The image of several Norwegians sprawled in the snow at the top of Alpe Cermis, while Therese Johaug, also of Norway, kneels to congratulate them on their efforts, says a lot.
“It was a good fight, Ingvild,” Johaug said to second-place finisher, teammate Ingvild Flustad Østberg, as she sat next to her on the ground.
Østberg was second to — who else? — but Johaug, who had just bested her to the top of the mountain by nearly two and half minutes after starting 39 seconds behind in the final stage of the Tour de Ski, the notorious 9-kilometer freestyle pursuit up Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“I hoped I could take some seconds on Ingvild before the climb. It worked better than I had hoped,” Johaug told FIS afterward.
Norwegian women swept the podium, with Johaug landing at the top with a finishing time of 33:53.5, Østberg reached the summit in second (+2:20.9), and Heidi Weng started third, 2:27 behind Østberg, and held onto third across the line (+3:13.9).
The event was a pursuit, with start times based on cumulative times over seven World Cup stages in nine days. Sunday marked the eighth and final stage on the 10th day of the Tour. Fatigue was the shared theme among 43 women who started and completed the final climb, thus completing the Tour.
While Johaug started the eight-stage series by earning the leader’s bib on Day 1 in Lenzerheide, Østberg took control after winning the 5 k pursuit in Lenzerheide at Stage 3. From that point on, the 25-year-old Østberg continued to lead the Tour, up until about 17 minutes into the final climb, when Johaug caught and passed her.
Still 14 seconds ahead of Johaug at 6.2 k, shortly after the course began to ascend up the mountain at a brutal grade, Østberg hung onto first for another minute before Johaug reached her. Wasting no time, Johaug pushed on, putting 17 seconds between her and Østberg by 7.1 k. One kilometer later, she was 1:26 ahead and in the clear for the win.
Following the zig-zagging course to the top, the 27-year-old Johaug V1-ed past excited spectators before a multitude of waving Norwegian flags greeted her at the finish. She grabbed one a few meters before the line and held it up in elation.
“It was my dream and big goal to win the Tour de Ski,” Johaug said after claiming her second overall title since winning the 2014 Tour. “Ingvild has pushed me at every stage of the Tour this year. I think this was my [best] Tour de Ski ever.”
According to reporters at the summit, Johaug asked Østberg afterward, “Are you tired now?”
“Yes,” Østberg replied.
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Diggins 10th, Bjornsen 14th Overall
After starting 9:01 back in 10th and finishing 10th (+11:20.4), Jessie Diggins led the U.S. women in the final Tour standings. It was the end to an eventful Tour for Diggins, after her first individual World Cup win on Friday.
“One of my big goals for the season was to finish the Tour in the top 10, so I made that goal today!” she wrote in an email to media.
While Diggins didn’t finish the Tour last year because of illness, she did in 2014 and placed 13th overall.
“That climb is brutally hard hard and I was in a world of pain, but I had to tell myself to just keep my feet moving!” she reflected on Sunday. “It was a real mental battle out there so I was happy to be able to hang tough.”
Following her to the top of the downhill ski area was Sadie Bjornsen, who started 12th, 9:32 after Østberg, and slipped two spots to finish in 14th (+12:24.1). This year was her first time completing the Tour, after withdrawing after Stage 5 last year despite being in the top 10.
“I just had no idea what to expect,” Bjornsen said in a phone interview. “I’d done some hill climbs in the U.S., but never against a World Cup field. So I was definitely very nervous because I had a number of people quite close behind me. I decided that I just had to look up the hill, instead.”
“Sadie will tell you that she’s not a climber,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said. “But she did great today – she only lost two places on Alpe Cermis. She’s skating at a high level now as well classic skiing … Fourteenth place is just a super result for Sadie and for our team.”
Stephen Third Fastest on Course, 2nd on Actual Climb
The U.S. team’s best individual performance in Stage 8 came from Liz Stephen, who climbed six places from 25th to 19th (+13:27.8) and posted the third-fastest time of the day. Stephen’s time was 1:29.5 behind Johaug, who earned “fastest of the day” accolades on Alpe Cermis for the sixth-consecutive year, according to a FIS press release.
Weng clocked the second-fastest course time, less than four seconds ahead of Stephen’s time.
In her fifth Tour de Ski, Stephen also had the second-fastest split on the climbing portion of the course, the final 3 k to the finish. Only Johaug was 31.7 seconds faster, besting Stephen’s climbing time of 19:18.3.
“I kind of just did my thing on the uphill and went to go catch as many people as I could,” Stephen said in a phone interview. “I felt really strong today, and I had great skis. It’s my favorite race of the year – not a single downhill. I like just getting into that zone and just grinding.
“Today was just my ideal conditions,” she added. “I love it when it’s just soft and wet and sloppy and just wonderful.”
According to Whitcomb, Stephen was coming off a tour that was “stacked against her strengths.” While the U.S. Ski Team veteran, who turns 29 on Tuesday, excels in longer skate races, the tour had a lot of shorter, classical races. Stephen was fifth overall in last year’s Tour – the best result ever for an American at the Tour de Ski.
“She didn’t put together the Tour she wanted,” Whitcomb said. “But we knew that today would test something that is her strength, and would be a good indicator as to where she is physically. She skied better than she did last year during this race – you can’t compare times – but she was able to maintain form and she paced it better, so I think she’s in a confident place.
“Third on time of day and only four seconds off of second — that’s something to be proud of,” he added. “She can leave Italy with some confidence.”
Also for the U.S., Rosie Brennan started 31st and slipped one place to 32nd overall (+20:06.1), and Caitlin Gregg started 38th and finished 42nd (+23:57.6). Both completed their first Tours.
Unsurprisingly, Whitcomb was pleased with the performance of his team.
“I’m really excited with having seven athletes finish the Tour [Diggins, Bjornsen, Stephen, Brennan, Gregg, Noah Hoffman and Erik Bjornsen]. I think it’s a little bit of an unlikely circumstance – battling illness and fatigue, even injury in some cases, anything can happen during the Tour,” he said. “So to have seven athletes finish and have seven athletes stay healthy, that’s a big sign of success for a group of athletes. It means that they’re absorbing the [racing] rather than just getting buried by it.”
Without a World Championships or Olympics this year, the U.S. coaches decided it was safe to have their athletes dig deeper than they otherwise might during the Tour.
“We were able to afford having a few extra athletes that were well beyond their comfort zones finish the Tour, despite it perhaps burying them for the next week or two,” Whitcomb explained.
Sprint specialists Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent, Simi Hamilton, and Andy Newell all withdrew from the Tour early, with the intention of saving themselves for two days of skate sprinting at next weekend’s World Cup in Planica, Slovenia. The seven skiers that finished the Tour will sit out the Planica sprints to rest for the Nove Mesto (Czech Republic) World Cup the following week.
But the fatigue runs deep.
“I’m looking forward to the next tour we have,” Stephen said of the Ski Tour Canada from March 1-12. “Which is crazy that we have another one. Thinking about that today was actually a little bit sickening – we’re just so tired that the thought of doing another [eight-stage] tour later on this year is a little bit tiring just to even think about. But I’m sure by then I’ll be really ready and really excited, and of course skiing in Canada is awesome.”
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting