The FIS World Cup tour returned from a two-week holiday break, reconvening in Val Mustair, Switzerland for Stage 1 of the 17th Tour de Ski. A daunting mid-season challenge, the Tour de Ski (TDS) consists of seven stages contested over nine exhausting days, concluding next Sunday atop the Alpe di Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
At the start of this year’s tour, all eyes were on Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR), who finds himself in a prolonged battle for FIS World Cup points with Norwegian countryman, Paal Golberg. The Overall Crystal Globe competition is likely to be decided by their performances in the Tour de Ski, and today’s Freestyle Sprint stage may have been a taste of coming attractions. Showing speed and tactics that his rivals could not match, Klaebo coasted to the win in Val Mustair, followed by Federico Pellegrino (ITA) and Sindre Bjoernstad Skar (NOR).
Americans experienced results both good and bad: Ben Ogden qualified a remarkable 4th, but would suffer a broken pole at the very start of his quarterfinal and finish the day in 13th. JC Schoonmaker was the 21st qualifier, but would finish 6th in his quarterfinal and settle for 26th on the day. American results in qualifying also included Gus Schumaker 50th, Zak Ketterson 59th, Finn O’Connell 67th, Kevin Bolger 74th, Hunter Wonders, 80th, Scott Patterson, 94th.
Ogden offered an in-depth description of that broken pole, and the psychological process of re-grouping during a sprint race: “Today when I broke that early pole all I was thinking was how to catch up. I knew that my strength was in the flatter V2 before the steep climb, so I really just pinned it immediately after getting a new pole and surprised myself with how quickly I could get back to where I wanted to be amongst the other guys. My brain then went pretty quickly to damage control as I tried to evaluate how much energy I had used there. I was lucky to be feeling strong today and it didn’t really affect me too much. I think I was a little flustered and not exactly where I needed to be in the last minute or so, so that cost me a spot in the semi final, but I know that this could have happened regardless of the pole incident. It can be nice for the head to blame it on the pole, but overall it was just another learning experience out there and hopefully next time I can be in a better position and get through.”
Canadian Graham Ritchie qualified 14th, ultimately finishing the day in 21st, ahead of countrymen Antoine Cyr 32nd, Russell Kennedy 33rd, Olivier Léveillé 55th, Sam Hendry 85th, and Remi Drolet 91st.
In the Women’s field, the Stage 1 Sprint seemed most likely to be won by a sprint specialist while TDS contenders vied for finishing positions that would place them near the head of the field in Sunday’s 10 k Pursuit. The day played out much that way (though with a few surprising developments) as World Cup Sprint Leader, Nadine Faehndrich (SUI), took the win, followed by Maja Dahlqvist (SWE), and Lotta Udnes Weng (NOR).
Julia Kern (qualifying 6th) and Rosie Brennan (qualifying 14th) would’ve had high hopes for the day, but Kern tumbled in a rutted corner to finish sixth in her semifinal (finishing 11th on the day), while Brennan faded in her quarterfinal and failed to advance, ending the day in 14th. Other American qualifying places included Alayna Sonnesyn 38th, and Sophia Laukli 69th.
Among Canadians in qualifying, Katherine Stewart-Jones finished 48th, followed by Dahria Beatty 56th, and Lillian Gagnon 66th.
Naturally, the surprising story in qualifying was the performance of Jessie Diggins, whose qualifying time was only fast enough for 40th place (failing to qualify for the quarterfinal heats). Via her Facebook account, Diggins later commented on her own performance, saying, “Sometimes your body feels great and your brain is ready and it just doesn’t work out—and that’s ok. The only things that’s not ok is to give up.” That’s quintessential Diggins. She will enter Stage 2 in a position well behind her main rivals, but with racing abilities like those Diggins has so often shown, her chances to contend for the overall TDS crown are likely to improve with each passing kilometer.
TDS Women’s Freestyle Sprint
Sprint Quarterfinals are sometimes treated as a bit of an afterthought in typical race reporting, but in Val Mustair, much of the action that’s likely to affect the week’s results occurred in the quarterfinals. Sweden’s Frida Karlsson—a serious contender for the TDS crown—advanced out of a fast quarterfinal in which she drove the pace. That speed in Karlsson’s heat—and a high-quality field in the second quarterfinal—forced Kern to employ a different strategy than she might normally undertake, leading out the first lap ahead of L. Weng and Dahlqvist. The strategy seemed to be working, as Kern distanced Dahlqvist on the uphill. Even so, Dahlqvist showed her class by attacking over the top, and scorching the downhill to win the heat. Kern held on for second, narrowly ahead of L. Weng in third (who would claim a lucky loser spot).
Brennan dangled off the back of the pack at the start of quarterfinal 5, but worked her way back through the field at the end of lap one. Looking for space to pass, she took a very wide line up the hill, advancing two places into third, a position she was unable to improve before the finish. Her finishing time was not fast enough to claim a lucky loser spot. Brennan would end the day in 11th.
Throughout the heats, Faehndrich continued dancing up the hill, showing a top speed that none of the others possessed. L. Weng and Karlsson claimed lucky loser spots in their semifinal, which could prove to be truly significant in the week long tour standings.
