This article was written yesterday, but was not posted until today due to technical challenges. We apologize for the delay.
By Morgan Hartley and Conner Truskowski
The final races in Val Müstair took place on New Year’s Day with some enticing pack racing in the 10-kilometer classic pursuit for stage two of the Tour de Ski.
Frida Karlsson skied a confident and strong-looking race, constantly controlling the pace of the front group and catching the day’s Tour leader, Nadine Fändrich, before the 10-minute mark.
The second half of the women’s race featured a powerful performance from Kerttu Niskanen who, after starting the day in 12th, fought her way through two gaps between chase packs to take second place, just beating out a tired Frida Karlsson. The win and her first World Cup victory went to Tiril Udnes Weng, who came fourth in yesterday’s sprint, after skiing with Karlsson and Anne Kjersti Kalvå for the entire race. Lotta Udnes Weng rounded out the top 5 for the race.
The skier of the day, however, was certainly the Weng sisters’ fourth cousin, Heidi Weng, who skied her way up to 8th place after starting in 51st on the day, making up 35 places by the 3.6km time check and pushing the pace all the way to the line.
For the Americans, Rosie Brennan skied a strong race alongside Germany’s Katharina Hennig to take 7th place, with Hennig just beating her out in 6th.
“I had a strong race today,” Brennan wrote in an email to multiple media outlets. “I’m not sure I’ve ever done a pursuit start after a sprint so I wasn’t sure how that would unfold especially on a short 2.5km at altitude with very gradual climbing. The altitude and gradual climbing played to my strength and I was able to settle into a steady pace and pick people off. I made up some good ground early but in the later part of the race, the leaders turned it up a notch so my overall time didn’t make up quite as much ground as I had hoped but there were lots of good signs and a race I was very happy with.”
Julia Kern also had an exceptional performance, finishing 12th after skiing with a fairly large group for the majority of the race. Kern has typically found more success in sprinting, but told Nordic Insights that “this was the first time this season in distance racing that I felt I could push hard and then keep going.”
Jessie Diggins was the next U.S. finisher in 30th, at one point having moved up to 22nd around the midpoint of the race.
In transcribed audio shared with multiple media outlets, Diggins said, “I did feel like I went out a little bit aggressively, just kind of going for broke. And I had a little like, mini blowup out there. But I got it back under control. And honestly, I was really proud of how I skied. I kept fighting the whole time.”
Rounding out the American finishers were Sophia Laukli in 50th, moving up from 59th, and Alayna Sonnesyn in 53rd, losing ground after starting 42nd in a very busy rear section of the race.
Watching the women’s race on Sunday, you could visibly see those who were able to better control the effects of Val Müstair’s altitude on their body and those who pushed too far. Racing at altitude you are always pushing the limits of how hard you can push for how long, and testing how long it will take you to recover from each effort within your race.
Taking a peak at the splits, you can see athletes constantly shifting, moving up a few spots then moving back, moving up and moving back as the body takes time to recover from each push. The hope is that when you make a move from one group to another, or to drop someone or even just to maintain contact, that you can actively recover at a race pace that lets you retain the fruits of your labor. Obviously that rings true in all racing, but each push is that much more challenging, and the punishment for pushing too far so much more severe with only a portion of the oxygen that you would expect at sea level.
This makes the efforts and positive movement in the American results all that more impressive, knowing that they all navigated the course successfully, and even after pushing to the limit and in some cases blowing up completely they were able to bring things back under control and keep pushing.
On the men’s side, Johannes Klæbo played it safe, keeping the chasers at a comfortable distance and skiing solo the entire race. The small open course played to his advantage here, giving him plenty of warning when his competitors tried to close the gap so he could move away whenever he wanted to.
The battle for second looked to be up to five racers at one point between Pål Golberg, Federico Pellegrino, Michal Novák, Richard Jouve, and Sindre Bjørnestad Skar. But it was Golberg and Pellegrino who broke away from the group to have an incredibly close sprint finish. The photo finish would go to Golberg, by about a centimeter:
After the pack of five broke up, Jouve and Novak were absorbed by the second chase pack. Simen Hegstad Krueger and Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget ultimately replaced them in the top six.
Ben Ogden led the American men on Sunday, finishing in a hard-fought 18th in a really deep second chase pack. He had managed to maintain his starting position of 13th for about half the race, falling back when the group he was with split just before the 5km time check. Around the 7.5km mark the second chase pack split, leaving Ogden in the slower half.
Ogden was the lone American in the points, with the next U.S. finisher being Hunter Wonders in a respectable 53rd moving up from 80th at the start of the day. He was followed by Zak Ketterson in 57th (started 59th), Scott Patterson in 59th (started 94th), Gus Schumacher in 62nd (started 50th), Finn O’Connell in 70th (started 67th), Kevin Bolger in 85th (started 74th), and JC Schoonmaker in 88th (started 26th).
“It was definitely a tough race,” reflected Schoonmaker in written comments to Nordic Insights. “It started out hard and there was a lot of movement with the pursuit start and some really fast skiers starting in the back of the pack then moving up. I found a decent little pack at the back of the race to ski my last two laps with and the last time up the big hill Kevin put in a pretty solid attack that broke that little pack apart. I was able to pick off a couple guys with a sprint finish which felt nice. Overall though it was a super fun race and a cool format with the pursuit based off the sprint. Fun to mix it up in a distance race again!”
The U.S. crew has now moved on to Oberstdorf, Germany, for the next two stages of the Tour De Ski. This will be a familiar venue for both veterans and younger team members alike, having hosted previous Tour stages and World Junior Championships. It will also be a welcome break from the altitude for all competitors.