],” Johaug said. “I race as good as possible and I know there are many strong athletes here. So I’m not thinking of that, I am just going for myself.”
Weng, Johaug’s New Wingman
When the sound of the gun went off for the women’s skiathlon mass start, Weng was not about to let Johaug’s yellow World Cup leader bib out of her sight.
“Today, I feel very strong in the classic,” Weng said.
Strong enough to ski within centimeters of Johaug for all of the first 7.5 k classic leg and eventually, take over the lead from her teammate by the exchange zone.
“We have a very strong team and we push each other,” Weng said. “We be better to do that.”
While Weng pushed Johaug through the exchange, the top of the climb out of the stadium found Weng waiting behind Johaug once again.
“Skating I was so stiff and I tried so hard to follow Therese,” Weng explained in a press conference.
Weng duplicated Johaug’s every move, denying any distance between them until the final 100 meters. The two approached the finish line neck-and-neck, but it was Weng who whisked the win away from Johaug by eight-tenths of a second.
Crossing in third, 9.8 seconds back was a third Norwegian, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, after skiing much of the race in or around eighth place.
“You know, it started out not so good,” Jacobsen told FasterSkier. “I was really tired the first two laps but throughout the skating it got a bit better. I’m really happy I was fighting so hard I could keep my group and had a really strong finish.”
Jacobsen ranks third in the overall Tour, 1:06.2 behind Weng and about 46 seconds ahead of another Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in fourth. Østberg placed sixth (+14.2) on Wednesday, behind Finland’s Krista Parmakoski (+13.4) and Anne Kyllönen (+13.5) in fourth and fifth, respectively.
U.S. Women Withstand Tests of the Tour
With eight days of solid racing — ending at elevation (about 1,400 meters, or 4,600 feet above sea level) –even the strongest athletes do not leave the Ski Tour Canada (STC) untested.
“In a tour like this I kept saying, it is not that hard to be hard to be most the mentally strong out there because everyone is wrecked, everyone is tired,” American Jessie Diggins said after finishing 11th (+42.8).
After solid day of sprinting on Tuesday, Diggins didn’t sugarcoat her experience in Wednesday’s skiathlon.
“The skis were great and everything was good, but yesterday just took a lot out of me,” she said.
Even on the edge, however, Diggins is not one to back down.
“I’ve already raced 35 times this year so if I can pull one percent out of myself, it will make a huge difference,” she said of her race effort. “So I tried to ski in the pack, draft [and] conserve energy.”
Diggins drafted off Petra Novakova of the Czech Republic, as well as eventual third-place finisher Jacobsen during the classic leg, later switching to Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Kari Øyre Slind of Norway during the freestyle portion.
“In the end, when I felt like we were losing time I pushed the pace because I don’t care what place I get, I care what time I get,” Diggins explained.
Though Slind slipped away from Diggins by 2.1 seconds for the day’s final top-10 spot, Diggins’ performance moved her up one spot to fifth place in the overall Tour.
“I’m really psyched,” she said. “42 seconds down on the leaders today, so I can live with that.”
Another U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Sadie Bjornsen finished the skiathlon in 16th, the second American woman across the finish line. It marked her eighth-straight World Cup top 20, and so far in six stages of the Tour, Bjornsen has not placed worse than 18th.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Bjornsen said after. “I am tired … the thing you have to tell yourself the whole time is that everyone else is tired [too].”
For Bjornsen, the athlete who sustains the test of the tour is the athlete who readily enters the fight.
“I’ve known that it was really gonna be a battle these last four days,” Bjornsen explained. “I realized that the minute I arrived here. So I’ve prepared for it to hurt. I was not waiting for that feeling, ‘Whoa here we go.’ ”
Even prepared for pain, Bjornsen found the start of Wedneday’s classic leg tough.
“The classic was particularly hard,” she said. “I was slipping a lot, so there was a lot of extra work.”
To her own chagrin, the USST member found herself excited to switch to the freestyle leg.
“I was really happy to switch to skate skis,” Bjornsen said. “I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I’m just loving the skate events. I fortunately had [Germany’s] Nicole [Fessel] to ski with when she was pushing hard, I was just trying to hang on. So yeah, I enjoyed the second act, that’s for sure.”
Overall, Bjornsen ranks 11th in the Tour, 5:23.4 behind Weng.
Also finishing with World Cup points on Wednesday was USST member, Rosie Brennan in 25th (+2:24.0), for her best result of the season.
“I felt pretty good considering all the races we’ve done,” Brennan said.
Growing up training at altitude near Park City, Utah, Brennan found no trouble adjusting her body to the change in elevation.
With that advantage, Brennan said she decided to, “Just focus on what I can do each meter in front of me and not worry about the field because everyone is going to be feeling different.”
U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb spoke enthusiastically about Brennan’s performance, as well as the group of Americans behind her on the bubble of making the top 30.
“What I am most encouraged with is Rosie finished 25th, then we had a group from 31-36 that includes a couple girls who have never been in the points,” Whitcomb said. “Annie Hart, Chelsea Holmes, Katherine Ogden all right there. That is really exciting for me and it is starting to express our depth.”
U.S. Ski Team rookie Caitlin Gregg finished 31st (one-tenth of a second out of the top 30), Ogden (Stratton Mountain School) was 32nd (0.2 seconds behind Gregg), Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) 33rd, Hart (SMST2) 34th, and Ida Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project/USST) 35th.
Liz Stephen did not start and thus had to pull out of the Tour as a result.
“She was trying to hang on and hope the cold went away but it didn’t. Sophie the same, Simi the same,” Whitcomb said of Wednesday’s withdrawals. “So we are missing some big hitters today but we are having some developing skiers stepping up to the plate. It is going to be an exciting next couple of days.”
Two Canadian Senior Development Team skiers Emily Nishikawa and Cendrine Browne placed 37th and 38th, respectively. Dahria Beatty (CAN) took 41st, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbit (CAN) 42nd, Kaitlynn Miller (USA) 46th, Katherine Stewart-Jones (CAN) 48th, Annika Hicks (CAN) 49th, Maya MacIsaac-Jones (CAN) 51st, Jenn Jackson (CAN) 52nd, Jennie Bender (USA) 54th, and Sophie Carrier-Laforte (CAN) 55th.
Athletes have one final off day before STC racing wraps up on Friday and Saturday with the women’s 10 k freestyle individual start and the final pursuit.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.