Nature has a lovely way of being, well, natural. In other words; marginally unpredictable, sometimes downright uncomfortable, and finicky. Prior to the Ski Tour 2020’s Stage 4 weather forecast and on-the-ground big-wind gust reality, the stage had been scheduled to pulse 38-kilometers from Storlein, Sweden to Meråker, Norway in a point to point event. Cool, right? An international border crossing during a race, with a single sanctioned coaching/feed zone for athletes around the 25 k mark. A think-out-of-the-box format with a nod to the old-school days of Norwegian countryside racing.
Nature interfered. Or at least the predicted inclement weather scheduled to pummel the rolling mountains featured in the point to point race was enough to scare off race organizers.
The stage was rerouted the stage. Stage 4’s freestyle mass start streamed from the start/finish area in Meråker, to the original coaching feed zone at approximately 15 k, where athletes skied a several k loop, and then routed onto the main course back to the Meråker ski stadium. In total, the new route was 34 k, with approximately 30 k consisting of an out-and-back. Organizers maintained a single feedzone policy. (Thus, you’ll see several athletets with hydration belts. Most notably, the Norwegians.)
Although mother-nature dictated the course reroute, Norway’s Therese Johaug dictated the intro and closing chapters of Stage 4.
This was no surprise, as she has dominated World Cup distance events with a few second-place efforts here and there, to prove maybe she is human after all. Analyzing her results, it’s clear she is a record-setter. And another record of sorts fell today as Johaug won in 1:26:32.8 hours. It was Johaug’s eighth individual distance World Cup victory in a row. A streak that outdoes her run of seven consecutive wins, which the Norwegian has strung together on two occasions — once between January- March of 2016, and again between March-December 2019.
The day was not a singular Johaug show. Her teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg kept the racing on the front-end honest for the overall win.
Earlier in the race, it did appear like a Johaug runaway. At 14 k, she had gapped the second place Østberg by 28.0 seconds. Chasing in a line through the time check along with Østberg were Norway’s Heidi Weng, and Sweden’s Ebba Andersson. American Jessie Diggins led a group, 1:24 back, including Austria’s Teresa Stadlober, and Krista Pärmäkoski.
Another 30 seconds back, an organized chase pack including Charlotte Kalla, Rosie Brennan, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen churned along.
Through 20 k, those gaps remained relatively firm. However, out on course, the winds were evident with swaying treetops. A solo effort can take its toll with no draft to exploit. No matter how you look at it, either Johaug slowed or Østberg sped up, the time between the two skiers diminished between 20 k and 30 k. At the 31 time check, Johaug’s lead had shrunk to 7.9 seconds over Østberg, who had snapped away from a hard to shake Weng early in the race. Weng paced through the 31 k mark in third (+51.0), Andersson in fourth (+1:37.3), and Diggins in fifth (+3:01.2).
Have no doubt, despite Joahug’s singular dominance, this was a hunted Johaug. Her effort in the closing Ks never waned, as Østberg proved a worthy foil. As much as Østberg wanted to will the 30-40 meter span to Johaug away, Joahug was able to keep four seconds between herself and the fearless Østberg at the finish. Weng came through solo in third overall (+1:21.6), with Andersson in fourth (+2:00.5).
Jacobsen pipped the next chase group, taking fifth (+3:06.5), with Tiril Udnes Weng of Norway in sixth (+3:10.3), and Diggins in seventh (+3:13.9).
Post-race interview with Jessie Diggins
Also for the U.S, Brennan ended her day in 10th (+3:41.9).
“It’s been an adventurous couple days here in the ski tour,” emailed Brennan. “A lot new things, a lot of surprises, and a lot of last minute changes. Our point to point race was changed due to high winds but we still managed to to an out and back in the same trail starting and finishing in Meråker. It was really windy still making it challenging to ski alone out there. Knowing that I did all I could to stay in my group. There were a few kilometers that I was dangling and unsure if I could hang, but I was fortunately able to find another gear climbing and work my way back up to my group. , unfortunately,y missed the first break on the way back but was able to pick off some people all the way to the finish. I am really happy with the race as 30km has been a struggle for me in the past. I am still feeling strong in the tour and am going to do all I can to hold on to a top 10 in the closing stages.”
Maubet Bjornen clocked in one place after Brennan in 11th (+3:44.8).
Also for the U.S., Julia Kern placed 19th (+6:04.5), Rosie Frankowski 29th (+6:12.2), Caitlin Patterson 41st (+8:20.3), Katharine Ogden 42nd (+8:49.8), Alayna Sonnesyn 48th (+10:23.3), Sophie Caldwell 56th (+12:27.3). Hailey Swirbul did not start.
For Canada, Cendrine Browne scored in the points in 25th overall (+6:07.9). Katherine Stewart-Jones skied to 31st (+6:16.1), and Emly Nishikawa 39th (+7:52.9).
In the Ski Tour overall, Johaug looks unstoppable – she has won all four stages thus far. Her elapsed time, which factors in a 60-second time bonus for her sprint stage win on Tuesday, and three 15 second intermediate time bonuses on the course Thursday, is 2:16.33. Østberg sits in second (+2:06), Weng third (+2:39). Diggins was the best-positioned American in sixth (+6:02).
Racers have a rest day Friday, with racing starting up in Trondheim for Stage 5’s 1.5 k classic sprint.