Today in Val Müstair, Switzerland Stage 3 of the Tour de Ski (TdS) the 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint course was one star of the show. In two laps of the course, the women ascended a steep climb — even for World Cup standards — navigated technical and high-speed corners, hopped over a small jump, tucked over manufactured rollers, all within roughly 3:30 minutes.
With the added technical features over 1.4 k, at an altitude of roughly 4,000 feet, today’s race became an endurance test.
“It was a really different course than the courses we’d been racing … I think it was taking the girls three and a half or just over three and a half [minutes] which is quite long compared to Davos and Toblach, which I think were closer to 2:35 or 2:45,” the U.S. Ski Team’s Sophie Caldwell said in a call. “It was a brutally long course, and I think the pacing was really key on a day like today.”
To be precise, the winning qualifying times for the four other women’s sprints run this season are the following: 2:56.50, 2:56.43, 2:46.28, and 2:35.95 on Saturday in Toblach, Italy. Caldwell’s teammate Sadie Bjornsen marked that fastest time in Toblach.
At one minute longer than the Stage 1 Tour de Ski sprint, Tuesday was a test as fatigue begins to sap energy reserves.
Sweden’s Stina Nilsson was remarkable as she won the day in Val Müstair. She won the qualifier in 3:30.52, then made the clean sweep through the finals to win her second consecutive sprint.
Nilsson’s winning time in the finals was 3:31.91 minutes, a blink slower than her qualifying time. Through the two laps, Nilsson was patient until hitting the course’s steep punchy climb a second time. That is where and when she made her move. Up and over the climb, she was untouchable down the straight and across the line.
Behind Nilsson into the descent off the final steep climb were Caldwell and U.S. teammate Jessie Diggins. The two U.S. skiers came into the finish-straight nearly side by side, stride for stride until the lunge. Caldwell took second (+2.27) in a photo finish with Diggins (+2.27) who took third. Norway took the next three spots with Ingvild Flugstad Østberg placing fourth (+3.54), Maiken Caspersen Falla fifth (+4.58), and Lotta Udnes Weng in sixth (+20.73).
Caldwell began her day qualifying in fourth, 2.15 seconds behind Nilsson’s winning time. But even before her qualification run, Caldwell took time to assess the course and determine where others were losing time and fading through the 1.4 k circuit.
“Even before my qualifier, because actually, I started twenty-second … I had twelve minutes to watch where people go,” Caldwell said about her pre-qualification course study. “There were some girls that basically came to a stop going up the hill — because I think it’s easy to go out hard there and just implode. So I knew that that was going to be really important, and I think I paced my qualifier well. But I knew that I would have to keep doing that to move through. So I always tried to conserve as much energy on the first lap as possible, and then be prepared to respond to a move on the hill the second lap and just push hard over the top and just ski the downhills well.”
Caldwell stayed true to her plan, never fulling throttling to the point of fumes, but never tempering her pace to allow others to regain ground. She placed second in her quarterfinal to Østberg, and second again to Nilsson in her semi as she advanced.
“Going into [the final] I wanted to keep [Nilsson] in contact, keep her in sight, but I also knew that I had to ski my own race and if I tried to just go with her that could end with an implosion on my part,” Caldwell said of her final’s strategy. “I think I tried to get in a good position and stay in second or third for as long as I could but she was putting in just such a good move on the uphill each time that it was pretty impossible to stick with her. So after she sort of put in a gap, I tried to ski my own race and relax where I could and save a little energy for the downhill sprint finish.”
The second and third place for the U.S. was not in question during the final moments of the race. Diggins is a closer with seasoned grit able to close out sprints on massive stages.
“[Jessie] was kind of right behind me after the big hill final and I knew we both had good skis and we both really like those technical downhills,” Caldwell said about Tuesday’s finish. “It was fun skiing through there knowing she was right there. And then when she pulled up next to me I had to dig deep to find some mental toughness because I know how tough she is. It was pretty awesome having a sprint finish with her. … I’m pretty sure it came down to the fact that my Salomon boot is one size bigger than hers, that’s how close it was.”
Caldwell exited the Tour after the third stage to prepare for the upcoming season which features Seefeld, Austria’s World Championships in February.
For Diggins, the Tour pursuit continues. With her third place today, along with her third place in the Stage 1 sprint and a sixth place in Sunday’s 10 k skate, Diggins leads the Tour. Diggins placed third overall in last season’s TdS yet the leader’s bib she secured today in the 13th edition of the TdS is a first for the Olympic and World champion. She will carry a narrow 1.1-second lead into Wednesday’s 10 k classic mass start.
“Anytime you do well it’s really fun and it’s an honor,” Diggins said in a call after the race. “It’s a really hard competition, there’s a lot of really, really strong girls out there and so it’s really, really cool to be pulling on that overall leader’s bib for the first time ever. That’s just really fun but I’m not going to let it put a lot of pressure on me, it doesn’t change anything about my tactics. I’m just going to take it day by day and every race you race as hard as you can and do the best you can.”
Teammate Sadie Bjornsen qualified in sixth (+3.40). She contested the second quarterfinal where she ended up third. Bjornsen missed out advancing by .31 seconds as Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen crossed the line in second place. Bjornsen placed 13th overall. Bjornsen has stated she will exit the Tour after Stage 5. She currently sits in eighth overall, 1:19.4 minutes behind Diggins.
For Canada, Dahria Beatty placed 39th and Emily Nishikawa 48th.
-David Brown 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.