OBERSTDORF, Germany — On Wednesday, a storm big enough to earn a name from meteorological agencies, “Burglind” provided unexpected obstacles to the World Cup cross-country ski field. With some gusts of wind approaching hurricane speeds, the women’s and men’s sprint courses became potentially dangerous — and they are already difficult to ski under regular conditions.
Trees fell on a warmup track and a section initially intended for the men’s sprint. Blown-over ad banners and gates littered both the men’s and women’s sprint courses for the fourth of seven stages at this year’s Internationals Ski Federation (FIS) Tour de Ski.
“There were a few lightning strikes during the ski testing window that were probably within a mile of the venue, so that made everyone nervous and for me that was the scariest part of the day,” Simi Hamilton of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) wrote in an email. “I think they were prepared to keep running the race until a 60-foot tall tree fell down on the distance course where men were warming up and women cooling down. At that point, I think they deemed it too dangerous to continue, and I agree with the decision they made.”
Ultimately, the race jury canceled the sprints.
This was not good news for some women, who had looked forward to the races and braved the elements successfully: their sprint qualifying round had still been started despite the adverse conditions. Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway won that time trial, although it wasn’t ever counted for anything other than FIS points.
Those who didn’t go as fast as Falla could benefit from having a “mulligan” to try anew on Thursday, when races are scheduled to continue with mass starts also in Oberstdorf.
“The skiing itself was really good today, perfect klister conditions, so it is unfortunate to cancel the race, but our safety should always come first,” USST member Rosie Brennan wrote in an email. “I think it would have been better to postpone the race as soon as the lighting hit and then make a decision as to whether or not it is safe to race so that no one is out skiing in lightning … I was debating if I should keep warming up or not take the risk, and that is a position I don’t think the athletes should be put in.”
The qualifying round was drowned out in a rainstorm on Wednesday. The female racers were drenched when they came off the course, and while lightning could be seen over the mountains surrounding the arena they ran to take cover indoors.
Just as the men’s qualifying round was about to be started, the jury decided to cancel the race day.
“Heavy rain and strong winds made the competition course not safe for the athletes. The competition has halted after the ladies’ prologue before the men began,” a FIS press release stated.
Local organizers, team representatives and FIS race officials couldn’t remember if something like this had ever happened, at a Tour de Ski or otherwise.
“Trees fell over on the course, some athletes just stopped skiing. Those were not acceptable conditions for the athletes, but also for the staff out on the course,” German cross-country team manager Andreas Schlütter told broadcaster ARD, according to a translation.
According to another jury decision, the FIS points gained in the women’s qualifying will count. However, for the Tour de Ski standings and the overall World Cup, it will be as if no race had happened. The Tour thus will have only six instead of the scheduled seven stages.
Jessie Diggins of the USST, currently in third position in the 2018 Tour de Ski (1:26.9 behind Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in first), finished the qualifying in second position, 2.55 seconds behind Norway’s Falla. Local fan-favorite Sandra Ringwald of Germany was third (+5.80), rising from 13th position at the course’s halfway mark.
Behind Diggins, Ida Sargent raced to ninth (+8.67) in the qualifier, and would have had a good position in the heats. Sargent was coming off a strong run, having qualified in fifth position and then reached the final in a freestyle sprint in Davos, Switzerland, in December, and placed 20th in the freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, earlier this week.
“It was really crazy out there,” Sargent wrote in an email after the race. “I’ve never raced in a lightning storm. All through the warmup I was expecting someone to cancel it because the thunder and lightning strikes were really close. I ended up just going inside and spinning because I’m really afraid of lightning. There was another really big lightning strike just before I started the qualifier. Rosie [Brennan] and I looked at each other and both kind of laughed since we couldn’t believe we were actually racing in that. I think it helped me go fast because I just wanted to get back inside as soon as possible. … I felt good out there, so I was actually bummed the weather was so crazy and they had to cancel it. But it was definitely the right call because it just wasn’t safe.”
Starting a few bibs behind Sargent, Brennan finished 21st (+12.95), following up on a 15th-place finish in the Lenzerheide sprint.
“I am, of course, bummed to not race,” Brennan wrote in an email. “However, I am also disappointed that we were even allowed to be out there warming up. Things were not bad at all when we showed up, but the rain increased and then the wind picked up, and then the thunder and lightning started. After I heard thunder and lightning, I became very scared.”
Sadie Bjornsen, currently in fifth overall in the Tour and with a podium in the Stage 2 Lenzerheide 10 k classic, had been looking forward to the Oberstdorf classic race well before starting the Tour, according to a U.S. Ski & Snowboard press release.
But the safety of the athletes was on her mind more so than her own race performance hampered by external wind influence, which might have seen her drop back in the overall standings if the race had continued.
“It sure was a wild day out there today,” Bjornsen wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Unfortunately, it took a turn further from ‘wild’, and turned into life-threatening risk. About 45 minutes before the start of the race, weather took a severe turn. Thunder and lighting started hitting very close, and then the rain came hard, and then the wind picked up. For a while it was funny, but it turned to the point that is was downright dangerous. I was 99% sure the race would be cancelled, so I was trying to not stress. To my disbelief, the jury was not able to weigh the risk between safety and putting on a race, and the race went on.”
After starting in the middle of the field, Bjornsen’s halfway checkpoint split time ranked 15th.
