The Alpe Cermis
When the Grand Tour of skiing—the Tour de Ski—was dreamed up by Vegard Ulvang and Jurg Capol in 2006, one of the first definitive decisions was that it would need a Queen Stage: a stage that sought to distill the essence of ski racing—the brutal beauty of the slog—to its purest state. The Tour de France had its Alp d’Huez, and the Tour de Ski would have the Alpe di Cermis.
Through seventeen editions of the Tour de Ski, the climb of Alpe di Cermis has become nothing less than iconic in Nordic Skiing. This is where Therese Johaug and Marit Bjoergen cemented their legends in tandem, year-after-year, battle-after-battle, racing up the fall line. This is where Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo lost the 2020 Tour to Alexander Bolshunov on the final day. Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Petter Northug, Dario Cologna, Jessie Diggins, Heidi Weng: all have played prominent roles in past hill climbs. In 2015, it’s where Liz Stephen notched a 5th place, and kicked off the breakout World Cup season for the American women, culminating in the team’s first ever distance World Championships medals (That Falun 10 k where Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg were 2nd and 3rd).
The Alpe is the culmination; it is also the main event. Things were no different for this year’s Tour de Ski. On the women’s side, Frida Karlsson hoped to arrive at the summit in possession of the Yellow Bib. On the men’s side, Klaebo looked to do the same, but with ghosts of Alpe’s past haunting his each and every stride. Both Karlsson and Klaebo had dominated over the course of the first six stages, but both, remarkably, remained vulnerable. Karlsson (2:31:16.0) held an advantage of 1:12 over second place Tiril Udnes Weng, while Klaebo carried a 1:02 advantage over second place Calle Halfvarsson in the men’s field. Simen Hegstad Krueger—winner on the Alpe in 2021—held fifth place overall at 1:45 back. In a normal ski race, those margins would have all but guaranteed victory for the leaders. But in a race up the Alpe de Cermis—where the final kilometers stretch out time gaps with every meter gained—no lead is ever safe.
Laukli Highlights Women’s Race with First Podium
Sophia Laukli spent the past year seeking out the most challenging propositions in endurance sports, and learning to make them her specialty. Last year on the Alpe, she recorded a 5th place finish alongside teammate Novie McCabe in 7th that marked a definitive breakout. Already then, the goal was set. Return to the Alpe in 2023, and seize it. In the interim, she has run and skied her way to the top of climbs around the world, winning the Lysbotn Opp rollerski climb last July ahead of Heidi Weng and Delphine Claudel, who were 1st and 3rd up the Alpe, respectively, last year. Through highs and lows in this Tour, she was able to keep sight of her “big goals for today” as she put it in post-race comments.
When it comes to the unexpected, however, one can only prepare just so much: “Right before the climb started, I got tripped up and lost all the positions I had made up [by working the flat section],” she said. “I was back to being in the back of the pack going into the climb.”
Her experience on the climb told her two things: “Tactically, it’s very difficult to pass people, and [the Alpe] is a long climb.” Laukli held it together. She found her teammates, Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan, climbing in 5th and 6th place through the crux of the Alpe. Laukli held her emotions in check, saying she, “[didn’t go] full-on panic mode, and [it] saved me today.” There was poise. There was patience. And there was also a whole lot of power. It appeared impossible that she could climb back to the podium, and yet Sophia Laukli had taken that word and controlled it: it was impossible how well she was skiing.
That fact became most apparent in the final 200 meters of the race. Having begun the day at the back of the pack, Laukli had raced herself into position to stand on the podium for the first time in her World Cup career. None of that would come easy; she crossed the finish line and folded over in the snow. Five minutes later, she stepped onto the podium in third place. The 22 year old Maine native, and current University of Utah skier, became the first of her new generation of American women to achieve that milestone.
In the end, Laukli’s finish was just 35.7 seconds behind French climbing specialist Delphine Claudel. Claudel entered the steepest sections of the climb behind Frida Karlsson, the overall leader. At a hairpin 1.5 k from the finish, a brief tangle between Karlsson and Heidi Weng allowed Claudel to establish a gap, and Weng was the one who followed. But none were able to surpass Claudel at the finish line where the Frenchwoman claimed her first World Cup victory, and her first win on the Alpe di Cermis.
For her part, Laukli seemed to search beyond herself to explain her astounding performance. “I lucked out I guess,” she said. “My tired was less than other people’s tired, and so it was enough.” Laukli’s achievements on the day could have overshadowed what other American women accomplished: one of the team’s best days ever, putting three in the top ten. There was the tenacity of Jessie Diggins, pushing to the front of the race early on in the Alpe climb, working “through disappointments but never losing belief” as she would say after the race. Then through the middle part of the climb, Rosie Brennan had joined Diggins, pushing to improve her Overall 5th place standing on the day. It all came together: “[It felt surprisingly] nice and comfortable,” Brennan said. “Usually [on the Alpe], you are alone and work on just keeping a rhythm, but today is was like ‘now I gotta stay with them.'” The American women had come together for the toughest test in ski racing.
