(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb.)
OBERSTDORF, Germany — After a severe storm had led to the cancellation of the Stage 4 classic sprint the prior day, the 2018 Tour de Ski resumed on Thursday morning with the scheduled mass starts, albeit on an altered course due to wind damages and the still ongoing strong rainfall.
In the women’s 10-kilometer race, athletes had to ski a 2.1-kilometer course five times (for an actual total of 10.5 k). The course featured a climb out of the arena leading into a steep descent and sharp left hairpin turn (identical to the sprint course), then the athletes had to ski a long and flat out-and-back loop, before the laps concluded with another climb and the descent back into the stadium area.
“Today was definitely a very different course than most due to the storm and trees falling down over the usual course!” U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Jessie Diggins explained in email to FasterSkier. “It was icy and flat, which meant that the pack stayed really tight together as there were no big climbs to break it up. … This was the only course that [the race organizers] were able to make and so I think having a race is better than no race at all, for sure.”
The two American women in the best overall positions in the Tour de Ski (TdS), with Diggins in third and Sadie Bjornsen in fifth heading into Stage 5 put their mark on the first few loops by staying at or near the front of the pack of 45 female starters remaining in the Tour.
“Highlight of the day was controlling lap 2 alongside Jessie,” Sadie Bjornsen wrote in an email to media outlets after the race. “It’s funny during tour events, I always feel like it benefits us to mentally work together!”
Diggins then managed to claim second-place behind Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski in the women’s only interim sprint for bonus seconds on the third lap, earning 12. “Fortunately, I got into a great position to sprint for the bonus seconds,” Diggins wrote.
But that moment was also when things started to turn south for the Americans, as Bjornsen stumbled on the climb just as the top group accelerated for the sprint.
“I had a great first half of the race, but unfortunately slipped out right before the bonus, and fell down,” Bjornsen wrote. “In the 4 seconds on the ground, I managed to get passed by 20 people, and then struggled to fight my way back up.”
Still third by the 4.2 k split, Bjornsen had fallen back all the way to 23rd at the 5.7 k mark, even though in real time she had only lost 11 seconds to the top.
Diggins remained near the front of the field for the next lap and was still in sixth place and just two seconds off the pace at the 8.4 k split time. But while three Norwegians, Sweden’s Maria Nordström and Finland’s Pärmäkoski up front readied themselves for the final sprint to the finish, Diggins hit a snag.
“Unfortunately, 200 meters from the finish I hit ice and crashed hard into the boards, spinning around and losing quite a bit of time and places,” Diggins wrote. “But that happens sometimes in racing and I shook it off already!”
Skating ahead of her, Norway’s current TdS leader Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and teammate Heidi Weng as her closest pursuer and defending Tour champion built a little gap on a downhill section into the arena to the third Norwegian, Maiken Caspersen Falla, who lost speed when she briefly slipped. Just a few seconds behind followed a still tightly packed group of almost 20 athletes within 10 seconds of one another.
The two Norwegians entered the finishing stretch side by side, with Weng taking the right of two center lanes and Østberg the one to her left. Weng might have been a step ahead, but then suddenly lost her balance and veered right, falling on her side.
Uncontested, Østberg celebrated her third-straight TdS win across the finish line, while her teammate Falla claimed second place, 1.9 seconds back. Pärmäkoski took the third position on the podium (+3.2), and Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal followed in fourth (+4.1) and Nordström fifth (+4.4).
“I’m just really happy that I managed to cross the finish line first,” Østberg told reporters in English after the race. “I thought when we were on the last uphill, I knew that we were in a big, big group. So I thought that maybe 20 girls would pass me in the last 100 meters. I realized that it was a fight with Heidi and me, and I saw that she had an accident — that’s really sad for her. When things like that happen I don’t think it’s fun at all, but I just had to keep on going. I’m sad for Heidi.”
“My plan today [was] to gain as many bonus seconds as possible,” Pärmäkoski, who also benefitted from Weng’s mishap, said according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “After the bonus sprint [which she won] I knew I had to be fighting for a good position before the finishing straight. I feel sorry for Heidi’s fall, but such situations happen in our sport.”
Weng scrambled back to her feet and turned around to face the finish, but having lost all speed only crossed the line 7.2 seconds back in 11th place. She covered her head in her hands, then refused the outstretched arm from Østberg and walked out of the finish pen without talking to her teammates or any media.
Only after about an hour had passed, she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that she just needed some time alone and had been “very embarrassed”.
Just as the finishing-pen interaction between the two Norwegian rivals unfolded, Diggins snowplowed to a halt behind them, having reached the finish in 24th position, 16.8 seconds out of first, following her own stumble.
Four seconds later, Bjornsen crossed the line in 26th (+20.8).
And just another few seconds later, the third USST member Liz Stephen reached the finish in 28th place (+24.5), after moving her way up from skiing as far back as 40th position at the 4.2 k mark.
