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Sunday, Val Müstair, Switzerland hosted the last of three stages of the Tour de Ski in the picturesque alpen valley. With no fans present, and only traditional cowbells gonging as the audio backdrop, it was clear Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan, through their audible lung-gasps, were flexing for the stage win.
Before the drama of the day’s fine racing, first, some context. Last season, there was a new Swedish woman who barnstormed the World Cup. Already Frida Karlsson (21), a distance phenom, and Ebba Andersson (23) had taken bows on the big-stage – both part of a memorable World Championship 4 x 5 k gold medal team in 2019. Then Linn Svahn (21) came smashing through. She won last season’s World Cup sprint globe and returned primed to the Tour de Ski after a month away from the World Cup. (The Swedish National Team withdrew from World Cup competition in early December due to Covid-19 precautions.)
In two races at this 15th edition of the Tour, Svahn won the stage 1 skate sprint and secured her first career World Cup distance podium when she won Saturday’s mass start classic. A race many had picked Karlsson to run away with. Let’s simply say, Sweden sits in a sweet spot in terms of long-term skier development on its women’s team.
Today, Svahn led out first during the 10 k skate pursuit with a 19 second time cushion over second starter Jessie Diggins. Karlsson began another second behind Diggins, with Brennan the fourth starter (+0:22) .
It took a single lap of the 2.5 k loop during for Karlsson, Diggins, and Brennan to reel in Svahn. The catch came at 7:40, roughly 2.8 k’s into the race. Up to that point, Karlsson had set the pace allowing the two Americans to sit in her wake.
When the foursome coalesced, Svahn took her place at the back with Karlsson still upfront. Around they went beginning the third lap, Svahn still velcroed on. Yet her adhesion to the group eventually ripped and the sprint star began to bleed time. At 6.2 k she had lost 24.7 seconds to Karlsson in the lead.
Here was the podium hustling along and jostling for the final 1-2-3 spots — Karlsson, Brennan, and Diggins. The order of the trio would vary here and there. What became clear around 9 k, was Diggins’ insistence on working every centimeter of the racecourse. Every opportunity to free skate was taken, as was a tuck to streamline as she eventually blasted into the lead. At 24:00 minutes, Diggins was decisive – and frankly impressive. Meter by meter Diggins gained ground on Brennan and Karlsson as she unrelentingly charged into the finish.
26:54.1 was her official winning time in what was also Diggins’ first win of the season. Brennan who was as equally coy and powerful, placed second, 5.6 seconds back. Karlsson, perhaps the favored skier coming into the 2021 Tour de Ski, was third (+10.7). Svahn faded to sixth (+1:12.9).
“What a cool day!,” Diggins explained via email. “I was so excited to ski with Rosie and see what we could do out there, and we had great skis to help us on our way! I started out trying to help pull the group, but then nearly imploded in the altitude and spent the next few laps getting my legs back after feeling extremely wobbly! But on our last lap, I realized that once we got over most of the climbing I could still push without fear of totally blowing up, and knew I needed to send it on the downhill as hard as I could. It was such a cool feeling, sprinting it in for a win and getting to wear the yellow jersey. It’s important for me not to put pressure on myself and take the tour one day at a time, but it’s also important to not take these special moments for granted, and to enjoy a few moments knowing how hard so many people have worked to help me get here!”
“Today was a day that required some sharp focus but the reward was well worth it,” Brennan emailed. “The fatigue of the tour starts to settle in about this time, but the time of day is what counts towards your overall tour place so it was not a day to only fight for place. I was fortunate to start in a strong group with Jessie and Frida. We are all work horses so I knew it was going to be game on from the start. Frida really took reigns and charged hard the whole race. Being more of a climber I tried to make a move at the top of the climb on the last lap. It worked to get a gap to Frida but also made a perfect launch for Jessie to utilize her fantastic downhill skills. I did my best to follow her counter move but didn’t quite have what I needed. It’s a pretty cool feeling to finish and realize that two Americans are 1-2 in the Tour right now! I am very proud of my effort today because it wasn’t a dream day of feelings in my body.”
Sunday marked the seventh career individual World Cup win for Diggins which includes a best time of day in a 2018 10 k skate pursuit. Despite a stout classic race on Saturday in the 10 k classic, skating is Diggins’ bread and butter: All of her wins are in skate technique.
With today’s victory Diggins dons the Tour’s yellow bib as the overall leader with a scant five-second lead over Brennan in second overall. Karlsson, still a crazy strong threat for the overall, is third (+0:10).
In 2018/2019, Diggins placed sixth overall in the TdS. Last season she was ninth overall. Brennan placed 15th overall in the 2019/2020 Tour but has entered this season with profound fitness and drive.
Hailey Swirbul who began in bib 17, moved up four spots to 13th in the stage (+2:03). Katharine Ogden, the 28th starter finished 25th (+3:43.6). Caitlin Patterson moved from 40th to 35th (+4:35.1), with Julia Kern, in bib 41, 40th (+5:00.7). Sophie Caldwell Hamilton placed 48th (+6:10.7).
Diggins raced the fastest time of day, 26:35.1 minutes, with Brennan 2.6 seconds slower with this second fastest time. Swirbul skied the seventh fastest time (+39.6), and Ogden the 28th fastest (+1:13.6). Time of day is used for FIS points allocation.
This story will be updated.
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.