The 12th edition of the multi-stage Tour de Ski (TdS) opened Saturday with 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprints in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. On a spectator-friendly, 750-meter loop featuring a punchy and sustained climb each lap, the hustle and bustle of a gritty and soft-snowed World Cup sprint were on full display.
We’ll leave the suspense out: it was the first home-snow World Cup victory for a Swiss skier since 2007. It was also the first career World Cup win for 30-year-old Swiss skier Laurien Van der Graaff.
Van der Graaff took those honors after qualifying in fourth behind fastest qualifier, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, and winning the women’s final in 3:25.80.
“It was a really good day,” Van der Graaff told Swiss broadcaster SRF, according to a translation. “I already felt good at the start, never really tired. I knew if I was still in the mix on the finish stretch I could win it all. Last year I always couldn’t put it together mentally; a little bit was always missing. I am just really happy that I now finally was able to put it all together. … I really worked on this all summer, that I want to win, that I want to be in front, that has always been a little ambiguous for me. That in the end I didn’t really have the will to win, or maybe also the strength to really withstand. And today I thought to myself, ‘Now I’ll take it,’ and it worked.”
The bigger news for North American fans was that Sophie Caldwell was back on the podium. Caldwell wore Bib 3 as the third-fastest qualifier. She finished the qualifier 2.33 seconds in back of Østberg, the day’s fastest qualifier in 3:29:91.
Caldwell ultimately raced a savvy, gutsy and full-steam series of races to land second overall, toeing the line in the final 1.42 seconds behind race winner Van der Graaff. Caldwell last scored an individual World Cup podium two years ago when she won a classic sprint stage of the 2016 Tour de Ski. In doing so, she became the third woman in U.S. history to win a World Cup.
In the time since, the U.S. women’s team has racked up several other individual podiums. Jessie Diggins won three individual World Cup races (and earned two medals at 2017 World Championships), Sadie Bjornsen has notched three individual podiums (and 2017 World Championships team-sprint silver with Diggins) in the last year, and Kikkan Randall raced to bronze in the 2017 World Championships skate sprint and third place this season at the Davos World Cup.
Third place in Saturday’s final was locked up by Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla (+1.86), who also won the first semifinal. Falla now leads the World Cup overall sprint standings. Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, who is not contesting the TdS, remains in second.
Russian Natalia Nepryaeva took fourth (+3.17), and Jessie Diggins finished fifth (+4.33) after breaking her second pole of the day (she previously broke a pole in the quarterfinal). German skier Sandra Ringwald fell and finished sixth (+31.68).
Caldwell and Diggins
Before getting to the day’s American stories, here are the U.S. team’s results for the day: five out of the seven U.S. women entered in the Tour qualified in the top 30 to advance to the heats, with Bjornsen clocking the 13th fastest time (+5.20), Rosie Brennan 15th (+5.27), and Ida Sargent 30th (+8.69). Randall finished 44th and Liz Stephen 66th out of 71 in the women’s qualifier.
Bjornsen finished her day 14th overall after placing third in her quarterfinal. Brennan placed 15th after also finishing third in her quarter. Sargent ended the day in 20th.
Post-Stage 1 in the TdS, the World Cup overall sprint standings remain top-heavy with Americans. Bjornsen, Caldwell, Diggins rank fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively. Sargent is 14th, Randall 16th.
On Saturday, Caldwell crushed and skied cool. She won her quarterfinal by 0.22 seconds over Germany’s Victoria Carl.
“I was pretty confident in my finishing kick especially because my heat had a lot of more distance-oriented skiers,” Caldwell said on the phone. “I figured my strength would probably be like something like the finishing stretch or having to put in a surge, so I just tried to be patient and pick a good line and put in a good punch on the finishing strength and that seemed to work well.”
Caldwell’s semi was more stacked. She confidently skied into a three-way photo finish in her semifinal with Falla and Diggins. Falla won, Caldwell placed second (+0.06), while Diggins was third (+0.07).
“I was really proud, watching her ski the way she did,” U.S. Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone. “She’s really making the transition from someone who skis carefully and tactfully and really maximizes her finish speed and strategy to somebody who’s starting to control some heats. And when I saw her in this incredibly aggressively paced semifinal hanging the way she does on the second lap, on the big climb, at altitude, we knew she had a good shot to win this race. So, it’s perhaps, I think, the fastest Sophie’s ever skied in a skate sprint. I think she has never looked this good, particularly at altitude, and I’m really excited to see what’s ahead for her.”
On a good day, all the little thing must align. Not simply the ski speed and sensations, but the ability to adapt and make opportunities.
