By Morgan Hartley and Conner Truskowski
The 17th running of the Tour de Ski kicked off earlier Saturday with skate sprints in a warm, icy Val Müstair. Out of thirteen American starters, eight men and five women, two men and two women qualified for the heats.
Starting with the women:
Julia Kern and Rosie Brennan both posted solid qualifying results on the two-lap, 1.5-kilometer course, capping off the morning in sixth and 14th respectively.
Brennan, who also finished the day in 14th overall, came in third in her heat, missing the lucky loser spot by a narrow margin.
After a strong-looking quarterfinal heat in which she finished second, ahead of World Cup overall leader Tiril Udnes Weng, Kern ultimately finished 11th today. She was sixth in a very fast semifinal number one after a fall in the loose icy snow on a technical turn into the last descent. Before her fall, Kern was working to move into third for a lucky loser spot. Given how well she had pushed that downhill and the finish during every other effort that day there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t have been able to pull this off.
“That’s ski racing,” a sanguine Kern noted of her fall, in audio comments to Nordic Insights. Hear Kern’s thoughts in full here, including her attempt to reconstruct just what happened on course:
The local Swiss fans, who cheered Nadine Fähndrich on to victory in the final Period 1 sprint, in Davos, once more had something to celebrate, as Fähndrich once more took the win. She came down the finish stretch to win with a sizable gap back to a resurgent Maja Dahlqvist of Sweden, who made a massive move from several meters back to move up from fourth to second after the final descent.
Lotta Udnes Weng of Norway rounded out the podium just in front of her sister, Tiril Udnes Weng. Tiril lost the tour leader jersey today as she came in fourth, with Frida Karlsson of Sweden and Anne Kjersti Kalvå of Norway rounding out the final in fifth and sixth.
Notably missing from the heats was Jessie Diggins, who finished her day in 3:33.77 after placing 40th in qualifying. She was 1.32 seconds out of making the heats, slightly behind teammate Alayna Sonnesyn in 38th and ahead of Sophia Laukli in 69th.
Nordic Insights’ research suggests that Diggins, who has ten World Cup podiums in skate sprints to her name, last failed to qualify for a World Cup skate sprint that she contested in December 2014, at a time when other Americans in this race included Ida Sargent, Kikkan Randall, and Caitlin Gregg, and Americans in the Oval Office included Barack Obama. This may have been only the fourth skate sprint non-qual of her career, including her World Cup debut in 2011 (scroll down to the bottom of this list). Even Homer nods.
Diggins stated, in transcribed audio shared with multiple media outlets, that she was positive but “very confused” about her performance today, that her race prep and warmup felt good, and that she felt fast with no glaring issues on course.
To the junior racers on this side of the pond (especially relevant to those competing at U.S. Nationals this week), Diggins said it’s important to remember, “Sometimes you just don’t have a good day and you don’t always have a reason why, and I think it’s important to be honest and say that.”
“I’ve definitely had times where I have had a bad day, and the next day I come back and have the best day of my life,” Diggins continued, so it’s important to “focus on rest and recovery and food and hydration and all the things that are really important to have a good Tour.”
Looking forward, Diggins made clear that she is excited to have the pressure off and to be back in the hunt. The hungry wolf is the better hunter, you may have heard a ski coach advise you at some point.
Brennan was stoked to finally feel like her sprint form was coming back after a slower start to the season. In an email to multiple media outlets, Brennan noted, “Having struggled with sprinting this year, I didn’t have too many expectations.”
With a solid standing in the Tour to work from, Brennan is looking forward to making up some ground in the upcoming distance races. Regarding Sunday’s classic pursuit, she wrote, “Tomorrow will certainly be a bit of a wild day with a short course and fast conditions so we’ll see what happens out there…”
Turning to the men:
Ben Ogden led eight American men to start the day, qualifying an outstanding fourth ahead of J.C. Schoonmaker in 21st.
