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Though Devon Kershaw might fairly say “It’s not really cross country skiing,” as a viewer, the grueling climb up the Alpe Cermis is the crown jewel of the Tour de Ski. Sure, it is both impressive and visually appealing to watch beautiful technique and tactical racing, but there is nothing quite like watching racers toil through the lactic burn of grinding their way 400 meters up a ski area, at times with over 40% grade. Wheels come off, gaps close quickly, anything can happen.
Here’s how today shook out.
After nearly 50 kilometers of racing over seven stages, skiers take to the tracks one last time in Val di Fiemme, first for a lap of the sprint course, then soaring along the river banks along the narrow winding track of the Marcialonga, Italy’s WorldLoppet series classic. And, as camera angles altered from shots of the Swedes that set pace down the valley, controlling the narrative from the front while still conserving energy for the climb over the final 2k, to breathtaking aerial views of the frosted valley, it is clear why Marcialonga organizers refer to Val di Fiemme as a “Italian cradle of cross-country skiing”.
After a thrilling set of four podium finishes, including back-to-back distance wins in Toblach, all eyes were on Jessie Diggins. She entered the final stage wearing the yellow bib with a lead of 55 seconds in the overall standings. Given the beastly nature of the climb, this time margin certainly did not indicate that Diggins had her first Tour de Ski win in the bag.
To add to the energy, two sprint opportunities for bonus points were available at the 2.5 and 6.6 k checkpoints, this alternate leaderboard adding interest and incentive for sprinters to remain in the Tour.
Point leader and winner of both sprint stages, Sweden’s Linn Svahn charged off the front of the pack at the 2.5 k mark, collecting 15 bonus points with her teammate Ebba Andersson hot on her tails. The two quickly allowed the pack to close the nearly 4-second gap, but Andersson remained at the front, pulling away to create a gap of over 10 seconds at the 6.6 k mark, which she kept as the grade inclined.
Perhaps trying to lure Diggins to push too hard too soon, perhaps she had her eye on the TdS podium, or perhaps just looking to be the queen of the hill and win her first World Cup, it was clear that Andersson wanted to dictate the pace from the front in the back half of the mass start event.
Andersson was the epitome of steady as she worked her way up the climb. She could V2 when the grade was humane, and smoothly transitioned between her V1 and the “coach’s skate” required to keep skis gliding on the steepest pitches.
While the Swede remained composed, Diggins displayed the grit and perseverance for which she is beloved as a racer. Though Andersson was more than two minutes back in cumulative time heading into the final stage and the remainder of the field behind her, Diggins left nothing to chance, giving her all as she pushed every meter. Holding her ground, the American kept her time back on the leader even and tight, hovering around nine seconds throughout the climb.
With less than a kilometer to go, head coach Matt Whitcomb cheered from a switchback as Diggins passed, his excited shouts leaving him nearly as breathless as the athletes. Pine boughs tucked into the snow to create the final lanes as Andersson and Diggins headed toward the inflated arch that offered relief from the pain in their bodies.
With the end in sight, Andersson with a poker face V2’ed through the finish while a slack-jawed Diggins held together in V1 to cross the final meters and collapse over the finish line.
Finally, the Tour de Ski victory was hers and she could simply lie in the snow, chest rising and falling with her labored gasps for air. More than a win, this achievement makes Diggins the first American — in fact, the first non-European — man or woman winner in the 15-year history of the Tour. She also sits atop the leaderboard for Overall World Cup standings.
“This was a lifelong goal,” Diggins told FIS after her race. “We had an amazing team atmosphere this whole time, and amazing support and help, and so many cheers from around the world — it really gave me wings up the hill today.”
The interviewer asked what this result meant in light of a World Championship season, as completing the arduous Tour in such a year could be seen as a risk. If an athlete cannot recover properly in the subsequent six weeks, their potential on the championship stage could be compromised. Diggins’ answer looked through a wide-angle lens.
“It means so much. I think it’s so cool for our country to show that it’s possible. And now I’m looking forward to resting.”
