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The 16th edition of the Tour de Ski kicked off today in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, beginning with a two-lap 1.5-kilometer skate sprint. In past years, the Tour has been a longer event with eight or more stage races. This year’s edition however, has six stages taking place over the course of eight days, to accommodate preparations for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing.
As a reminder to readers who may have forgotten over the course of the past twelve months, Jessie Diggins claimed the overall victory in last year’s Tour de Ski, making her the first non-European athlete (male or female) to achieve that title. After a convincing win in today’s first stage event, Diggins looks to be in contention for the overall win once more in 2022.
The Tour last visited Lenzerheide in the 2019/20 season where Slovenian Anamarija Lampic earned her first World Cup victory, with Diggins finishing fourth. The sprint course is a 2 x 0.75k loop, with a climb out of the start, leading into a long downhill on the back stretch of the course, and a fast corner into the lap/finish lanes. Looking at the surrounding mountains and meadows, there seemed to be little snow and the temperature hovered around freezing as the sprint rounds began.
With three American women in the top thirty in qualification, the first quarter-final heat featured two of them, Jessie Diggins, who qualified 3rd with a time of 3:03.4 and Hailey Swirbul who qualified in 27th (3:09.49). Also in the first heat was Nadine Fähndrich of Switzerland, who posted the fastest qualifying time of the day (3:02.54). Swirbul, Fähndrich and Diggins were quick off the line with Diggins gaining the lead over the crest of the hill. Heading down, Fähndrich used the draft to gain speed and draw even with Diggins. As they rounded the corner heading towards the lap Fähndrich lost her balance and fell, sliding wide and taking out Swirbul in the process.
With two competitors down, Diggins held the lead for most of the second lap, using her freeskate to gain space on the descent though once again, she was overtaken as Anne Kjersti Kalvå of Norway slingshot around Diggins and claimed first. Diggins finished second and both advanced to the semi-final rounds.
“I felt I raced my best today,” wrote Swirbul after the race. “I did not have the build up to the Tour that I had planned due to some unforeseen stresses, but that’s the way life goes sometimes. That won’t stop me from giving my best every day and leaving it all out there. I am really excited to hopefully build into the Tour this year and follow the strong skiing set by my teammates today! I thought our team skied really well overall, and our service team and medical/nutrition staff were top notch.”
Reflecting on her quarter-final, Swirbul wrote, “I had a surprisingly good start for myself and found myself in a good position early on. I tried to stay on the leaders the best I could but flew into the side-boards at the bottom of that first downhill… ouch! I’m glad to be okay, just a bit scraped and bruised. Looking forward to tomorrow.”
The second quarter-final heat saw an easy pace and a tight pack with Mathilde Myhrvold (NOR) and Johanna Hagström coming through as the fastest two.
In heat three, the Czech skier Katerina Janatova led most of the two laps, only to be passed by Anna Dyvik (SWE) and Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR) on the descent. Entering the finish lanes, Natalia Nepryeava of Russia turned on the pace and passed Dyvik to finish 2nd, though the Swede advanced to the semis as well given the fast time of the heat.
In heat four, Laurien Van Der Graaff of Switzerland, a crowd favorite, followed a similar tactic to that of Janatova from the previous heat. Once again, this proved not to be the best strategy as Lampic (SLO) used the draft to pass Van Der Graaff on the final corner and easily take the win. Laura Gimmler of Germany came from behind and out-lunged Van Der Graaff to take the second qualifying position.
The final quarter-final heat featured the third American, Julia Kern who qualified in 9th position with a time of 3:05.24. This heat only had five racers as Eva Urec of Slovenia, who qualified in 16th, did not start the rounds. Moa Lundgren of Sweden led the first lap while Kern sat in fourth. As they headed through the lap, Kern made a move to the front and crested the hill in the lead. Despite a slight loss of balance on the corner, Kern was able to break the pattern from the previous four heats and became the first person to lead on the final downhill and hold onto that lead all the way to the finish line. Coletta Rydzek of Germany finished second behind Kern and Kerttu Niskanen of Finland earned the final lucky loser spot.