A day after she would have made the sprint heats and scored World Cup points after qualifying in 21st place before the race was canceled, the fourth USST member in the Tour, Rosie Brennan finished 36th (+52.7) on Thursday.
Along with 10 other female competitors, Americans Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell withdrew from the TdS before Stage 5, with the intention to be ready for the next regular-season World Cup weekend of sprint races Jan. 13-14 in Dresden, Germany.
Overall Tour de Ski Standings
Despite a less-than-ideal stage due to the mishap just before the finish, Diggins remained in third for podium contention in the overall Tour standings. Now 1:56.7 minutes out of first, she lost more time to Østberg, while Weng in second trails Østberg by 57 seconds. Pärmäkoski is fourth overall, 2:09.1 back.
“She skied a gutsy race and didn’t lose a lot of time,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said about Diggins on the phone late Thursday. “We would’ve loved for her to pick up a few more bonus seconds to put a little time in to Pärmäkoski, but these next two days should be great for Jessie. … Nothing was really gained today, but not a whole lot was lost.”
“I think I need maybe almost two minutes to beat Heidi at the end [up the Alpe Cermis],” Østberg told reporters. “She’s the strongest climber in the World Cup, and she really likes the courses in Val di Fiemme. So I think she will be really strong in the last two stages.”
“It has been a discussion if I will go through the whole Tour or not,” Østberg added. “The sprint yesterday was canceled and today was, uh, a special race, maybe not the hardest one, so that makes it easier to keep skiing. But yes, the last two stages are hard. We have plenty of weeks of rest after the Tour so I think it will be good for preparation for the Olympics.”
With her result in the Oberstdorf mass start stage, Bjornsen slipped from fifth to seventh position (+2:47.0) in the overall Tour standings.
“I was pretty bummed, but then again, it’s tour skiing,” Bjornsen wrote. “You can’t think about a race more than 10 minutes after it’s over… or you waste energy for the next. So now, I’m really looking forward to some great classic skiing in the rain here in a couple days! Let’s see what I can do!”
“Sadie’s skied a brilliant Tour as well,” Whitcomb said. “She slipped a couple spots but not a lot of time, given how tight the race was, even though she finished in 26th she was very close to the leaders. She stumbled on one of the climbs and just ended up getting buried in the pack. When you’re back where she ended up and where Liz and Rosie were, it is really difficult to move. There just aren’t hills to tire people out…”
Bjornsen stands to improve one spot again for the next race as Germany’s Nicole Fessel announced her intention to withdraw from the Tour after this stage, citing a need to conserve energy and the upcoming Olympics as her highest priorities this season. Fessel, who is skiing for the local club in Oberstdorf and thus very familiar with the area, had finished the day in sixth place (+5.5) and was also ranked sixth overall (+2:39.8).
“Conditions were top, considering what happened the last hours here, they really managed to compact the snow,“ she told German broadcaster ARD in an interview, according to a translation. “It was difficult to ski today because the course wasn’t so demanding now, but it still had its challenges. Personally I was missing the climbs a little bit, but I am still satisfied that today I was in the mix and could assert myself in a race that required sharp elbows.”
Stephen is 27th overall (+5:12.2) and Brennan 33rd (+5:50.6) out of 43 women remaining.
Asked what kind of final overall finish in this Tour is attainable to Stephen, one of the strongest hill climbers on the World Cup circuit, Whitcomb said it depends on how her next two races go in Val di Fiemme (with a 10 k classic mass start on Saturday followed by the 9 k freestyle final climb on Sunday).
“I’m focused less on what her end result could be and more on the fact that things are starting to look and feel really good for her,” Whitcomb said. “Today she felt great, and it wasn’t necessarily a course that suited her super well, but she was really engaged physically out there and looked fresh and was just attacking when she could. I think when we put her on a tough course it’s going to go really well.
“I think Rosie’s also in great shape,” he added. “She’s had a couple distance races where she hasn’t skied to the level that’s she currently at with her fitness and ability, and she knows that. Today was tough for her. With this flat, she felt that the platform she was skiing on was very unstable and it made things very challenging today. Rosie’s legs were very tight in the race and she didn’t feel like she could access her motor the way that she wanted to. Val di Fiemme if nothing else does that; these are tough courses here.”
For the third time after 1987 and 2005, Oberstdorf is scheduled to host the 2021 FIS Nordic Ski World Championships, and the organizers will then hope for better luck with the weather conditions that would allow them to showcase all of the demanding courses at the venue.
After a rest and travel day, the TdS will resume on Saturday with the sixth stage, a 10-kilometer classic style mass start for the women in Val di Fiemme, Italy, before concluding with the grueling 9 k freestyle pursuit climb up Alpe Cermis.
—Alex Kochon and Chelsea Little contributed