Marit Bjørgen thought today’s win was “possible”, but her 17 second head start in today’s classic pursuit over teammate Vibeke Skofterud was not enough to give her complete confidence in a win. Bjørgen blasted out of the start with a speed fitting of a 1km sprint, trying to gain even greater cushion from the very first of 10 kilometers. Racing against only the clock, with the thought of her strong competitors and teammates chasing her down, Bjørgen set a blistering pace that broke many of the competitors who tried to close the gap, including Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Polish rival Justyna Kowalczyk.
Kalla, who started 20 seconds back in third position, steadily lost time and was overtaken by Norway’s Therese Johaug by the race half-point, losing over a minute to Bjørgen by the finish. Kowalczyk, who started 64 seconds back, closed that gap down to 54 seconds, but also lost steam just at the 5km marker, finishing just over 2 minutes back. Kowalczyk managed to pick up one place, finishing in 5th, by passing Kikkan Randall of the U.S. Though Randall could not keep the blistering pace of the top three Norwegians, she did hold her own against most of the chasing pack,and finished just 15 seconds behind Kowalczyk for 6th place.
The pace that Bjørgen set did not break everyone. Her two teammates, Skofterud and Johaug, did not decrease the deficit, but they did manage to hold pace, and made for a 1-2-3- Norwegian sweep of the podium.
Though Bjørgen continued to slowly increase the gap back to Skofterud, amassing over 30 seconds by the 8 km mark, the battle between Johaug and Skofterud that ensued at that point in the race ensured that little more time widened the gap. As the fourth starter of the day, Johaug was 41 seconds down to Bjørgen and 14 seconds down to Skofterud. Working at a phenomenal pace, Johaug ate up her deficit first to Charlotte Kalla, whom she passed after 5km and then to Skofterud, who she passed at 8 kilometers.
Skofterud was not going to let her by easily, however. The next two kilometers saw a back and forth battle between the two teammates – Johaug trying to put the hammer down on the steep uphills, while Skofterud used her power and downhill technique to gain time back. Both women tried to break each other in the final kilometer, but as the finish line came into view it was a neck-and-neck double pole. Skofterud tried to hold ground with a powerful hammer, while Johaug amped up her tempo to a breakneck speed, putting forth enough of a ferocious effort that her teammate was forced to succumb to a third place finish 10 meters before the line. Johaug crossed the finish .7 seconds ahead of Skofterud and only 33 seconds down to Bjørgen, making her the fastest woman of the day by 8.7 seconds.
Two more impressive races in the top twenty competitors came from Kristin Stoemer Steira (NOR), who worked her way from 21st to 10th, and Polina Medvedeva (RUS), who gained 12 places to end in 14th.
Though she did not win the actual race today, Bjørgen’s overall dominance of the mini-tour (she won this tour last year as well) and her 48th World Cup win she notched during this Tour seems to place the Norwegian in a separate class. Following her race, Bjørgen spoke to an FIS reporter who asked her what kept her motivated while she was winning so many races.
“The younger girls are pushing me all the time and I always want to be the best one and then I have to train to do things better and be better than the younger girls. . . motivation is not a problem for me.”
Ever humble, Bjørgen said that her focus this year was the Tour de Ski where she would “hopefully’ be on the podium.
“It’s a big goal for me,” said Bjørgen. “I haven’t been there for three years, so I am excited to do it again. I think it’s good for me because I can go fast in both sprints and longer races . I have some problems doing many races in one week, but I look forward [to the Tour].”
Johaug, whose fastest time of the day put her on the podium for the first time this year, said in an interview with FIS, “I’ve worked with my technique and it worked well today, I’m really satisfied with my race. I think I was a bit nervous and stressed last weekend but now I am feeling relaxed. Now we are going home to Oslo and I hope to do some good races.”
Skofterud told FIS that though her goal was to get second place, “I did my best and I wasn’t good enough.”
The U.S. women saw another good day of racing, placing four women inside the top-40. Holly Brooks continued her successful speed of yesterday’s skate race by starting the day in 28th place and working up to 23rd. Liz Stephens cut her start place of 48th down by finishing in 35th , and Ida Sargent started today in 52nd place and finished in 38th.
(A full North American report to follow)
Top Ten in the overall Ruka-Triple Tour
1. Marit Bjørgen (NOR) 28:00.1
2. Therese Johaug (NOR) +33.0
3. Vibeke Skofterud (NOR) + 33.7
4. Charlotte Kalla (SWE) +1:15.7
5. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) +2:03.5
6. Kikkan Randall (USA) +2:18.e
7. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (SWE) +2:23.8
8. Anna Haag (SWE) +2:30.1
9. Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR) +2:32.7
10. Kristin Stoermer-Steira (NOR) + 2:38.9
Other North American results: 23. Brooks (USA) +3:27.6; 35. Stephen (USA) +4:18.8; 38. Sargent (USA) 4:21.5; 54. Crawford (CAN) +5:07.5; 57. Jones (CAN) 5:20.5; 59. Bjornsen (USA) +5:22.5; 69. Marshall (CAN) +6:53.5; DNS Gaiazova (CAN)