In the aftermath and celebration of the U.S. women crashing the Norwegian podium party this week at the Tour de Ski, it’s easy to miss the continual second-fiddle performance of Norway’s Heidi Weng. A perennial-podium finisher on the World Cup, she’s landed on the second and third steps 37 times in her career, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release (including five times in six stages before Saturday). However, it’s her inability to the reach the top that’s been a head scratcher.
Saturday in Val de Fiemme, Italy, at the seventh of eight stages in the Tour, she ended that streak, holding off Norwegian teammate and Tour leader, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, in the final stretch of the 10-kilometer classic mass start to eke out a 0.8-second victory in 29:16.3.
From the start, the lead pack consisted of three Norwegians — Weng, Østberg and Therese Johaug — and Finland’s Krista Parmakoski. Johaug led early at 1 k, and Østberg came through the timing point first at 2.5 k. There, the four had already started to create a small gap on Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal, 1.4 and 1.9 seconds back, respectively, while another Finn, Kerttu Niskanen, skied another second back in seventh.
One kilometer later in the four-lap race, the lead four had put nearly six seconds between themselves and the three-woman chase group, with American Sadie Bjornsen close behind them in eighth.
At the halfway point, Parmakoski led a train with Weng, Østberg and Johaug, respectively, while Niskanen trailed by 12 seconds in fourth. Kalla was 16.4 seconds back in fifth and Bjornsen 17.4 seconds behind in sixth.
The frontrunners’ gap to Niskanen grew to nearly 40 seconds by 8.5 k, while Kalla skied another 10 seconds back in fifth, just ahead of Italy’s Virginia De Martin Topranin. Austria’s Teresa Stadlober followed another 2 seconds back in eighth while Bjornsen hung in ninth, 3.3 seconds later.
“I felt amazing for 7k out there today, at which point I just pushed a little too hard on the uphill, and took the next 2k to recover,” Bjornsen explained in a post-race email.
Parmakoski faded over the next kilometer and a half before the finish and left the three Norwegians to battle for the podium. With about 1 k to go, Johaug’s skis slipped on a small uphill, leaving Østberg and Weng to fight for first. Coming down the final stretch into the stadium, Weng used a draft to slingshot around Østberg and out-double pole her in the final 100 meters to the finish, with Johaug settling for third, 6.2 seconds after Weng.
“I cannot believe it, it is so crazy and hard to describe it. I was the best today and I still cannot believe it,” Weng said in a post-race interview with FIS. “I followed Ingvild’s track in the last uphill. I had stiff legs in the downhills. I was just focused on the finish.”
Parmakoski finished the race alone in fourth (+17.4), Kalla took fifth (+55.1) and Niskanen was sixth (+59.0). Topranin took seventh (+1:03.8), Stadlober was eighth (+1:06.7), and Bjornsen finished ninth (+1:12.6), 4.3 seconds ahead of Finland’s Laura Mononen in 10th.
“Conditions were incredibly tricky out there with icing skis on the uphill, but we all managed,” Bjornsen recalled. “Sometimes you just have to accept the challenge and find a way to make it work. It made a world of difference to have some skis that were fast enough to keep up, so the minor challenges became small! I have to give you a huge thanks to the service team for giving me skis to compete today!”
Bjornsen 12th Overall, Diggins Still 10th
On this day, U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb observed, “Every team had their skiers clearing their skis at the top of each hill,” he said on the phone. Dry tracks and klister conditions made for continual icing and skiers seeking to free their skis up before the descents.
In spite of the challenges, Bjornsen clinched her third top-10 of the Tour (after placing seventh in the skate sprint and ninth in the 5 k freestyle pursuit) and improved from 13th to 12th in the overall standings, 9:32.6 behind Østberg.
“I struggled with classic in the middle of this tour, with a fall in the classic qualifier and then slow and slick skis in the classic mass start in Obersdorf … so it feels nice to be back where I feel like I belong,” Bjornsen wrote.
