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Light snow continued to fall in the quaint Swiss village nestled in Val Müstair as the athletes took to the tracks for the first distance stage of the 2021 Tour de Ski, a 10-kilometer mass start classic race. As the first mass start of the season, the women kicked, glided, and poled over 10-kilometers broken into four challenging laps, seeing exactly where they stacked up relative to their competitors.
With four consecutive distance stages, the Tour quickly becomes part poker match, part ultramarathon. Standings and cumulative time are influenced not only by the final result from each day, but by the bonus points athletes can garner at checkpoints on course; in today’s case, an opportunity at the 3.3 kilometer mark.
As position in the field is relatively clear in a mass start — versus chasing the splits of a “ghost” racer in an interval start — tactics, patience, and drafting become more significant.
Today, it was soon evident who intended to make a run at the dealer in the Stage 2 match. Wearing a bright green bib as overall U23 leader, Sweden’s Frida Karlsson skied at the front of the pack from the start. She out-sprinted teammate Ebba Anderson approaching the 3.3 k checkpoint to snag the maximum of 15 bonus points, and seemed to be comfortably kicking up each of the steady climbs. After her defeat of Norway’s powerhouse Therese Johaug at last year’s Holmenkollen 30k, albeit in part attributed to Johaug’s decision not to change skis, Karlsson solidified her position as a woman to watch in distance races.
However, despite her seeming authority at the front, she was unable to create any true gap to the women behind her. At the midpoint of the last lap, six women sat on her tails including two women whose stars and stripes flashed on their legs as they matched the tempo of the other women striding alongside them.
One of these women, Jessie Diggins, comes off a second place finish in yesterday’s sprint. Diggins held her position in the top three throughout the race, at times challenging Karlsson at the front, leaving no room for weakness or error on the young Swede’s part.
Fellow American Rosie Brennan, who finished fourth in Stage 1 also sat comfortably in the lead group, matching the surges that were made to break away as the race progressed.
In the final two kilometers, the other women began their own runs for the win, challenging Karlsson who was faltering, but unwilling to fold. Up the final climb and down the same screaming S-turn descent featured in the sprint course, the women charged furiously toward the finish, Karlsson slowly being swallowed into the pack.
Rounding the final corner and thrashing her poles to accelerate toward the finish, a different woman in white lycra took the reins. 21-year-old Linn Svahn, the winner of yesterday’s skate sprint and of the 2019/2020 World Cup sprint globe, put her closing speed on display to stop the clock at 30:09.9. Though she has won FIS distance races on home soil, this is Svahn’s first distance win at the World Cup level.
“It was really fun. I love going classic,” she told FIS after the race. “My plan was to just keep it as chill as I could, then watch the girls going strong on the uphill and try not to use so much energy. When I knew it was one lap left, I just kept thinking ‘I need to win this. I need to win this.’ So it was really good to race today.”
Just behind, a threesome including Diggins, Karlsson, and Yulia Stupak of Russia fought for the remaining spots on the podium. Stupak and Diggins crept ahead of the Swede, matching each other’s poling tempo before throwing their boots at the line. Stupak barely edged out Diggins, taking second (+0.7) with Diggins just behind in third (+0.8).
“We had great skis out there!” wrote Diggins in an exuberant post race email. “Huge thanks to our service team and coaches for all their hard work, and the Salomon service team for their help picking my skis before the race!”
Diggins continued by commenting on today’s effort, and how this classic result represents years of focus on technique and collaboration with her coaches and teammates.
“My goals for today were to ski smooth and really work the downhills without letting them become a stress in a mass start environment, so I stayed near the front to keep out of trouble. This was a great course for me with all the long power-striding, and when I felt good on the last half of the last lap I just decided to push it! For someone previously labeled as a skater only, it was very exciting to find myself sprinting for the podium in a 10 km classic race, and confidence-boosting as well since I’ve been working so hard for so long on my classic striding! I think that improvement speaks to our coaches’ dedication and our positive team environment where we can learn from one another and push each other in our weaker areas. This summer I really benefitted from my SMST2 teammates helping me push the envelope in classic intervals and I’m extremely grateful to them!”
Despite spending over 8 kilometers at the front, Karlsson took the wooden medal in fourth (+1.4). She was followed closely by Katharina Hennig of Germany in fifth (+2.0), with Rosie Brennan on her tails for sixth (+4.5).
“Today was the first mass start of the season, which is always a little nerve wracking for me as I prefer individual starts,” wrote Brennan in an email to multiple news outlets. “My goal was to keep things as close as possible and then see what I left in the end. I think I did this well as I skied in the front pack throughout the race. I was unhappy with my tactics on the long gradual downhill coming back towards the stadium. I took a gamble on lane choice that didn’t pan out and found myself out of contention for the sprint finish, but managed to minimize my time lost to the leaders and also get a career-best classic result so I am proud of that. I am in a great position for tomorrow’s pursuit start so I hope to find some good energy and take advantage of that!”
Outside the top-10 with noteworthy finishes were Hailey Swirbul in 17th (+40.5) and Katharine Ogden in 22nd (+1:21.2). Swirbul was among a larger lead group through the 5 k, dropping into a chase pack as the top 10 began to break away.
Caitlin Patterson was the next American finisher in 38th (+2:10.4), followed by Julia Kern in 41st (+2:30.6), and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton in 46th (32.49.0). Caldwell Hamilton experienced a crash near the end of the first clustered lap; “You got it, Soph!” could be heard from a passing teammate.
Post-race comments on the women’s 10k mass start from U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb.
Overall Tour de Ski and World Cup Standings
With back-to-back wins, Svahn leads the 2021 Tour de Ski by 13 seconds, with Diggins in 2nd, and Karlsson third (+0:18).
Because of snagging the bonus points in today’s stage, Karlsson sits at the top of the TdS point standings with Diggins one point behind in second, and Svahn three points back in third.
Continuing her streak of outstanding races, Brennan remains in possession of the yellow bib as overall and distance World Cup points leader and sits 4th in the TdS standings for both time (+0:20) and FIS points.
The tour continues tomorrow with a 10-kilometer skate pursuit.
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