As Laukli pushed for third, Diggins and Brennan stuck together to finish fifth and sixth on the day. Brennan moved up to fourth Overall, her best Tour de Ski overall finish ever. “[The World Cup] has been a hard start for me this year, and I’m starting to come around. [This Tour de Ski] was a good sign for the future.”
With her race today, Jessie Diggins moved up to 11th Overall in this year’s Tour de Ski. Diggins commented that she is “more proud of how I handled this Tour than any other one. I just didn’t stop believing and kept going. Now it’s time to recover, and keep training.”
Diggins did add that she would undertake some post-race evaluation on how she was recovering: “I’m not 100% sure when my next race will be,” she said.
Karlsson won the 17th edition of the Tour de Ski with a 15th place finish on the Alpe, remaining 33 seconds ahead of Niskanen and Tiril Udnes Weng. The finish culminated a week in which Karlsson continuously bolstered her reputation as the dominant distance skier in the women’s field. Karlsson’s win also marks another milestone for the current generation of Swedish women skiers, delivering the first Overall Tour de Ski win since Charlotte Kalla won in 2008.
Krueger Wins Day, Klaebo Wins Tour in Men’s Race
Part of the emerging legend of the Alpe Cermis is that it has been the only arena capable of diminishing the otherwise-unstoppable force of Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo. Klaebo entered the day having won all six of this year’s Tour de Ski previous stages, another of the many accomplishments that only he can claim in the sport of skiing. Even so, there was almost no speculation that Klaebo would make this year’s Tour a clean sweep with a win on the Alpe di Cermis. The Alpe has made appear Klaebo human before; it would most likely do so again.
The lingering question was whether he could avoid a repeat of 2020 when Alexander Boshunov and Sergey Ustigov successfully wrested the yellow bib from Klaebo on the climb. With previous Alpe di Cermis winner, Simen Hegstad Krueger, in fifth place—1:45 behind Klaebo—there was still a possibility that the climb could prove to be Klaebo’s undoing yet again.
That possibility turned into real tension when Krueger initiated a move at the base of the climb, opening a gap in the field. A group of Norwegian men quickly formed, but without Klaebo. Sjur Roethe, Hans Christer Holund, and Didrik Toenseth moved up with Krueger. Klaebo was still within reach, but his lack of push to stay with the field indicated a concession from him; he would let the climbers go and focus on keeping the yellow bib on his back at the finish.
Krueger set a blistering pace up the steepest sections of the climb, dropping both Toenseth and Roethe (last year’s Alpe winner). Hans Christer Holund was the only one up to the task of marking Krueger, with Krueger doing the bulk of the work as he searched for seconds on Klaebo. Between the 8 k and 9 k mark, Krueger trimmed 47 seconds from his 1:45 gap to Klaebo. The math was evident: it would be hard, but not impossible, for Krueger to win the Tour. The aggressive push from Krueger meant that some of those who had tried to keep with him didn’t just lose touch with the pack when they went, but really fell off. That allowed skiers who had been more conservative through the early section to challenge for the final podium spot, including Frenchman Jules Lapierre and German Friedrich Moch. Klaebo kept to himself through their machinations, and Lapierre soon had established a gap over the other challengers.
In the end, Krueger crossed the finish line only five seconds ahead of Hans Christer Holund to win the Alpe for a second time. The Frenchman Lapierre crossed with the most emphatic celebration on the day: his first World Cup podium. Krueger’s celebration was perhaps a bit subdued: he had looked back to find that Klaebo had put in a remarkable second effort over the final kilometer. The Alpe, it turned out, did manage to expose Klaebo’s humanity, but the struggle also revealed his character. A skier who appears so often to win by virtue of talent and tactics earned a special victory today by racing with his heart.
Part of the Alpe’s legend is in posing a challenges to skiers, but it also appears that the Alpe di Cermis has a sense of justice. Klaebo has clearly been the best skier in this Tour de Ski; with his third Overall victory, he moves a step closer to becoming its most successful skier of all time. That he has not already notched that title speaks to both his youth (we often forget how young Klaebo is), and to the prowess of the skier he chases: Dario Cologna, who during his career earned four Tour de Ski titles.
Behind the Norwegian battle at the top of the Alpe Cermis, the American men were busy continuing their steady climb toward the top of the World Cup. Scott Patterson was the top finisher for the Americans, finishing 14th in his second climb of the Alpe (he was 38th last year). Patterson said in post-race comments that the result marked a high point for him at this Tour de Ski, and that he is, “looking forward to the focus on the longer races later in the season,” including the 50 k in Holmenkollen.
Ben Ogden was the top American finisher in the Overall Tour de Ski standings, finishing 13th after a 24th place finish in his first climb of Alpe di Cermis.
Conclusion to the 17th Tour de Ski
With that, the 17th edition of the Tour de Ski comes to a close. World Cup Skiing departs the slopes of Alpe di Cermis, leaving more stories etched in the snow on each steep hairpin. It reminds us once again of all that makes ski racing beautiful when the time is right, when the skiers are prepped, and when and all of our eyes watching.
The World Cup takes a collective rest for the next two weeks, before resuming in Livigno, Italy on January 21st. From all of us at FasterSkier, thanks for following along for another edition of the Tour de Ski!
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.