The 100th Tour de Ski Stage in Val di Fiemme, Italy, featuring a four lap 10-kilometer mass start classic. Coupling the results in distance racing over the last 14 months since Therese Johaug returned to the world cup and those of Stage 4, it seemed like a safe bet to predict a rematch between Johaug and her teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg. Another opportunity to race head-to-head over every meter of the course, and for Johaug to make a statement that her loss was a fluke.
It quickly became clear that Østberg crossing the line 0.4 seconds ahead of Johaug was akin to Roger Bannister running 3:59.4 on a cinder track in Oxford. The barrier was broken, illuminating the potential for the host of men who followed. Johaug was no longer invincible. No longer in a class of her own.
Nearing the end of the first 2.5 k lap, seven athletes formed a tight group at the front of the pack. Putting in a surge for the point bonus at 2.3 k, Natalia Nepryeava of Russia was in the lead, stretching out the group slightly. The trailing women rebounded like a slinky, continuing to push as a group.
Rounding the fast winding turns of the steep descent halfway through the lap, the chink in Johaug’s armour widened. Temperature well above freezing and old manmade snow made for lightning fast conditions, and racers were likely kicking with a variation of klister, perhaps with a hardwax cover. In the first lap, Johaug lost her footing and crashed, rebounding quickly and keeping contact with the pack.
In each of the subsequent laps, she was seen scrubbing speed, doing what she could to stay on her feet at the risk of shearing off some of her grip.
Spending the majority of the race at the front, Ebba Andersson of Sweden made several attempts to reduce the size of the group, but each of her moves were matched. Johaug, Østberg, and their teammates Astrid Jacobsen held strong beside Nepryeava, and Katharina Hennig of Germany.
As the 6k checkpoint approach, providing the opportunity for the first ten athletes to earn up to 15 bonus seconds, the pace accelerated. Jacobsen emerged at the front, sprinting head to head against Andersson with the remainder of the women close on their tails. Jacobsen held off the Swede, earning the most time.
Tour leaders Østberg and Johaug were 4th and 6th at the bonus, respectively. As expected after a high-speed snowplow down the hill, Johaug appeared to be struggling with her kick and was forced to run alongside the pack of women outside the track.
Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who initially fell off the lead pack with Jessie Diggins, pushed to reconnect with the lead group and hovered 2 seconds behind in 8th at the time bonus. Diggins began to fade and was not within the top ten skiers; she did not earn bonus seconds.
As the final lap began, the pace heated up and the lead pack began to whittle down. Østberg led at each of the checkpoints. She too could no longer climb inside the tracks, but neither could her opponents. Heading into the fast and technical descent, Østberg motioned to the racers behind her as if to say, ‘Let’s chill out and give each other space here so we all stay on our feet.’
And so they did; each of the top five skiers stayed on their feet around the horseshoe bend. But as they headed up the final punchy climb with less than a kilometer to go, Østberg tangled with Johaug and went down and the tip of her pole snapped off. Running on her skis as she ripped off the strap and reached for a new one, she charged ahead, not pausing to put the strap of the replacement over her hand.
But her momentum was lost and she could not regain her contact with the three leaders who had taken off at the front: Jacobsen, Andersson, and Hennig.
Double poling in ferocious unison, the three women sprinted to the line with Jacobsen less than half a ski length ahead of Andersson who occupied the neighboring track. Hennig remained tucked in behind Jacobsen, who began to pull further ahead in the final meters.
Stopping the clock at 29:07.9, Jacobsen took the win and landed her first Tour de Ski podium since the final stages of the 2014 Tour, also in Val di Fiemme. Despite balancing the workload of a full-time medical school student, 2020 is shaping up to be one of Jacobsen’s career best seasons. She is currently ranked 4th in the overall World Cup standings.
Andersson was next across the line (+0.4), followed closely by Hennig in third (+1.0). The Swede has the unfortunate statistic of having the most podium finishes in World Cup races (including tour stages and overall tour ranks) without ever landing on the top spot. With today’s result, she has 13 podium finishes, moving ahead of Maubet Bjornsen who has 12. At just 22 years of age, the time is nigh for her to happily surrender her title.
Also one of the younger athletes in the field, today was Hennig’s first podium racing with the bigs. The German took third in distance classic race at U23’s last year and has cracked the top 10 on the World Cup a handful of times in the event.
