The question wasn’t whether – it was when. Defending Tour de Ski champion Heidi Weng started the day with a two-second deficit to Norwegian teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg. But as one of the best climbers in the World Cup field, it was fairly certain that at the top of the Alpe Cermis, Weng would be crowned the Tour winner again.
The move came after about six and a half kilometers of the nine-kilometer skate pursuit starting in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Weng passed Østberg and then just kept going up the grueling Alpe Cermis, where grades approach 30%.
“I like to go in this climb,” Weng said in an interview with the Val di Fiemme media team. “It was really tough this year. I tried to stay focused and go very fast in the uphill. So I tried to get some speed in the last two kilometers. I was very stiff but I stayed focused. I heard my family and my mom and dad [cheering], so that’s very helpful to go fast!”
Even though she had a big gap on Østberg by the finish – 48.5 seconds – Weng was still pushing hard, and collapsed at the line.
Østberg, too, pushed to the finish, picking up the pace on her V2 as she skied towards her winning teammate.
“I am very pleased to secure second place,” she told Norway’s NRK broadcaster, according to a translation. “I tried to fight with Heidi at the bottom of the hill, but… she was stronger than me up there. She was the strongest today. I had a day yesterday that ruined me a bit.”
Like in her first Tour de Ski title in 2017, Weng had to face neither Marit Bjørgen nor Therese Johaug as the race series wore on. Johaug has won the Tour de Ski twice and is currently serving a doping ban; Bjørgen has won once and is sitting out this year’s Tour to prepare for the Olympics, as are Swedish stars Charlotte Kalla (who won the 2008 Tour de Ski) and Stina Nilsson.
Diggins Grabs Historic Third Place for U.S.
The question of the day hadn’t really been about who would win – it was about what would happen after Weng crossed the line. A minute and a half behind the Norwegian pair at the start, Finland’s Krista Parmakoski tried to hold off American Jessie Diggins.
Diggins made up the ten seconds to Parmakoski in the first few kilometers, and the two skied together for the middle section of the race course. Beginning the climb, Diggins was leading but Parmakoski stuck close on her ski tails.
“I caught Krista maybe a third of the way on the flats and we traded leads, working together to go faster,” Diggins wrote in an email. “I love skiing with Krista – she’s an incredible racer and so tough, and really awesome to ski with.”
Diggins made a move though, around the seven kilometer mark, and Parmakoski initially kept the gap small but then faded back and back.
“Honestly, I didn’t have a big plan for an attack on the climb,” Diggins explained. “My strategy was just to keep the tempo high, keep my body upright and leaning into the climb, and just keep moving. But on the ‘flat’ sections where we were weaving around gates, I noticed I was starting to pull away just a little bit, so I would push extra hard each turn and just keep my tempo up, and that’s how I gradually pulled away.”
Part of the reason was that Parmakoski had a problem with her left leg, which was made worse by the V1 climbing up the steep hill.
“I have often had the same problem in 30 k races when I’m doing [V1] on the left,” she told Finnish ski website Kestävyys Urheilu.
By the top of the climb, Diggins had just over 24 seconds on the Finn. She had turned in one of her better final climb efforts – collecting the third-fastest “time of the day”, just 41.9 seconds slower than the time posted by Weng, who not only won the Tour de Ski but also demolished the field in the climb itself.
“To get the third fastest time on the hill climb was a huge surprise for me, for sure!” Diggins wrote. “I woke up feeling good, drank way too much coffee, and stuck to my plan of catching up to Krista on the flats. I had AMAZING skis, so a huge thanks to Salomon and our incredible wax staff!”
As she skied towards the finish line, clearly exhausted, Weng and Østberg cheered her on. She finished 2:32.3 behind Weng. Diggins collapsed at the finish and the two Norwegians ran over to her to offer their congratulations.
“It was so cool coming into the finish, with Heidi and Ingvild cheering for me!” she wrote. “I love having friends from around the world and those girls are such awesome ski racers but most importantly, they’re great people and it was really fun to chat with them after. I’m really psyched for them!”
It was the first time a non-European athlete, man or woman, has stood on the final Tour de Ski podium.
“I’m really, really happy,” Diggins told the Val di Fiemme media team after the podium ceremony. “It’s really good for the sport in our country because we need to show our younger skiers that yeah, it’s possible, you can be a cross-country skier in America, and you can podium. So I hope this is really inspiring for all the younger cross-country skiers back home.”
Parmakoski finished fourth, +2:57.7. And with the Tour de Ski concluded and its points divvied out, Diggins is now third in the overall World Cup standings, too. The conclusion of the Tour de Ski was also a major payday for her: she earned 1000 Swiss Francs ($1025) for having the third-best time of the day, 1300 Francs for being third in the Tour de Ski sprint standings, and 23,850 Francs for being third in the Tour itself.
