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The arrival of World Cup racing in North America has brought tremendous excitement to the United States and Canada. It has also brought a surprise: as the cross-country world assembled in Canmore, Alberta, fans expected to be treated to a ten kilometer individual start Freestyle race today. What they received instead was a 15 kilometer Freestyle Mass Start. The reason for the change was in part due to the logistical challenges of races being held in North America. FIS’ official timer—Swiss Timing—was counting on having all of its equipment shipped from Europe to North America; however, that plan was disrupted by strikes in Europe, resulting in tons of equipment lying stuck in transit. The originally planned Individual Start format posed a particular difficulty for the equipment shortage. So, at the last minute, organizers rejiggered the program and changed the format to a Mass Start.
For the women’s race, regardless of the format, the question was still the same: would anyone be able to catch Jessie Diggins (USA) in the hunt for the overall Crystal Globe competition? Coming into the race, Diggins had a 283 point lead over Linn Svahn (SWE). Diggins’ teammate Rosie Brennan is in a fight for the podium in the Overall competition sitting 71 points behind Frida Karlsson (SWE) for third place. However, the competition for the Distance championship is even tighter. Diggins has a commanding lead over Brennan who is in second. But Brennan has only an eight point lead over Victoria Carl (GER), and only 18 points over Ebba Andersson (SWE). With every point being critical, the format change tossed a wild card into the mix.
Diggins was clearly looking forward to the race. “I’ve been looking forward to this, like pretty much all our athletes, for a very long time. I have great memories of Canmore, I love being here.”
So, ready or not, the race goes on and the fight for the Crystal Globes continues. After all of the timing issues had been sorted, it was Jessie Diggins taking the win ahead of Delphine Claudel (FRA) in second, and Heidi Weng (NOR) third.
Weng also appreciated being in North America. “It’s one of my favorite stretches in the World Cup,” she said. “I like this track … for me, it’s perfect conditions. I really like this place.”
Other American finishers were Sophia Laukli eighth, Rosie Brennan 15th, Julia Kern 19th, Sydney Palmer-Leger 25th, Margie Freed 29th, Mariah Bredal 30th, Lauren Jortberg 35th, Alexandra Lawson 36th, Emma Albrecht 40th, and Alayna Sonnesyn 43rd. Erin Bianco did not finish.
The top Canadian was Anna Parent 41st. Anna Stewart was 44th, Elie-Anne Tremblay 45th, Katya Semeniuk 46th, and Maeve Macleod 47th. Katherine Stewart-Jones and Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt did not start.
Women’s 15 k Freestyle Mass Start
With both Canada and the United States fielding extra skiers due to the allocation allotted to host nations, the course was awash with various shades of red, white, and blue. The changed race format would also mean a change of strategy as pack tactics were now in play. Being the World Cup leader, Diggins was in the front from the start where she wasted no time applying a quick pace to the field. She was quickly joined by Carl and Karlsson who had been skiing extremely well prior to the long break for travel to North America. The lingering question was whether Karlsson could maintain that form after time off and traveling?
It didn’t take long for Carl to push to the front to try and become the pace setter. She was joined by Karlsson and Andersson. At the 4.7-kilometer mark, the pace slowed considerably with Karlsson and Andersson at the front; the pack consolidated.
One third of the way through it was Andersson and Karlsson continuing to control the tempo. As racers entered the second of four laps, Diggins did what she did best and used the downhills to her advantage. She used that tactic to take the first bonus point sprint at 6.7 kilometers. This was a strategy which she has used several times this year. After the bonus point sprint, Diggins dropped back to the middle of the lead pack which now consisted of 18 skiers. Laukli and Brennan were both in that lead group.
About 1.5 kilometers later, Laukli surged to the front of the lead group to take advantage of the course’s climbs. Her sprint to the front spread out the field considerably; skiers were racing single file. It was a high risk move for most skiers, but for Laukli it played to the strength of her long distance abilities: trying to take the legs out from the sprinters.
Laukli quickly created a five second gap between the lead group and the chase pack. But at the next downhill Diggins reasserted herself and again catapulted to the front at the end of a long downhill. At 10.5 kilometers, Diggins again won the highest number of possible bonus points. It was now Diggins and Laukli 1-2, leading a pack of five skiers with a large chase group only a few seconds back.
As the pace slowed, the chase group caught up allowing Heidi Weng (NOR) to move to the front. But Laukli wouldn’t let her stay there as they began to climb one of the remaining big hills. Laukli’s strategy was clear: she couldn’t let the race come down to a sprint or else all would be lost.
“I definitely liked the hill part,” Laukli observed. “The downhill was a little too long for my liking. I did some more ambitious tactics than I normally do. My sprint abilities don’t allow me to be up in the pack [at the finish], so today I was feeling good, so just go like crazy and try and make the pack as small as possible.”
As they dashed up the final climb, it was Laukli and Diggins leading the charge. Laukli noted that, “my strength is going uphill and that’s what I’m going to stick to.”
Coming down the last big downhill, Diggins once again charged to the front. Laukli was able to hang with her. In the final short climb Delphine Claudel (FRA) came out of nowhere to surge to the front with Diggins marking her. As they entered the downhill technical stretches, Laukli faded and was passed by several skiers. But Diggins was not to be deterred as she sprinted into the stadium and blew past Claudel, with Weng finishing third. Laukli had dropped to eighth.
It was another masterful tactical race by Diggins and a tremendous effort by Laukli to break up the field and use her strengths to her advantage. After the race, Diggins was overheard saying that she “skied a smarter race.” Her self-assessment was as accurate as could be. She also remarked on her strategy for the last kilometer. “Maybe things don’t string out because there is a draft,” She noted. “Rhings could come back together … I was making myself stay patient, be smart, trust your sprint finish. I knew the only chance I would have would be either be leading by at least 20 feet, or don’t lead. So when Delphine went to the lead, I thought perfect.”
It was an impressive performance by the two Americans who perhaps gave the Europeans a taste of their own medicine when it comes to dealing with the challenges of long-distance travel and racing.
“That was really exciting,” Diggins said after the race. “We had amazing skis. My plan was to deal with my nerves by putting on glitter on all of the USA women and be flexible, I didn’t know if I could pull away, so I decided to be patient.”
Diggins’ patience paid huge dividends as she continues to dominate long distance Freestyle events.