After the Tour de Ski’s previous dance with earth, wind and rain and the subsequent cancellation of the Stage 4 classic sprint followed by a congested Stage 5 mass start in Oberstdorf, Germany, all seemed to return to a sense of normalcy on Saturday.
The women contested Stage 6 of the Tour de Ski (TdS), a 10-kilometer classic mass start, in the iconic Val di Fiemme, Italy. The women skied a 2.5 k climb-and-descend-centric course four times to the thrills of bell-ringing fans and the mountain gods, who, for the time being, allotted a weather reprieve after Central Europe’s rumble with funky atmospheric pressure gradients.
In what amounted as a critical race to shake out the standings before Sunday’s final Stage 7 climb up Alpe Cermis, with 10 k to go and then 10 k down, Norway’s Heidi Weng rolled the dice and won.
“It was a great race,” Weng said after the race, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “I felt very good. I like Val di Fiemme very much. Every time I compete here I have had a good one. It will be a hard race tomorrow.”
Weng, last season’s TdS winner, crossed the line firs on Saturday in 29:07.9. It was her first individual World Cup win since her victory atop Alpe Cermis in last year’s final Tour stage. Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski finished 7.6 seconds back in second place, Austria’s Teresa Stadlober was another second back in third place (+8.6), and American Jessie Diggins put herself in the mix in fourth (+23.6). The Tour leader coming into Saturday’s race, Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who at times looked like she could dominate the pace, faded to fifth (+35.2).
Also for the U.S. women’s team, Sadie Bjornsen finished 10th place (+1:11.3), Liz Stephen 24th (+2:18) and Rosie Brennan 30th (+2:47.2).
With a single stage to go, and a doozy at that (the 9 k freestyle hill climb pursuit up Alpe Cermis), Saturday’s stage was all about minimizing losses for some and making gains for others. As the Tour’s defending champion, Weng proved not only does she have TdS stamina, she has the gumption to kill on the final stage’s climb. Last year, Weng began the hill climb in second overall, 20 seconds behind Sweden’s Stina Nilsson. But more importantly in that 2017 race, Weng started 1:04 minutes ahead of Østberg in fourth. Nine k and 425 meters of climbing later, Weng took the win — she gained time on Østberg, who placed fourth overall (+2:04.3). Not that last year’s dynamics dictate how this year’s TdS will play out, but it remains a data set.
Weng began Saturday’s stage in second overall and 57 seconds behind TdS leader Østberg. Weng endures as the lanky yet seemingly ideal pairing of power-to-weight climbing ratio. Østberg, who is enjoying a resurgence this year after a lull by her standards last season, prevails as a powerful force to Weng’s lithe climbing. Yet after winning the first three Tour distance stages, underestimating the 2017/2018 version of Østberg on Alpe Cermis might prove too risky.
Saturday’s 10 k seemed like a poker match up to the second pass through the stadium at 5 k. The top-14 skiers were strung out in a line — 8.8 seconds separating Bjornsen in 14th to Østberg in first. For a moment, maybe it was an Østberg bluff, but she and Weng took a brief pull up front on a climb that appeared to unsettle the group of five that had formed and consisted of the Norwegian duo plus Diggins, Pärmäkoski and Stadlober.
It turns out Østberg’s moves were a bluff revealing she was dealt a weak hand: by 8.6 k Østberg was 19 seconds behind Weng. By then, Weng had played her full house and had gapped Pärmäkoski and Stadlober in second and third place respectively, by 10 seconds. Diggins skied in fourth, 16.5 seconds behind Weng.
From then on, Weng soloed for the win.
Heading into Sunday’s final stage, the formidable climb up Alpe Cermis, Østberg still leads the Tour with a tiny 1.8-second gap on Weng.
With Weng’s history on the climb, it appears to be her Tour to lose. If Weng wins the hill-climb pursuit, she’ll be the only skier besides Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk to win successive Tours. Kowalczyk won four straight TdS’s from 2010 to 2013.
U.S. standout Diggins had entered the stage in third overall, 1:56.7 behind. For much of Saturday’s race, she was a catalyst, either setting tempo up front, gliding away on the downhills or sitting in and letting the Norwegians know she was right there.
Weng’s mark on the race, which was embellished with her make-or-break climbing speed near 7.5 k, redlined several top skiers. At the 7.5 k checkpoint, Diggins was 8.2 seconds back. It looked initially as if it were more of an unmatchable Weng pace than a moment when Diggins would lose more time and fall from the Pärmäkoski-and-Stadlober pairing. Diggins came through 7.5 k in line with the Finn and Austrian.
Weng kept charging, Pärmäkoski and Stadlober kept their losses in check, and Diggins lost more time in the closing kilometers. The American was 19.8 seconds back at 9 k, and 23.6 behind as she crossed the finish line.
“In today’s race I tried to stay near the front and out of trouble,” Diggins wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “With my luck I just wanted to avoid crashes or broken poles! I faded slightly in that last lap and couldn’t go with Krista and Teresa but it was so fun to see exactly where the podium was since it’s mass start and see where I can improve a little bit for the next time. Always learning and taking notes!”
