Jessie Diggins enjoyed a sunny training day Friday before the kickoff of the FIS Tour de Ski Saturday in Val Mustair, Switzerland. (Getty Images-Nils Petter Nilsson)
VAL MUSTAIR, Switzerland (Dec. 30, 2016) - The U.S. Cross Country Ski Team will enter nine athletes - one of its deepest and most experienced teams ever - as the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) 2017 edition of the Tour de Ski gets underway on New Year’s Eve day in Val Mustair with a freestyle sprint.
The seven-stage tour will cover four stops in three nations before the Sunday, January 8 finale up the staggering Alpe Cermis hill climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Among the top U.S. skiers will be Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN), who led the USA last year finishing 10th overall; Sophie Caldwell (Peru, VT), who won a classic sprint stage a year ago; Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, VT), a powerhouse on the final climb who holds the U.S. best overall finish in fifth; and Simi Hamilton (Aspen, CO), winner of a sprint in the 2014 Tour.
"I always get anxious before World Cup racing, but the feeling of excitement before the Tour always feels a bit different from every other weekend,” said Hamilton. "There’s something about the organized chaos of traveling to a different venue in a different country every other day, and the diverse schedule of races gives the Tour its unique feel."
Jessie Diggins finished 10th overall in the 2016 Tour de Ski. This year’s event kicks off Saturday in Mustair, Switzerland. (Getty-Trond Tandberg)
“The Tour de Ski is a really fun and unique event in that you need to be able to perform day after day in different venues, different distances and different techniques,” said Diggins. "To be able to place well in a tour, you have to be an all-rounder and that’s my ultimate goal. I am also aware that many things need to absolutely perfectly to pull off a good tour result. I’m looking forward to the challenge!"
Also returning to the Tour after a year’s absence will be Kikkan Randall (Anchorage, AK), who won the Val Mustair sprint in 2013.
While the U.S. will be fielding an experienced team, it has also been challenged by illness through the December World Cup schedule. "I’m optimistic that the USA can have some excellent Tour stages,” said Head Coach Chris Grover. "However, illness has coursed through the entire team in December, derailing the ideal training and race fitness preparations."
Each of the eight stages features a different format or technique, with a blend of classic and freestyle, mass start, skiathlon (both techniques) and pursuit racing where the leaders are being chased.
"For the athletes, the Tour is a measure of who is the all-around best cross country skier in the world,” said Grover. "With sprint and distance events of every length, technique and format, an athlete has to be an incredible all-around skier to finish on the podium of the Tour.
"The format of the Tour places a premium on staying healthy,” he added. "If an athlete can avoid illness, manage fatigue, find recovery during unlikely moments and manage their energy output effectively, they will be successful in the Tour. It is a battle of attrition that is easier to lose than to survive."
The 2017 Tour de Ski is the 11th running. The U.S. Ski Team first took part in 2010 with Andy Newell (Shaftesbury, VT) the lone American. Newell is sitting out this year’s Tour - the first he has missed. A year later, Kris Freeman (Andover, NH) and Randall joined Newell with Freeman skiing to seventh overall - the best ever U.S. men’s finish. In 2012, Randall scored the first U.S. Tour de Ski podium - second in the Toblach sprint. In 2013, Randall took another giant step forward with two stage wins, while Stephen established herself as one of the world’s best hill climbers, finishing second on Alpe Cermis three times beginning in 2013.
Sadie Bjornsen finished 14th overall at the 2016 Tour de Ski. She’ll start her third Tour de Ski event Saturday in Val Mustair, Switzerland. (Getty/Agency Zoom- Stanko Gruden)
The U.S. depth on the Tour continued to grow in subsequent years. In 2014, Hamilton won a freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide. And last year, Caldwell won a classic sprint while Diggins took a 5k freestyle victory.
"As I look back on my Tour stage win three years ago, I can’t help but feel proud of what I did and how I raced that day,” said Hamilton. "It is still an amazing feeling to know that I was the only male to win a World Cup race since Bill Koch did it 30 years prior."
Diggins, who already has a World Cup win this season from the 5k freestyle in Lillehammer, will be looking to improve on her 10th place Tour de Ski finish a year ago. She closed out the 2016 World Cup season finishing fifth in the Ski Tour Canada stage event. Bjornsen, meanwhile, has had a solid and consistent early season across both freestyle and classic races and is poised to improve on her 14th place Tour a year ago. Like Diggins, she was also strong in the Ski Tour Canada event last March, finishing 11th.
Since its inception, the Tour de Ski has helped to define cross country ski racing. "The Tour is clearly the highlight of the season outside of the World Championships and the Olympics,” said Grover. "TV viewership and fan following increases greatly during the Tour. No event during the World Cup is previewed, talked about and followed so acutely."
Again this year, NBC Sports will be covering the entire Tour de Ski with live streaming each day at NBCSports.com, plus same day broadcast coverage every afternoon on Universal HD. Live scoring data will be available at FIS-Ski.com, including GPS tracking on several events.
2017 U.S. SKI TEAM TOUR DE SKI ROSTER
MEN Erik Bjornsen, Winthrop, WA - Third Tour de Ski start - Finished 41st in 2016, only full Tour finish
Simi Hamilton, Aspen, CO - Fifth Tour de Ski start - Won 2014 Lenzerheide freestyle sprint - Has not completed full Tour
Noah Hoffman, Aspen, CO - Fourth Tour de Ski start - Fastest time in freestyle pursuit from Cortina to Toblach in 2014 - Finished 22nd in 2016 - Has three full Tour finishes
WOMEN Sadie Bjornsen, Anchorage (Winthrop, WA) - Third Tour de Ski start - Finished 14th in 2016 in only Tour finish - Strong, consistent early season results this year
Rosie Brennan, Anchorage (Park City, UT) - Second Tour de Ski start - Was 42nd in first appearance in 2016
Sophie Caldwell, Peru, VT - Fourth Tour de Ski start - Won Oberstdorf classic sprint in 2016 - No full Tour finishes
Jessie Diggins, Afton MN - Fifth Tour de Ski start - Finished 10th in 2016 - matching second best U.S. women’s finish ever - Won Toblach 5k freestyle in 2016 - Three full Tour finishes - Strong early season including a 5k freestyle World Cup victory in Lillehammer
Kikkan Randall, Anchorage - Returning after year’s absence to make fifth Tour de Ski start (skipped 2014 Tour to prepare for Olympics and 2016 while pregnant) - Won two stages in 2013 including Oberhof prologue and Val Mustair freestyle sprint - Finished 10th in 2012 - Three full Tour finishes
Liz Stephen, E. Montpelier, VT - Seventh Tour de Ski start - Has finished all six Tours she has entered - Holds top U.S. Tour de Ski finish of fifth (2015) as well as a seventh (2014) - Second in Alpe Cermis hill climb in 2013, 2014 and 2016 - 5th in Val di Fiemme 10k classic mass start in 2016
2017 TOUR DE SKI SCHEDULE (all times EST) All events to be live streamed on NBCSports.com
Saturday, December 31 - Val Mustair, Switzerland 8:50 a.m. - Men’s and women’s freestyle sprint
Sunday, January 1 - Val Mustair, Switzerland 7:00 a.m. - Men’s 10k classic mass start 10:00 a.m. - Women’s 5k classic mass start