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Out with 2020, in with 2021. Here in the world of multicolored lycra and skinny skis, we are kicking off the new year with the opening of the Tour de Ski on the sprint track of Val Müstair, Switzerland. As snow fell lightly but steadily, the usually remarkable mountain backdrop was veiled, narrowing our focus to the athletes as they embark on the grueling eight stages over ten days that is the TdS.
The two-lap 1.4-kilometer sprint course in the alpen valley featured two punchy climbs per lap leading down into fast and tight S-turns. Small rollers after these turns kept the skiers on their toes as they charged around the course.
Though the Norwegian athletes remain absent from the World Cup and TdS, the Swedish women are back in full force. They made their sprint prowess known in the qualifier, with 26-year-old Maja Dahlqvist setting the fastest time by nearly three seconds in 3:30.86. Seven members of their squad qualified for the heats, with an additional three in the top 10: Linn Svahn in 2nd, Moa Lundgren 4th, and Frida Karlsson in 8th. Though Karlsson is normally known for her distance racing (in particular besting Norway’s dominant Theresa Johaug at last year’s Holmenkollen 30 k), her possession of the green U23 Overall World Cup leader bib evidenced that she was not to be dismissed as a contender for the stage.
Wearing the yellow Overall World Cup leader bib, Rosie Brennan was the top American qualifier in 5th (+4.38), followed by Hailey Swirbul in 13th (+8.65), Jessie Diggins in 14th (+8.96), Sophie Caldwell Hamilton in 16th (+9.77), and Julia Kern in 25th (+12.61).
Brennan raced in a stacked first heat of the quarterfinals, racing against two of the top Swedes, Dahlqvist and Lundgren, in addition to Russia’s Natalia Nepyaeva, teammate Kern, and Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff. Brennan stayed near the front and in position to advance from the get-go, but couldn’t break from the lead group of four. She finished in a three-way photo finish with Nepyraeva and Lundgren, taking third but snagging a lucky loser spot allowing the threesome to all advance into the semis.
Also advancing from the quarters from the fifth heat, Diggins held a position near the front throughout her heat, showing with her lightning-fast tempo that she intended to advance. She pushed Karlsson and Italy’s Greta Laurent break from the remainder of the group. In the second lap, Diggins had the fastest V1 cadence on the climbs and stayed smooth in the descents, priming herself for good positioning in the final sprint to win the quarter.
Ending their day after the quarters, Caldwell Hamilton marked Swedes Svahn and Emma Ribom. In her usual calm, cool, collected manner, she skied smoothly through the S-turn and tucked in comfortably on Ribom’s tails. Despite great position coming into the final lanes, Caldwell Hamilton could not quite overtake Ribom and finished centimeters behind for third in the heat. Swirbul stayed close to the leaders but was unable to fight for the top two and ultimately ended the heat in third also. Neither heat was fast enough to obtain a lucky loser spot.
On to the semifinals. Racing on home soil in the tight first heat, Nadine Fähndrich (SUI) edged out her opponents for the win in a three-way photo finish with Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic and Sweden’s Dahlqvist. Considering Lampic and Fähndrich both finished in the top four of the last two freestyle sprints in Davos and Dresden, this result serves as a testament to the depth of the sprint field in those venues despite the lack of Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians.
Brennan and Diggins took off in the second heat, marking Swedes Svahn and Karlsson who held the front in the first lap. In the second lap, Brennan upped the tempo on the climbs, while Diggins pushed over the top and worked the downhill, free skating out of the rollers and putting herself into position to charge down the lanes ahead of Karlsson to hold onto the second position and a secure advance to the final.
Fighting for millimeters, Karlsson and Brennan were just behind in third and fourth. Both squeaked through as lucky losers, but only just as Brennan’s time was a mere 0.1 seconds faster than the next fastest time.
The pace stayed hot and the pack stayed tight in the first lap of the final. Diggins and Brennan stayed in the mix near the middle of the pack and in contention for the podium.