As for her last lap, “She said on the final lap she went a little bit too hard and got a little too fired up and paid the price, and had to back it off a little bit,” Whitcomb explained.
He viewed that much energy at Stage 7 as “a great sign. To be fired up in any way after seven stages bodes well for how your body is absorbing things,” he said. “She’s still mentally engaged, so she’s probably still physically engaged, too.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s climb, Whitcomb expects Bjornsen to turn some heads.
“We’re excited to see what she can do in the climb. She’s in great shape and she’s a great skier so I think she can do really well tomorrow,” he said.
“The only other year I have done the TDS is last year, and I dropped out after 4 stages,” Bjornsen explained. “I can’t wait to make it to the top and celebrate the achievement, but also take the energy to celebrate Sophie and Jessie’s huge achievements these last few days!”
Coming off her first World Cup victory — the second for the U.S. in this Tour — Jessie Diggins placed 17th in Saturday’s mass start to maintain her hold on 10th in the Tour, 9 minutes back.
“She is in a great place, very confident, and feeling good in the races,” Whitcomb said.
In an email, she started by focusing on the positives: “I’m super proud of Sadie for hanging up there and especially proud of Rosie’s first WC point of the year!” Diggins wrote, referring to teammate Rosie Brennan finishing 30th on Saturday.
“My wax was not the wax I was hoping for today and made for a very challenging race, but I’m so excited for tomorrow!” Diggins continued.
Liz Stephen placed 21st (+2:01.7) on Saturday, and Tour rookies Brennan and Caitlin Gregg followed in 30th (+3:05.6) and 41st (+5:03.9) for the U.S.
Like Diggins’ victory from the previous day, the elation of finally finding the top podium spot clearly brought out a whirlwind of emotions for Weng, telling NRK, “I thought it was not possible. I’m so used to being 2-3-4. It is so big.”
Stepping away from the race as the fastest person that day posed a difficult reality for Weng to comprehend.
“Seeing ‘Heidi Weng’ at the top of the list is very unusual,” she continued. “That has not happened before, and I never thought it would happen.”
With her victory, Weng maintains a firm grasp on third in the Tour standings and will start the final climb 2:27 behind Østberg.
The Tour leader since Stage 3, Østberg padded her lead by not only finishing five seconds ahead of Johaug, the current World Cup leader and overall runner-up in the Tour with one stage to go, but also by collecting the mid-race bonus seconds. Johaug will start 39 seconds after Østberg in the final climb.
On Saturday, both Østberg and Johaug were happy for their teammate, and proud to be in their current positions as the end of 10 days of racing draws to a close.
“I am really happy for Heidi to win her first World Cup,” Østberg told FIS. “I am very proud to be on the podium on all of the Tour de Ski stages. I would not believe before the Tour I could lead before the last stage by almost 40 seconds.”
Final-Stage Hill Climb
Sunday’s final stage, a 9 k freestyle pursuit-style hill climb up Alpe Cermis includes gradients as high as 26.5 percent and over 1,600 feet of total climbing, with the majority of that coming in the final 3 k.
Last year in the final stage of the Tour de Ski, Johaug and Weng posted the first- and second-fastest times of the day up the final climb for second and third overall behind teammate Marit Bjørgen.
Another one of the top finishers in the final stage, Stephen skied the fourth-fastest time up Alpe Cermis last year to place fifth overall in the Tour. After placing 21st on Saturday, she’ll start the final climb 25th, about 12 1/2 minutes after Østberg.
“She hasn’t had a great tour; the format [this year] is tricky for her, but she just hasn’t put together races she’s satisfied with,” Whitcomb said, adding that on Sunday, “She’s poised to ski very well, and I would be surprised if her goal wasn’t to win.”
If all goes according to plan, the U.S. will have seven skiers, five women and two men, finish the tour this year — the most yet.
“It’s a cool thing that we’ve got so many athletes ready to start tomorrow’s stage,” Whitcomb said. “That’s a great thing for the team.”