The sprint final included Karlsson, Maja Dahlquist (SWE), L. Weng, T. Weng, Faehndrich, and World Cup distance leader Anne Kjersti Kalvaa (NOR). Having already shown that she is the fastest skier on the Val Mustair course, Faehndrich went straight to the lead, immediately gapping the field on the first hill. She navigated the subsequent downhill poorly, allowing the field to reel her in as they passed through the stadium at the end of lap 1. But the second time up the hill was a replay of the first, with Faehndrich’s higher tempo allowing her to gap the field and stay away through the finish. Dahlqvist surged in the finishing straight to push L. Weng down into third.
With the Women’s Stage 1 Sprint concluded, the TDS overall contenders are now identifiable: T. Weng, L. Weng, Kalvaa, and Karlsson . . . with Americans Diggins and Brennan poised to strike. Faehndrich has now won consecutive World Cup sprint events in her home country and in front of Swiss fans. “At the moment, it’s like a dream,” she said.
TDS Men’s Freestyle Sprint
The Val Mustair sprint venue consists of a two lap course with a significant mid-lap uphill, followed by a challenging, S-turn downhill that empties into the finishing straightaway. It was those S-turns that would prove significant in the day’s strategy, and in the mastery Klaebo displayed in his course management. His choice to set up the turns far wider than his rivals (carrying far more speed and avoiding ruts that worried so many racers) was key to his cruising to ultimate victory.
Klaebo may be the world’s premier sprinter; nonetheless, he found himself overtaken in the finishing stretch two weekends ago by his longtime rival, Federico Pellegrino (ITA) who appears to be drawing much positive energy from the recent birth of his first child. Always one who seems to ski and race with joy, Pellegrino is riding a wave of optimism and success that saw him challenging Klaebo in the Stage 1 Sprint at Val Mustair. The stage was set for an excellent Sprint competition.
As in the women’s sprints, the Men’s quarterfinals offered insight into the way the day would go, and demonstrated the ease and confidence with which Klaebo seemingly races. Boxed out on the uphill where he would usually make his move (and caught behind a stumbling Chanavat who stepped on his own pole, but managed to recover), Klaebo bided his time, then incorporated an entirely different line on the curving final downhill. He set up the turn so wide that it looked as if he was exiting the race course . . . only to re-set on the second half of the S, rocketing past all other racers. He entered the finishing straight with a commanding lead that he would hold easily through the finish.
The day’s second quarterfinal also proved significant, as Ogden—the fourth qualifier—suffered a broken pole in just the first few meters of racing. Coaches were on hand to deliver a quick replacement, but Ogden would spend a great deal of energy clawing his way back to the field before the first climb. Continuing to improve with each passing week, Ogden’s form may be at a career high point, but the effort of chasing no doubt depleted his finishing sprint, and Ogden would fail to advance out of his quarterfinal, finishing the day in 13th.
Reached for comment after his day of racing, Ogden offered a new American perspective on his expectations—and occasional frustrations—in World Cup racing. “There are minutes and hours after these races where all you can think about is what could have been,” he said. “But then when you take a step back it’s easy to put things into perspective and remember that it wasn’t more than two years ago when skiing in a world cup heat was a reach-goal of mine. So, the bottom line is at the moment, yes, immensely frustrating but in the big picture, I am happy with where I’m at as an athlete, and I’m stoked for every opportunity over here. ”
Klaebo’s semifinal included Chanavat, Renaud Jay (FRA), Sindre Bjoernstad Skar (NOR), and Pellegrino. Despite that gathering of stars, Klaebo advanced easily, employing his wide-turn strategy and coasting to the finish line. Pellegrino came second, with Chanavat and Skar advancing as lucky losers. A sprint final showdown between Klaebo and Golberg was not to materialize, as Golberg appeared a bit fatigued—or even a bit disinterested—in his semifinal, allowing Michal Novak (CZE) and Richard Jouve (FRA) to advance.
The problem to solve in every World Cup sprint final remains the same: what to do about Klaebo? He has tremendous speed, he’s tactically brilliant, and he’s supremely confident. Perhaps the only strategy is to try to run him off his feet. Good luck with that . . .
The men’s sprint final involved Klaebo, Jouve, Pellegrino, Skar, Novak, and Chanavat. From the gun, the tall Frenchman went straight to the front, perhaps determined to make the pace so fast that a long day of sprinting would finally tire Klaebo. Chanavat led to the hill, where Klaebo’s wider line allowed him to float to the front in the company of Pellegrino who drove his speed over the top of the rise and into the lead. Again, Klaebo chose the widest line through the corners, maintaining speed and gliding through to the front. The second time up the hill he simply turned on the after-burners, and the race was all but over. His sinuous downhill line carried him to the finishing straight which he was able to ease across with no worry of being caught. Pellegrino collected second, ahead of Skar.
Commenting in a post-race interview on the elevation of Val Mustair, Klaebo remarked, “Sprinting here at 1600 meters is really tough . . . I’m pretty glad I made the decision to stay in Davos for Christmas.”
Klaebo leads the Tour de Ski after Stage 1, ahead of his main rival, Golberg, who earned 10th place on the day. Stage 2 may reveal which of them was able to preserve their energy in the interest of a week-long battle that’s just getting started.
Racing at the Tour de Ski continues on Sunday in Val Mustair with Men’s and Women’s 10 k Classic Pursuits.
Tour de Sprint Stage 1 Freestyle Sprint Women’s Results
Tour de Sprint Stage 1 Freestyle Sprint Men’s Results