As the racers rounded the bend into the second lap, Svahn began firing on all cylinders, taking off at the front with Lampic and Fähndrich marking her from a couple ski lengths back. Just when the top-3 positions seemed locked up, Lampic and Fähndrich brushed skis in the downhill S-turn causing Fähndrich to crash, losing sight of the podium. Svahn continued to hammer, flying down the final stretch to take the win with Lampic nearly a second behind her.
Seizing the opportunity, Diggins nimbly dodged around the downed Fähndrich, hopping over her pole and hitting the gas to drop a chasing Karlsson and snag third.
“I didn’t know how I’d feel in high altitude,” Svahn told FIS after the race. (Val Müstair sits above 4000 ft.) “I tried to take the first lap to get into my own zone and technique, then I tried to push all I had in the last uphill since the other girls were going really strong beside me.”
FIS also asked about Svahn’s goals for the tour ahead.
“I try to focus on each race, and now I’ll just focus on getting my legs working again after these tracks,” Svahn said with a tired laugh.
After a lengthy review, during which Diggins demonstrated the importance of staying on top of nutrition during the arduous tour by refueling with a bowl of pasta on the sidelines, Lampic was deemed to have interfered and was disqualified. This moved Diggins into the second position on the podium, with Karlsson stepping into third.
“Today was a fun way to start 2021,” wrote Diggins in a post-race email to FasterSkier. “But I think it’s important for me to say that I’m equally as proud of my all-out effort and our team today as I am when I’m not on the podium! It was just another day of giving it my absolute best effort, but the patience and trust in the training plan that Cork and I set down together has been paying off and my race form is coming into sharper focus now.”
So far this season, Diggins had a near miss at the podium with a 4th place at the individual sprint in Dresden and was unable to advance from the quarterfinals in Davos after getting boxed out on a curve just before the final straightaway. Today marks her first podium of the season in sprint or distance.
“The final was exciting, for sure,” she wrote. “I fell behind a bit on the steep climb, and was working my way down the downhill sections with as much speed as I could when I saw Nadine go down and slide around the corner in front of me. I didn’t want to hit her (or break her equipment, or my own) so I jumped over her pole while rounding the corner! In sprinting you can get lucky or be the recipient of incredibly bad luck, and today the luck definitely came my way (and I’m grateful for it).
“It was so exciting to have Team USA be 1/3 of the women’s final,” concluded Diggins. “And for myself, it was exciting to be out there having fun, not putting pressure on myself but still skiing with confidence and enjoying the banked turns and rollers all at the same time.”
With the disqualification, Brennan moved into fourth position. Though historically stronger in distance, Brennan has shown her potential as an all-arounder this season with back-to-back sprint and distance wins in Davos and a fifth-place overall standing in the opening mini-tour in Ruka.
“It was a surreal day to be starting the Tour de Ski with the yellow bib,” Brennan wrote in a post-race email to multiple news outlets. “My one goal was to fight with what I had and I felt I did that well so I am proud of my effort out there today. I still have to remind myself just how far my sprinting has come and not change my expectations so quickly. This was only my second final ever and I am just so excited by the gains I’ve made.
“This might be the hardest sprint course I have ever raced,” Brennan continued. “It’s long, at altitude, and had some slow snow out there today. With that in mind, I tried to keep things under control, but also use my strengths. I had a near miss in the quarterfinal and was really happy about my quick acceleration in the finish after getting stopped up. I worked hard in the semi to keep the pace high to ensure our heat would have lucky losers which I then benefited from. However, I was pretty beat by the time we got to the final. I tried to open up on the second lap, but there wasn’t much there. I stayed out of trouble and for that was rewarded another two places. That’s a sprint race for you…That was a tough start to the Tour so the focus will now be on recovery to get ready for tomorrow and all the races to come. It’s also very cool to note that we had our 4th different girl on the podium in just 4 weeks of racing. Our team is really working hard to get through this tough season together and support one another as we navigate the world.”
Outside the top 30, Katharine Ogden finished 49th in the qualifier (+20.07), followed by Caitlin Patterson in 57th (+22.25).
– Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed
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