Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) Claims 10k Classic Victory in Challenging Conditions

Ella HallDecember 29, 2021

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Returning to the kick and glide after a long hiatus, the second stage of the 2021/22 Tour de Ski featured a 10 k classic individual start for the women. With the exception of those who raced the classic legs of the relay in Lillehammer on December 5th, the last classic race was over a month ago, taking place at the season opener in Ruka. To keep things interesting, for the athletes, for the technicians and for the viewers, the temperature in Lenzerheide, Switzerland hovered around 34°F and snow fell heavily. Wax and ski preparation is always incredibly important but not always as evident as it was today as the women completed the 10 kilometer course.

After all 81 skiers had crossed the finish line, it was Kerttu Niskanen of Finland who stood at the top of the podium, having completed the course in 27:04.0. 

Kerttu Niskanen celebrates a snowy victory in Stage 2 of the Tour de Ski. (Photo: NordicFocus)

To rewind, with Therese Johaug not taking part in the Tour, it is fair to say that Frida Karlsson of Sweden was a strong favorite to win this race. Karlsson has finished on the podium in all four distance events of the season so far, taking first place in the only classic distance event of the season up to this point in Ruka. With her main rival not in competition, Karlsson might have been hoping to ski away with another title. 

Frida Karlsson (SWE) on course in Lenzerheide during a snowy 10k interval start classic. (Photo: NordicFocus)

From the start, it was clear that Ebba Andersson (SWE) wasn’t going to make things easy for her teammate. Andersson, who started in bib 29- one place ahead of Karlsson in bib 30, shot out of the gate with a tempo and ferocity that conveyed she meant business. At the 2.4 k checkpoint, there was an opportunity for bonus points in the Tour standings, and Andersson took the lead out of the first 29 starters, only to be quickly bettered by Karlsson by 0.9 seconds.

However, Karlsson’s advantage would not last and already at the 3.7k mark, she was +5.2 seconds behind Andersson. From there, the gap continued to widen. At 5.8 k Andersson was +13.7 seconds ahead of Karlsson, at 7.4 k she was +21.8 ahead and when both Swedes had crossed the finish, Andersson had put 26.4 seconds on Karlsson. 

Ebba Andersson (SWE) races through falling flakes during the women’s individual start 10k classic in Lenzerheide. (Photo: NordicFocus)

At this point, it appeared that the day’s victor had been decided. But, as the snowflakes lessened and grew smaller, another contender was showing herself out on the course.

Niskanen (FIN) started in bib 50 and was clearly skiing well. As was Natalia Nepryaeva of Russia in bib 54. Nepryaeva was the second fastest through 2.4 k, slotting between Karlsson and Andersson. Niskanen was +7.8 down to Karlsson at that point in fourth position. Moving forward to 3.7k, Niskanen skied up to third, +5.2 to Andersson, while Nepryaeva had dropped to +8.5. Through 5.8k, Niskanen had overtaken Karlsson’s time and was sitting in second, just +4.8 behind Andersson. Between 7.4 and 8.7k, the Finn turned on the burners, gaining 12.6 seconds on Andersson over that distance. Accompanied by the excited shouts of her coach, Niskanen took the lead and continued to grow the margin. When she crossed the finish line she was +18.2 seconds ahead of Andersson and +44.6 ahead of Karlsson. 

Kerttu Niskanen on her way to win the women’s 10k individual start classic in Lenzerheide. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Nepryeava (RUS), who dropped to fifth place at 7.4 k (+24 to Andersson) and was 4th (+32.9 to Niskanen) at 8.7k,  gained significant ground over the final 1.3 kilometers. Between the 8.7 and 10k mark, she overtook Krista Pärmäkoski (FIN) to finish on the podium in third, +30.5 behind Niskanen. 

The women’s podium for a snowy 10k individual start classic in Lenzerheide. Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) took the win ahead of Ebba Andersson (SWE) and Yulia Stupak (RUS). (Photo: NordicFocus)

This win was Niskanen’s third victory, having more than 230 World Cup starts. All three have come in 10k classic events, two taking place in Lenzerheide (today’s race being one, the other in 2014 when she won the stage).

“Today was a really good day,” Niskanen told FIS after the race. “I felt good and my skis were working well. I usually enjoy high altitude so today was good.” In response to a question about the conditions she said, “we have really good waxing men, they have done really good work yesterday and today.” 

Diggins pushes through the final meters to finish 16th in Lenzerheide. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Jessie Diggins was the first finisher for the American contingent in 16th position (+1:07.9). Whether it was the four rounds of sprinting yesterday, the skis and conditions today, or some combination of both, Diggins appeared to be lacking in her usual pep, though she fought hard to the line, as always.

In a post-race interview with U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross country communications manager, Tom Horrocks, Diggins talked about how the team handled trying conditions with down to the wire work by the techs to select the best skis for the day.

“Everyone stayed really calm and collected, on a day when it would have been easy to panic and waste a ton of energy,” Diggins explained. “Really zoning in on process goals has always been [important] for me, and days like this, it’s really clear why that is so important.”

Diggins also provided into her pacing in today’s stage, and how her ability to adapt to the variable conditions and kick by jumping out of the track, running, or double poling are a testament to her progress in classic skiing, as she feels she may have been unable to adapt as seamlessly even four years ago.

Full audio interview with Jessie Diggins hosted by Tom Horrocks.

Hailey Swirbul was the next American, finishing 18th (+1:13.5), to match her bib number.

“I think today was a day that benefitted smooth, strong, steady skiing,” wrote Swirbul after the race. “I tried to stay calm out there and ski into it the best I could. Definitely a challenging course! I honestly didn’t have the greatest feelings in my body today, but I’ve learned that racing isn’t about feeling good… it’s about skiing your best and using your strengths even when it doesn’t feel good or rewarding. I think our skis were right in the mix on a day with tricky conditions, so that was awesome!”

Commenting on the team more broadly, Swirbul spoke to the perseverance of the American women in light of the variable conditions.

“Everyone worked really hard and persevered through a mentally and physically challenging day, and that’s something to be proud of!”

Hailey Swirbul races to 18th in Stage 2 of the Tour de Ski, a 10km interval start classic. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Novie McCabe was just outside the top thirty, in 34th position with a time of 28:50.6 (+1:46.6), followed closely by teammate Katharine Ogden in 35th (+1:47.4). Julia Kern finished 41st (28:58.3) and Sophia Laukli was 44th (+29:04.2). Rounding out the American finishers was Alayna Sonnesyn in 66th position (+3:14.1).

Post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb, from U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross country communications manager Tom Horrocks, discussing the men’s and women’s day in Lenzerheide.

Novie McCabe skis to 34th in Stage 2 of the Tour de Ski. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Niskanen (FIN) now leads the overall Tour standings, with Diggins holding on to second +0:29 seconds back. Nepryeava (RUS) has moved into third, +0:35 behind Niskanen. The athletes get a break tomorrow before racing picks up again on Friday in Oberstdorf, Germany with a 10k mass start skate. 

Results: 10 k Classic | Overall Standings

Ella Hall

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.

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