“My strength is usually gliding and skiing fast and relaxed, and sometimes my weakness is that short-hop V1 because I can glide really easily,” Caldwell said of her willingness to keep in contact with the front. “But my tech and I chose some really good skis for climbing today, even if they weren’t the absolute fastest on that long downhill, they felt really awesome climbing and I think for me today that was what was important, was to make sure my legs felt good on that section and coming across the flat in the start and in the middle. I knew Miken is a really strong V1-er and would probably be making her move there, and so I tried to position myself coming through the second time where I could be either behind her, or have a clear trail in front of me and just match her tempo because she has a really impressive V1 and pushes it over the top of hills. That worked quite well both in the semi and the final and my V1 felt surprisingly good today, of course, my legs still hurt but it wasn’t this instant flood that sometimes I get when I try to get when I V1 up the short steep little things.”
Caldwell’s season so far includes two eighth-place finishes, a ninth and Saturday’s podium. Her up-tempo start to the season has Caldwell embracing both skate and classic techniques.
“Well it’s funny because I actually always considered myself a skate sprinter until I won in Oberstdorf,” Caldwell reflected on her win two years ago. “But I was like hands down a better skate sprinter and I preferred skate sprinting and classic distance. Then over the last few years, I feel like they have become equal. I honestly don’t know which one I prefer which is a good feeling to have because I think I am more confident in both of them. I would say maybe at this point classic is a little more consistent, but skate is easier for me to either pop a good one or feel really bad on a day. But I am definitely psyched with the consistency of the beginning of the season. It’s funny because it is by far the best I ever started out a season, especially with Ruka and Lillehammer results. But after a few weekends getting eighth or ninth or whatever I was those first few weekends, you are definitely left wanting more. I had to just keep reminding myself that I tend to ski into the season.”
In the fourth World Cup sprint of the season, Saturday was podium-time for Caldwell. As for Diggins, we’d like to coin a verb: to “Diggins”. Definition: hard-charging, never capitulate, no excuses. In Lenzerheide on Saturday, Diggins totally “Digginsed”.
She qualified in second, 1.41 behind Østberg, in a hard effort that may have been Diggins’s easiest part of the day.
“It’s a classic Jessie story where she overcomes a major obstacle and still advances as if nothing happens,” Whitcomb said of Diggins’s broken-pole recovery in her quarterfinal and the final.
“So when something like that happens, unfortunately, nobody really remembers what she had to overcome,” he continued. “She broke her pole at the top of a big climb on the first lap [in her quarterfinal], and one of our techs, Eli Brown, saw it and just was not quite positioned perfectly for that incident. He was where he was supposed to be, but the skiers were moving so fast. But it’s a pretty good spot to break a pole because she just had to hop in the draft and ski down the downhill, and we were able to get her a pole about 100 yards after the downhill.”
Diggins kept in control. She was able to keep her losses in check while maintaining contact with the leaders. Broken pole or not, Diggins was in it to win it.
“In the quarterfinal, I was coming around the corner and someone kicked the tip of my pole just as I’d planted all my weight on my poles to turn the corner, so it shattered,” she wrote in an email. “Eli came running with a really amazing javelin throw of a spare pole, (I mean, you should go watch, it was epic) but I was already too far down the track and I knew I needed to stay closer to the pack if I was going to have a chance. I stayed calm, knowing that I felt amazing and I still had a chance to make it out of the heat if I could get another pole quickly. After rounding the corner and skiing another 50 meters one-poled Matt came running with a tall spare pole and I was able to just put the hammer down and get back into it.”
Diggins finished second (+0.54) in that quarterfinal, 0.54 seconds behind Van der Graaff, who won that heat. Behind her, Falla finished third (+0.87).
Diggins went on to reach the final as a lucky loser after placing third in her semifinal’s three-way photo finish for first with Falla and Caldwell. And then once again in the final, Diggins snapped a pole.
“In the final, the pole break came at a really bad place to try and come back from, unfortunately,” Diggins wrote. “I was cornering with good speed but Van der Graaff moved over slightly right and kicked my pole just as I’d put all my weight on it — same way that the first pole broke. … Unfortunately, to get another pole I had to ski way out of the way and by the time I got the spare that was inches taller than my other pole, I had lost contact with the group and only had about 700 meters to catch up. … It was a tough battle but I’m starting to get really good at one-pole skiing ;)”
Heading into Stage 2, Caldwell is ranked second and Diggins fourth overall in the tour based on adjustments for qualification time and time bonuses.
“I was really proud of how I skied today,” Diggins noted. “I raced with guts and never, never, never gave up, and my fitness is definitely there and ready for a good tour. It feels good to feel strong, and not tired! Wow!”
The TdS continues Sunday with a 10 k classic individual start for the women (15 k classic for the men).
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.