Diggins dropped one place in the overall standings and currently sits in fourth (+1:43.1). Pärmäkoski is third overall (+1:33.5) and Stadlober fifth (+2:29.9).
“In the overall tour, I’m really happy with my placing,” Diggins added. “To be starting 10 seconds behind Krista is awesome and I’ve been racing better than any other year, for sure. It’s fun to feel strong in sprint and distance, classic and skate, and my goal for years has been to become a true all-rounder. It’s fun to finally be getting there!”
Diggins, known for her uncanny race tenacity, understands the final stage is daunting.
“Unfortunately, I’m not a natural-born climber, but I know how to suffer, I know how to be a fighter, and I’m going to go give that climb everything I’ve got left,” Diggins explained about her approach to the hill climb. “And in the end, that’s all you can do! My internal mantra is most likely something like ‘just keep swimming….just keep swimming…’, Finding Nemo style. Because you have to see the humor in climbing that beast!”
Bjornsen began the day sixth overall (+2:47.0) and finished in 10th. Bjornsen will begin Stage 7 ranked eighth, 3:33.1 minutes behind TdS leader Østberg.
“Today was another one of those days that left me wanting a bit more,” Bjornsen emailed to several media outlets. “After falling in the last race, I was determined to make up some time that I had lost in my overall tour position. I have been feeling really great on my classic skis, and felt like I had some power left in my legs this morning, so my goal was to just go with the leaders as long as possible. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a tough start, and made some tactical errors that left me pretty far back in the pack on the first lap. Then, once I was finally finding position again, I got trampled over, and fell. Once again, I fought my way back to the front after getting stuck behind some traffic, but just burned a few too many jets getting yo-yo’d around today.
“At this stage in the tour, when things go great, you can convince yourself you are invincible,” Bjornsen continued. “When you get rattled a bit, it takes an extra amount of mental power to fight back to where you want, and I think that is what got me today. My race today still puts me in a place to fight for top 10 in the overall, which is super exciting. Considering the swings of this TDS, I am thrilled to be fighting for top 10. I have never done that in a Tour event, so it is a good goal for me when I am pushing myself up that mountain tomorrow with every last bit of energy I have!”
TdS vet Liz Stephen again scored World Cup points on Saturday. In four distance races in this TdS, she has been in the top 30 three times. Admittedly, Stephen understood it was a small World Cup field.
“Well, it’s much easier to get 24th in a race when there are only 32 starters,” Stephen said on the phone Saturday. “But today was definitely, it was maybe the fastest pace I’ve ever seen in a World Cup. Either that, or my brain was just moving really slowly, and my body, but I was just really having trouble keeping the pace those girls were setting, so, it was a really hard day for me. I had to dig pretty deep. … I certainly, I was just on the ropes the whole time. Just felt like I was sprinting for 10 k. So, that was a little bit of a tough one today, but I love the courses and I just really happy to be feeling more like myself racing again during this Tour.”
But the bread and butter of Stephen’s gravity defying climbing ability is the Tour’s final hill climb. In 2013 she notched the second fastest time of day up Alpe Cermis. In 2014, she was seventh overall in the TdS and third fastest on the final stage. She was third fastest again in 2016 and second fastest in 2017.
Her expectations for Sunday are once again high.
“I look forward to tomorrow,” she said of the final climb. “I mean, it’s one of the hardest things that you can go do, but it’s also something I’ve always enjoyed because it’s — you just go up the hill. … You just kind of grind it out. I’m certainly hoping to take some people off tomorrow and I definitely look forward to the day, for sure. I think it will be even potentially more special to this year because I have some really good friends here watching from Vermont, and I think that will be really cool to have them out, watching this race for the first time.”
Stephen reflected that the early part of her season was not to her liking.
“I’ve definitely struggled at the beginning of this year, and I think probably it’s a combination of the getting older factor and trying to figure out how much recovery is needed, and how much intensity is needed, and what volume is needed,” the 30-year-old Vermont native said. “It is really different. I’m not the 24-year-old athlete that could recover and go bop around all day and then go race and have it be great. I’m certainly feeling something, and I think probably aging is probably it. I definitely struggled especially this fall on Period 1 … I never felt like myself racing. And so, I think just to feel even a little bit of a glimmer of what I want to feel like later in this season and just again in my career, it definitely is much easier now to kind of get my brain around. I haven’t lost it all. It still is there.”
With picking off skiers on her way up Alpe Cermis, Stephen aspires for that podium reserved for the time-of-day mountain goats.
“I would certainly kind of probably chuck it out there that I’d love to be top two,” she stated. “I think Heidi will be tough to beat out there tomorrow. Especially with the win on her shoulders, as well. But, I would be really happy with a top three tomorrow. And I’m certainly just really looking forward to trying to ski the best I can ski.”
The Tour de Ski concludes Sunday with Stage 7 in Val di Fiemme.