As the men raced their quarter-final rounds, course conditions appeared to be getting faster and it got cloudier and the temperature dropped. When the women returned for the semi-final heats, Diggins was once again in the first heat. This time she stayed in the pack, near the back for the entire first loop. Taking a wide lane through the lap she gained the lead and created a gap to the rest of the field over the hill. With the pack strung out behind her Diggins held her lead and finished first, with Myhrvold of Norway taking second.
In semi-final number two, Lampic (SLO) had an early lead while Kern followed in second. Rounding the corner for the first time, Kern overtook the Slovenian and upped the pace. These two held off other challenges to secure first and second qualifying positions and thanks to the fast time of their heat, Rydzek (GER) and Dyvik (SWE) also came through as lucky losers.
Thus, the final featured two Americans (Diggins and Kern), one Slovenian (Lampic), one Norwegian (Myhrvold), one Swede (Dyvik), and a German (Rydzek). Out of the start gate the pace was conservative, nobody really wanting to be the leader on the first descent. Heading into the second and final loop, Diggins found space through the middle of the pack while Kern worked wide, both Americans coming to the fore. Up the hill, Lampic worked her way into second, Kern in third with Myhrvold (NOR) close behind. Diggins held the lead, taking a good corner and fending off a challenge from Myhrvold at the last minute.
With first place going to Diggins, the twenty-three year old Myhrvold earned her first World Cup podium in second place. Lampic out-sprinted Kern to finish third, with Kern coming in fourth. Dyvik (SWE) came in 5th and Rydzek (GER) finished 6th, her best World Cup finish to date.
“The rounds today were definitely tactical,” wrote Kern after the race, “but also rewarded just skiing hard. The track got faster as the day went on after some light precipitation before the qualifier, which glazed the track a bit as the temps got warmer. There was definitely a draft on the downhill, but skating really hard into the downhill and being in the front position was the most important, which made the tactics a bit tricky with both leading and following. I felt strong all day, my skis were ripping fast, and body was feeling good!”
Kern sat out in Davos due to a stomach bug and she wrote, “Dresden allowed me to rebuild that momentum that I was feeling after Lillehammer. After the Dresden weekend, I didn’t even want a break, I just wanted to keep rolling so I was very much looking forward to today.”
Anticipating tomorrow’s 10 k classic she wrote, “I am really excited to finally get to classic ski again after eight skate races in a row. I haven’t done a classic race since the opener in Ruka so I am curious to see how my classic skiing is coming along, and also how my fitness carries over to some distance racing after a few weeks off from distance racing as well. Overall, the team energy is great, we have an awesome support staff and I am excited for more races to come!’
Diggins, whose parents and sister were at the venue in Lenzerheide, was all smiles after the race. “Thanks to my family for the cheering,” she said in a post-race FIS interview, “I’m just in a really happy place, and for me happiness is fast.” When asked about her preparation for the next few days of racing she said she plans to “eat a lot, sleep a lot, and see how it goes.”
Here are some additional post-race comments from Diggins and Kern, interviewed by Tom Horrocks, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country communications manager, who will be on-site through the Tour.
The Tour continues tomorrow with a 10 k classic on tap for the women. Diggins currently holds the lead ahead of Myhrvold (NOR) by +0:05 seconds.
Also competing in the Tour for the Americans is Novie McCabe, who finished 46th (3:12.89), and Katharine Ogden who was 55th (3:14.74). SuperTour leader who recently joined the American squad in Europe, Alayna Sonnesyn skied to 58th (3:15.11), with Sophia Laukli rounding out the American women in 76th (3:20.43). There are no Canadian women taking part in this year’s TdS.
Post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb on the course in Lenzerheide, which has suited Americans well over the years, along with additional comments on the men’s and women’s races.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.