Unable to contain her excitement about her performance, Hennig accidentally dropped her skis as she jumped up and down on the podium.
“[It’s] hard to believe,” she told a German reporter for ZDF. “On the last loop I noticed I was still keeping in touch with the top, and then I somehow just put everything out that I had.”
The broadcaster explained that Hennig had stated that beating Johaug was not a goal the team had discussed, presuming that it was not possible. Yet the 23-year-old had stuck with Johaug throughout the race and beaten her by over five seconds.
“I really don’t know what to say,” Hennig said in response. “I just know that I want to say thank you to everyone supporting me on my journey, our team, our wax technicians, my parents, my boyfriend, my coach, everyone, without them this would not be possible.”
Johaug had ended the race in 4th (+6.2), followed by a frustrated Østberg who swatted her pole into the snow as she crossed the line in 6th (+6.8). Norwegian news outlet NRK reported that Østberg needed time to gather herself before she could listen Johaug’s apology and accept that there was no malicious intent.
Maubet Bjornsen held her position in the field, racing alongside Nepryeava throughout the second half of the race. She was the top American finisher in 7th (+17.2). Ceding time for her overall standing, Diggins fell back to 17th (+1:05.5). A few seconds behind, Rosie Brennan finished 20th (+1:07.7), and Katharine Ogden finished just inside the points in 28th (+1:56.9).
“After struggling with slippery skis two days ago in Toblach, I was ready to take another hit at one of my favorite races out there, 10k classic!” Maubet Bjornsen wrote in an email to several news outlets. “My race plan today was to be patient, and race my own race. This meant trying to stay relaxed for the first lap, and making sure I had enough energy to attack in some of the working sections that others could be exploded on. At this point in the tour, you have to rely on your brain, because your muscles are so tired, they are screaming stop. The goal is to let your brain overpower that feeling, and just keep pushing.”
Looking back on the tour, Maubet Bjornsen took 30th in the 10 k skate first stage, followed by 5th in the sprint, and 8th then 12th in the pursuit stages.
“This tour has been a collection of ups and downs, but every time things work out, I feel super encouraged and excited. Tomorrow’s classic sprint will be really funny. When people are so tired, I am sure it will look different than a normal sprint, but that sounds so fun! I can’t wait. If I can find the same feelings I found today, I feel confident I can find my magic.”
“Two more days to go, time to rely on determination and mental power!” she concluded.
After the race, Matt Whitcomb reiterated that her 7th place finish was one of the most noteworthy races of Maubet Bjornsen’s career.
“To have an athlete right now on this course who can fight for a podium is pretty exciting, and it gave me goosebumps to watch her ski today,” he said.
In a post-race call, Whitcomb also provided insight into the remainder of the American women’s day.
Post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb on women’s performance.
Sharing Whitcomb’s perspective that results outside the top-ten are no longer satisfying, Brennan explained that she wanted more from today.
“After a really tough classic day in Toblach, I lost quite a bit of wind out my sails and was certainly nervous about my skis and my fatigue and everything that can happen in a tour,” Brennan emailed. “As a result, I chose to ski a little conservative and ski within myself. I am pleased with the result and some very steady skiing, but certainly think I was a bit too conservative. With two days left, it’s time to let it all out!”
During the call, Whitcomb also shared insight into the challenging course and the waxing conditions in Val di Fiemme.
Post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb on waxing and conditions in Val di Fiemme.
Overall Tour Standings
Despite back-to-back losses, Johaug remains in the lead in the overall standings by a margin of 16 seconds. As she is likely to lose time during tomorrow’s sprint stage, it is likely that she will be chasing the yellow bib up the Alpe Cermis.
Østberg also maintains her position in second. Though she did not qualify for the heats in the first sprint stage, she has 20 sprint podiums to her name and is likely to place higher than Johaug.
Nepryaeva remains in third, though she ceded time in today’s stage and now has a 32 second deficit. Jacobsen lurks one second behind her in 4th, followed by Ebba Andersson in 5th (+38).
Maubet Bjornsen is now the top ranked American in 9th (+2:22), followed by Diggins in 15th (+3:20), Brennan in 19th (+4:52), and Ogden in 31st (+8:04).