“A giant hurricane gust hit as I was making the far turn on the end of the course,” she wrote of her race loop. “I got blown so hard from the back that I had to skid to a stop on the corner in order to stay on the course. Then, as I tried to make my way up the climb back home, the wind was blowing so hard, I literally couldn’t move. At one point, I crouched down, put my head down, and just tried to not get blow away. I finally was able to get going again, but was forced to herring bone up the entire hill against the wind. As I crossed the line, I quickly realized it was not going to be a fair race today. My sole goal was to get indoors though, so I ran for the building. As the results came in, I heard I got pushed out of qualifying, and it slowly broke my heart.”
Bjornsen finished in 37th position.
“Ski racing can’t always be fair, and that is life,” she concluded. “But more importantly today, I was super sad to see the race wasn’t called off the minute the first thunder and lighting started hitting, and gusts started blowing that were strong enough to take trees down. … We all want to be out there racing, there is no doubt about that… but we should never chase that dream at the compromise to our life! I hope today was a learning lesson for the jury, and we can avoid situations like this in the future.”
Her teammate Liz Stephen would have also been out of the heats after she finished the qualifying in 49th place (+39.22).
Almost exactly two years ago on Jan. 5, 2016, Sophie Caldwell of the U.S. Ski Team won her first World Cup race on this same course and location. On Wednesday, she did not start in the sprint qualifying due to an illness. Earlier this week, Caldwell had already been successful finishing in second place in the freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, only behind Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff.
Questioned in person, FIS Cross-Country Media & Project Coordinator Michal Lamplot could not immediately confirm whether the cancellation would mean that Caldwell could in theory continue the Tour on Thursday if she wanted to (typically once an athlete does not start a tour stage, that individual is out for the rest of the tour). However, Caldwell had already intended to likely leave the Tour latest after the mass start in Oberstdorf to focus on a weekend of sprint races in Dresden, also Germany.
Men’s Qualifying Not Started
Initially the competition jury had considered switching the men’s sprint course to the same 1.25-kilometer loop as the women, omitting a tree-lined higher-elevated section up the (in-)famous Burgstall climb, introduced at 2005 World Championships.
The men, including Canada’s Alex Harvey, who is currently in fourth overall in the Tour standing (1:01.8 behind Switzerland’s Dario Cologna), came out into the starting pen to warm up running back and forth.
“Early in my warm up I went on the training trails, saw a first broken tree there, then looping back to a place I had skied four minutes prior I saw that another tree had fallen in that four minute period!” Harvey wrote in an email. “I think canceling the race was the safe call today. You don’t want to have trees falling on the skiers! It’s the first time something like this happened to me as a skier!”
The men quickly retreated to the athletes’ tent and wax cabins when the jury decision to cancel their race spread around.
“I’m especially bummed with the decision to cancel the race today,” USST sprinter Andy Newell wrote. “I’m particularly disappointed because this classic sprint was pretty much the only reason I was racing the Tour in order to get some valuable classic sprinting in, since they are so limited on the World Cup.”
He would have preferred for the race jury to wait a while longer to have another opportunity for a race he had targeted specifically, though in the end that likely would not have helped as rain turned into heavy sleet and the wind hardly died down.
“I think the weather was probably too poor to have a fair race at the time, but I would have liked to see them postpone or put a hold on qualification rather than cancel,” Newell wrote. “There was heavy rain and wind but the snow was actually in great shape and I think we could have had some good weather windows with a postponed start…. It likely makes it impossible for a tv broadcast with a postponed race, but at least we get something done. This was my main race to focus on in the last month.”
“I think they made the right call today, and I’m glad that everyone is safe,” Hamilton noted. “… You have to be flexible when you are on the World Cup and it’s a good reminder to make the most of every single race opportunity you are given regardless of the weather and conditions.”
Along with the teams, some 900 spectators in the stadium area had to leave again without getting to see a race.
Oberstdorf Stage ‘5’ (Skipped 4) Set for Thursday
According to a statement by FIS, regularly scheduled 10/15 k freestyle mass start competitions will be held on Thursday, weather permitting, albeit with some alterations due to damage to the course. The races will be a couple kilometers shorter for both the men and the women, with the women racing four laps for 8 k and the men doing six laps for 12 k.
“Due to the damage on the planned course caused by the severe weather a different competition course will be used resulting in a slightly reduced lap,” a FIS press release stated.
The USST sprint-specialists will likely withdraw from the Tour, although a few may stay and race Thursday’s Stage 5 (while Stage 4 was never contested, FIS opted to keep the remaining Tour stages named as they previously were). Most World Cup sprinters have their eyes set on a weekend of freestyle sprint and team-sprint races in downtown Dresden, also in Germany, Jan. 13-14.
“If they just continue with the 15 km mass skate then I’ll consider racing that if the conditions aren’t too crappy,” Hamilton wrote.
The athletes focused on the overall Tour — or at least intending to complete the grueling challenge of now six races in nine days — will have to deal with whatever happens next.
“The tour will go on tomorrow,” Bjornsen wrote. “We will keep trying to work through the weather. It is unfortunate to see this storm hitting much harder than expected. In this world, we have to be prepared for everything. Today that meant three layers of clothing, rain outfits, and a positive outlook. We will bring the same tomorrow, and hope the winds and thunder and lighting don’t come to join!”
Ultimately, losing a sprint out of the schedule could drastically impact the Tour’s final standings.
“I think if we just lose the classic sprint, it’s better for [Martin Johnsrud] Sundby and Dario [Cologna],” Harvey wrote. “For me personally, I’d like to have a classic sprint, both for my Tour de Ski chances and the opportunity to get another good classic sprint before the Games. They made a new course for the men here and it’s a bit like the PyeongChang course… I don’t know if it’s just me but the first thing I thought when I skied the course yesterday was: sweet, this is a great practice for the Olympic sprint!”
—Alex Kochon and Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.