Gus Schumacher finished 50th in the qualifier, leading Zak Ketterson, Finn O’Connell, Kevin Bolger, Hunter Wonders, and Scott Patterson in 59th, 67th, 74th, 80th, and 94th respectively. Today was O’Connell’s World Cup debut; he recently shared his goals for this year’s Tour with Nordic Insights.
Ogden had a dramatic quarterfinal heat number two, breaking a pole out of the start gate and coming back from 10 meters behind at the start to confidently control his heat. He finished third in the heat, barely missing the lucky loser spot by .4 seconds. All signs point to a guaranteed semifinal qualification without the equipment failure.
Ogden sounded similar notes in written comments to Nordic Insights.
“The broken pole certainly threw a wrench into my plan for the quarter final today there is no doubt about that,” he wrote.
“After the gun went off and I immediately broke it it was basically just quick thinking through a series of changing circumstances I will attempt to describe: I had a moment of oh god it’s over, then I saw [USST coach] Matt [Whitcomb] with a new pole right there and suddenly I was confident there was still a chance.
“Once I got the new pole on It was just all I could do to get back to where I needed to be. Once I was there, I was thinking about how to save the little energy I had left and use It at just the right moment.
“Once I realized I had energy to get through I was focused on how to be in the right place at the end, and unfortunately this was the first decision I didn’t nail. I was just not in the perfect place with the perfect speed and I couldn’t make It happen. It was certainly frustrating but I’m still very happy with the race and I’ll put all eyes on tomorrow now!”
Schoonmaker chose quarterfinal heat number three. He was strong out of the start, but faded to finish sixth in a very fast heat.
“My heat didn’t feel especially great. I did feel good right at the start but on the second lap I just wasn’t able to hold the pace that those guys were pushing,” Schoonmaker wrote to Nordic Insights. “I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t feel like my normal self but the guys I was racing against just had a bit more speed than me today so hopefully I can start to find that soon.”
The final results for the day for the American male qualifiers were 13th for Ogden and 26th for Schoonmaker. These placings bring them 10 and four bonus seconds, respectively, in the overall Tour de Ski standings heading into day two tomorrow.
Johannes Høsflot Klæbo was once again the black sheep with his line choices, taking wide turns to carry greater speed and having it pay off despite the greater distance and occasionally rougher snow he chose to navigate.
Klæbo and Pellegrino had a rematch of the mid-December sprint final in Davos, showing that Klæbo’s recent time off to recover from illness seems to have paid off.
At the finish the two men immediately congratulated each other, and Klæbo could be overheard saying “Good fight!” to Pellegrino, who had pipped him at the line in Davos.
Sindre Bjørnestad Skar rounded out the podium for Norway, with Michal Novák of the Czech Republic, Richard Jouve of France, and Lucas Chanavat of France rounding out the top six.
Looking forward to the pursuit tomorrow, the Americans are looking to find their stride and to improve upon or back up today’s results.
“Today was mostly a day to feel out the course a little and get a good hard prerace effort in for later races this week,” wrote Scott Patterson to Nordic Insights. “I’m mostly planning on taking the races day by day and fighting for strong individual results.”
Schumacher told Nordic Insights that for tomorrow he’s looking for a better result, starting fast and grouping with those who are making moves up the field, saying that his, and others’, overall strategy is “generally… just trying to absorb each race and feel better every day with good food and sleep.”
We’ll see if these strategies pan out for the U.S. team this year, which has a promising group of young men and women that have potential to post some of the best ever individual results in the overall tour, especially on the men’s side. These upcoming races are surely going to be events to watch as tomorrow’s pursuit (yes, it’s a pursuit again) promises some tight pack racing after today’s results.
Please welcome contributors Morgan Hartley and Conner Truskowski to this year’s Tour de Ski coverage. Nordic Insights will be prioritizing domestic coverage this week, with one reporter on the ground full-time in Houghton, Michigan, to cover U.S. Nationals (there will be four races there between Monday and Saturday). Our World Cup writeups may be slightly shorter as a result, but will continue to feature the extensive feedback from athletes that we like to think has quickly become Nordic Insights’ hallmark.
— Gavin Kentch contributed reporting
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