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Onward with the 2021 Tour de Ski! From the western edge of Switzerland, we’ve landed in the tiny and spectacular Italian village of Toblach. Nestled at just over 4,000 ft of elevation in the Dolomites, bluebird skies illuminated pines wrapped in snow, jagged rocky peaks, and hard pack frosty trails. It’s the kind of backdrop that might make viewers lose focus on the athletes as they stare longingly at the fairytale-esque scene. Just me?
Entering the heart of the Tour, the storyline of individual stages and overall standings are inseparable. As athletes took to the course for today’s individual start 10-kilometer skate, the overall tour contenders focused on optimizing their time margins. Current TdS leader Jessie Diggins aimed to maintain or add to her 5 second lead over teammate Rosie Brennan, and both wanted to keep the Swedish distance star, Frida Karlsson at bay in third (+0:10).
In individual start races, start position can provide two important advantages: firstly, starting behind a comparable athlete might offer the chance to close the gap and either catch a ride or work together to push through the challenging course, and secondly, coaches can feed athletes the splits of skiers who started before them, providing a ghost to chase from checkpoint to checkpoint.
A string of Americans starting in the last four positions were seemingly primed for these two benefits. In order wearing bibs 49 through 52 were Katharine Ogden, Julia Kern, Brennan, and Diggins.
Conversely, Karlsson started in bib 24, 13 minutes ahead of Brennan. This put the Swede roughly halfway through her race with all the splits that entails as the American leaders left the start.
Karlsson hit it hard. When she passed the 2.1 k checkpoint at which bonus points were available, she set the bar high, stamping a time that stood unmatched at the top. That is until Diggins knocked it down and took the maximum of 15 bonus points. Let that be the first indicator of how Diggins’ day at the office would go.
Unfortunately for Karlsson, it also marked the beginning of a fade.
As this took place, yet another young Swede should catch your eye as she steadily advanced up the live timing ranks: 23-year-old Ebba Andersson. Taking charge in the second half and leading from 6.7 k onward, Andersson set the time to beat at each checkpoint, finishing in a time that was not bested until the final moments of the stage.
And, a familiar veteran with TdS overall podium history, Krista Pärmäkoski, rose to the Stage 4 occasion. Her results have steadily improved during the tour after a disappointing start to the season since the opening weekend Ruka, Finland where she did not make the top-30 in the sprint or distance events. Along with Russian’s Yulia Stupak, who entered Stage 4 in 5th place in the standings (+0:59), and Tatiana Sorina, the top of the leaderboard jockeyed for position as they worked through the woods.
With no spectators, it becomes perhaps even more clear just how hard these athletes are working. It’s like having a seat trailside: head coach Matt Whitcomb’s shouts of encouragement unimpeded by his mask, while the high pitched swish of poles striking whipped through the crisp air. With labored breathing for durations mere mortals could not sustain, Diggins and Brennan powered up the final climb, working their way toward the stadium with complete command over the field.
Powerful tempo on display and a look of determination, Brennan powered down the final stretch to knock nearly eight seconds off Andersson’s time. A few seconds later, braids whipping in time with her V2, Diggins lit up the stadium as she ran away with her second consecutive victory, stopping the clock at 25:14.5.
Piggybacking on their Stage 3 performance, it was another 1-2 performance for Diggins and Brennan (+14.8). The first occasion was history, now — dare we say it — maybe a pattern for this Tour.
This result keeps Diggins at the top of the overall standings with an improved margin of 20 seconds over second place. Standing alongside her teammate on the podium in second place in both the Stage results and overall Tour, Brennan also cushioned her margin for the TdS podium.
“Most importantly, I smiled and had fun and kept the pressure off, just saying “this is my favorite course and I’m going to go out there and see how fast I can ski it!” I loved getting to ski with Julia and having the four of us girls starting right in a row made the start pen such a psyched-up vibe!
“So proud of Rosie and how she’s been crushing it all year, and loving every podium we get to share together! Also, so pumped for Gus for his breakthrough race today! It’s so cool to see this team on fire.”
“Today was the only individual start race of the tour and is my preferred format so I had a lot of expectations and hopes for myself today,” wrote Brennan in an email. “The course here is challenging with lots of climbing in the beginning and then lots of downhills that require a lot of work and aren’t terribly restful coming back into the stadium. Knowing that, I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste time getting down to business but also wanted to be sure I had enough in me to push all the way to the finish. I felt I did this well and skied a very consistent race, but it was not enough to not lose time to Jessie, especially on the working downhills which I consider her to be best in the world at. That said, I left it all out there and am happy with the way I skied. If I’m going to lose a race, losing it to a teammate is not a bad way to go! More importantly, I gained some time in the overall standings on everyone except Jessie so for the long game, it was a good day. I feel that I am holding up well at the halfway mark of the Tour and really hope I can continue to fight hard in the second half. We made it another day with America 1-2 and that in itself is something to celebrate!”
Andersson’s time held up for third place (+22.2) in Stage 4 with Russia’s Stupak fourth (+25.7), Pärmäkoski fifth (+31.3). Karlsson fell back to ninth (+52.4).
In the overall standings, Karlsson remains in third place just over a minute behind Diggins, and 42 seconds behind Brennan. Russians Stupak and Sorina sit in fourth (+1:25) and fifth (+1:51), respectively. By earning top points in today’s bonus sprint, Diggins moves to the top of the TdS point standings with 45 points. Karlsson is two points behind in second, with her teammate Linn Svahn trailing Diggins by seven points in third.
While Diggins and Brennan were certainly the highlight of the day, three additional American women clocked strong performances that kept them well inside the top-30. Ogden skied to 18th place (+1:16.9), with Hailey Swirbul close behind in 20th (+1:24.8), and Kern in 25th (+1:35.7). Caitlin Patterson, who was the first athlete on course in bib 1, skied to 39th (+2:12.1).
Before we conclude, an important update from FIS addressing Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic’s disqualification in Stage 1. Lampic had brushed skis with Switzerland’s Nadine Fähndrich on the technical downhill less than 500 meters from the finish line during the final, where the two looked to be fighting for the second and third podium positions. It was concluded on the day that Lampic had illegally interfered and impeded Fähndrich, however, that decision has since been overturned in an appeal from the Slovenian Ski Association.
From FIS: “The appeal by the Slovenian Ski Association against the FIS Jury decision of the Sprint F case concerning Anamarija Lampic from 1st January 2021 was partly approved. The Appeals Commission asks to change the sanction to a written reprimand (yellow card). As a consequence, Friday’s Sprint results will be updated and Anamarija Lampic will be ranked as 2nd and Jessie Diggins ranked as 3rd and Frida Karlsson ranked as 4th. Additionally, the decision impacts the Tour Overall standing, the Tour point standing and therefore also the start list of today’s Pursuit competition.”
This update is reflected in the overall results posted below. Though this moves both Brennan and Diggins down a spot in the Stage 1 results, it does not affect their current standings at the top.
Post-race comments from U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646