Behind the two leaders, France’s Delphine Claudel crossed the line in 3rd (+32.6). Evidencing the “anything can happen on the Alpe Cermis” sentiment, Claudel sat in 19th in the overall standings leading into the final stage and had never before earned a World Cup podium, though she was 7th in the 10 k skate in Stage 4. The 24-year-old overtook Russia’s Yulia Stupak in the final kilometer, closing a 12 second gap and creating a nearly 8 second one of her own.
Stupak held on for 4th place (+40.0), followed after a gap by teammate Tatiana Sorina (+1:04.3) rounding out the top five.
With this result, Stupak held her ground in second place for the overall TdS standings, finishing 1:24.8 behind Diggins in cumulative time. Andersson’s outstanding climb was a springboard, advancing her from 6th to 3rd (+2:00.8). Recall that Andersson did not make the heats in Stage 1 of the Tour and finished 12th and 18th, respectively, in the second and third stages. Landing on the podium four times in the final five stages fueled her steady rise through the ranks.
Adding reason for Swedish team celebration, Svahn was the winner in the point totals, with Diggins in second and Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic in third.
Closing out a career best finish in the Tour de Ski, Rosie Brennan was the 7th woman up the hill (+1:17.8) to finish 6th in the overall standings. Brennan’s previous best finishes in the TdS overall were 15th last season and 24th the season prior.
“I love the final climb because of its simplicity and the feeling of accomplishment of reaching the top,” wrote Brennan in an email after the race. “I knew there was an opportunity to make up some places today so I set out with intention. Unfortunately, I stuck a tip in the powder on the side of the trail on the Marcialonga portion leading into the climb and took another digger. Luckily, I didn’t lose much time, but was then at the back of the pack and knew that if I was going to make the most of the climb, I needed to be ready for the breaks as soon as we hit the bottom. I worked really hard to make up the places that I could and then really went for it when we reached the climb to try to get into the leading group. It was my only option at the time, but definitely took a little more energy than I had hoped. I had a moment of weakness when I hit the first steep pitch and lost the ride I needed to take. I was able to recollect myself and hold strong, but frustratingly missed top 5 by a mere 4 seconds. 6th place is absolutely a career best and I am proud of my effort of fighting back after the disaster that was stage 6, but I always want more of myself and those 4 seconds certainly sting a bit.”
“It was inspiring to watch Jessie put so much fight in every day and that certainly inspires me to find more,” Brennan continued. “I couldn’t think of a better person to take the yellow bib off my back. I am also really excited to hold onto the red [World Cup distance leader] bib! The Tour de Ski is always a new experience and always requires a lot of fight. I am thankful to have been able to race the event this year and am really looking forward to some recovery!”
Hailey Swirbul skied the 15th fastest time today, bumping her up to 18th in the overall Tour standings. The 22-year-old is in good company with this result, considering the only other American women to finish in the top-20 of the Tour de Ski are Jessie Diggins, Kikkan Randall, Rosie Brennan, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, and Liz Stephen.
Katharine Ogden finished 24th (+2:34.5) up the climb for 23rd overall in the Tour, while Caitlin Patterson rounded out the Americans in the top-30 finishing 27th (+2:42.9) in Stage 8. Patterson was 34th in the overall TdS standings.
Finally, Julia Kern skied to 37th today (+3:41.3) to end the Tour in 38th.
– Gavin Kentch contributed
This story will be updated with additional comments from athletes when available.
- 2021 Tour de Ski
- Alpe cermis
- Caitlin Patterson
- Delphine Claudel
- Devon Kershaw
- Ebba Andersson
- hailey swirbul
- Jessie Diggins
- Jessie Diggins Tour de Ski winner
- Jessie Diggins wins tour de ski
- Julia Kern
- katharine ogden
- Kikkan Randall
- Linn Svahn
- Liz Stephen
- Matt Whitcomb
- Rosie Brennan
- Sadie Maubet Bjornsen
- Tatiana Sorina
- Tour de Ski
- Val di Fiemme
- yulia stupak
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