Teresa Stadlober of Austria finished fifth (+3:09.4) in the Tour de Ski, notching the second-fastest time on the stage (41.3 seconds behind Weng’s split) in a valliant effort to catch Parmakoski in case she faltered any further.
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland was sixth (+4:17.0), Russia’s Anastasia Sedova seventh (+4:49.6), and Switzerland’s Nathalie Von Siebenthal eighth (+4:56.1).
Bjornsen Ninth as Four Americans Finish Tour
American Bjornsen had started eighth, and along with Von Siebethal – who started ninth – skied up to Sedova. That had actually been a plan between the American and the Swiss.
“One thing I learned that I learned on the third day of the Tour [was that] if you are going to catch someone in front of you, you kind of have to do that in the first kilometer because after that everyone is just going at a hot pace,” Bjornsen said in an interview. “So today I went to talk to Nathalie before the start. I told her that we needed to work together on the flat and just switch leads, that we could make time on the girls in front of us. I pretty much did the first kilometer at what felt like sprint pace, and I led that part because I knew that Nathalie would jump in after that.”
Despite being mismatched in size – Bjornsen is tall, Von Siebenthal diminutive – the pair worked well together to close the gap to Sedova.
“She glides so much,” Bjornsen said. “Despite being a small person, we ski pretty similar. On the flat section at the beginning it was awesome. We were both really pushing the pace… even at the bottom the V1 section [of the climb] before the wall, she was the perfect person to follow because she is gliding so much. It was really nice.”
But the Russian then dropped the two once they reached the climb, and Von Siebenthal was more successful at keeping Sedova in sight.
“[On the flats] I exchanged very well with Sadie in the lead, we caught up to [Sedova] quite fast,” Von Siebenthal told Switzerland’s SRF broadcaster, according to a translation. “But she could draft with us, and initially in the climb she was behind us but then attacked and I didn’t see her again… I couldn’t quite catch up to her again. There wasn’t any better result possible.”
Bjornsen, who has only done the final climb once before and skipped it last year due to illness, found the steepest part of the course to be an unwelcome jolt.
“When we hit the first wall, I couldn’t keep with those two girls, and so then I was kind of on my own the rest of the time and just pushing up the hill,” she explained. “I kind of forgot about how long the climb was. So I was in this weird place of not wanting to redline, but also trying to push myself… I knew there were some hard chargers coming for me from behind and I was definitely on the struggle bus.”
Bjornsen slipped one spot to finish ninth (+6:15.0), but still gave the U.S. two top-ten finishers in the Tour de Ski for the first time.
“This summer I made a goal to finish top 10 in the Tour, so it feels really good,” Bjornsen said. “It definitely was one of those Tour — I feel like I had more disappointing days than I had great days. But the great days were so great it kind of left a good taste in my mouth at the end.”
Liz Stephen finished 16th (+8:25.8) and Rosie Brennan 24th (+10:59.6). Stephen had the fifth-fastest time on the stage, and Brennan the 17th-fastest.
Like Bjornsen, Brennan said she had some frustrating days along the way.
“It has definitely not been the best Tour for me,” Brennan said in an interview. “I think I tried to put in a little more training over Christmas, and I think I just made myself a little flat for the Tour. Then it didn’t help with the number of crazy days we had – I had some crashes in there and just so many crazy things, it was hard to tell exactly where my fitness was. But having a good time up the hill it tells you that you’re pretty fit.”
While many dread the final climb, Brennan explained that she thinks it is a good way to cap off Tour racing.
“I really like the climb, especially when you are so tired,” she said. “I actually think it is easier to do the same thing over and over again. You don’t have to think about how to ski a section. It is literally just putting one foot in front of the other. So I knew that if I could get my energy back, than I felt like I could have a better day today.”
Brennan, who has now scored World Cup points in eight different races this season in both skate and classic, sprint and distance, is looking forward to regrouping and using that fitness as the season builds towards the Olympics.
“I feel like I had a really good first day and good day today, so I guess I just have to forget the middle part,” she said of the Tour.
32 women finished this year’s edition of the Tour de Ski.
The results have implications for the Americans in terms of Olympic qualification: Stephen is now ranked 35th in the World Cup distance standings, bringing her within U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s objective criteria for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The rest of the Tour finishers had been well within the top-50 distance or sprint World Cup ranking needed for selection before the Tour began, but Stephen had been yet to score any World Cup points until the Tour de Ski.
-Harald Zimmer and Ian Tovell contributed