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We have entered the back half of the 2021 Tour de Ski. With five of eight races complete, roughly 45 kilometers raced and a little under 25 remaining, fatigue has set in. While it might be easy to think the storylines are set, in such a grueling feat of endurance, nothing is certain. Crashes happen, wax is blown, recovery compromised.
Whereas Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan had the advantage of chasing splits in yesterday’s individual start freestyle, in today’s pursuit start classic the hunters became the hunted. The women took to the course in Toblach, Italy in order based on their results in Stage 4, with their chasers starting behind with the deficit they attained only from the previous day’s race. This put Diggins first out of the gate with Brennan 15 seconds back, Sweden’s Ebba Andersson +22, Russia’s Yulia Stupak +26 and Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski rounding out the top five starters +31 back. (Start list)
Her yellow bib like a target on her back, Diggins set out solo with her usual high tempo. Behind her, Brennan was chased by the charging duo of Stupak and Andersson, who caught her by roughly 3k. Brennan hopped onto their tails as the group worked their way toward Diggins.
As head coach Matt Whitcomb predicted in his interview after Stage 4, conditions near freezing made for icy and glazed tracks which led through a variety of sun exposures, meaning athletes could kick up some hills in the tracks, but had to hop out and run to make it up others. In summation: it makes things a little funky out there.
Perhaps this was what caused Diggins to fall just before the 4 k mark. The crash was relatively minor and she was able to quickly bounce back upright, however, it gave the chasing threesome the opportunity to catch and pass the leader.
Stupak and Andersson seemed to try to capitalize on the opportunity, surging as they skied smooth and strong up the subsequent climb with Brennan and Diggins hanging on in their wake.
Try as they might, the two could not quite lose the Americans, who matched every push to prevent gaps from forming. Living up to her reputation, Diggins worked the downhills in the final kilometers making up for any small amounts of space between her skis and those in front of her that were created on the climbs.
In the final rolling climbs before descending into the stadium, Diggins found a new gear, overtaking Andersson and challenging Stupak for the lead. Coming into the lanes, Stupak’s double pole could not be matched, allowing her to pull ahead by a ski length while Diggins and Andersson fought side-by-side to the line for a photo finish. It was determined that Andersson edged out the American by centimeters, Sweden in second (+0.7) and USA in third (+0.8).
“So proud of our techs for the skis they made us in tricky warm conditions today!” wrote Diggins in an email after the race. “Wow, that was a tough fight out there. I was really proud of myself for hanging tough and just gritting it out until the end! It was a good test of mental toughness for me after a little fall and getting caught to be able to refocus, stay calm and ski as smart and smooth as I could! It was really important for me to stay with those girls today in terms of overall tour time, and I was just able to hang in there. Super pumped for our team and for another good classic race!”
After falling back from the leaders in the final k, Brennan held on for fourth place (+17.3).
“Today was a very tough fight,” wrote Brennan in an email to news outlets. “My goal was to lose as little time as possible and then see what I had in me. I went out hard hoping I could find Jessie to ski with but got caught before I found Jessie. It’s the kind of course that is much easier to draft so once we got caught, it was nice to settle in a bit, however, the pace was still high. I fought as best I could but couldn’t keep contact over the top of the big hill. I fought as hard as I could to regain contact but it’s just so much faster in a pack. I fought with all I had today and am proud of that and happy to maintain second in the overall tour.”
Working together throughout the day, Finland’s Pärmäkoski and Russia’s Tatiana Sorina skied to a strong fifth (+37.3) and sixth (+38.3), respectively.
Though margins for the overall TdS standings were narrowed as her win streak came to an end, Diggins remains in possession of the yellow bib with a cumulative time of 1:54.15. Brennan holds strong in second place (+22), with Stupak in third (+58), overtaking Sweden’s Frida Karlsson who was a favorite for the win.
It is unclear whether Karlsson will be able to lodge a counterattack on her seemingly increasing deficit. FasterSkier learned that in an unfortunate accident involving a pull-up bar that let loose from the door frame it was affixed to, the 21-year-old sustained an injury to her tailbone and leg. According to an interview with Swedish news outlet Expressen, Karlsson was not sure whether she would race in Stage 4, let alone finish the tour. This may explain her fall from podium contender to 9th place in the 10 k skate and 13th (+1:20.1) in today’s classic pursuit. Karlsson holds onto fourth place in the overall (+1:29), with Stupak in 5th (+1:53). (This incident is also discussed in The Devon Kershaw Podcast from Stage 4.)
Further into the pack, Katharine Ogden and Hailey Swirbul skied to 20th (+2:05.8) and 22nd (+2:07.5). The two started amidst a relatively dense group of ten women in the range of 1:10 to 1:36 behind Diggins. This larger chase group stayed together through much of the course with a few exceptions breaking off the front and back. Both Americans maintained their position in the body of the group, with only a handful of seconds separating a subset of six at the finish. As they were 18th and 20th in Stage 4, Ogden and Swirbul demonstrated remarkable consistency in their solid performances.
Wrapping things up for Team USA, Caitlin Patterson skied to 39th (+3:57.3) while Julia Kern took 41st (+4:04.3).
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