CANMORE, Alberta – Justyna Kowalczyk knows a thing or two about racing in Canmore. Among them, hard tracks, big hills and cold snow. Perfect, she thought before Sunday’s World Cup 15-kilometer skiathlon.
Every single distance race Poland’s pride and joy has done at the Canmore Nordic Centre, some 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level, she’s made the podium. Last year’s overall World Cup runner-up, Kowalczyk has won four races in Canmore since 2008, and two of them came this week.
After a victory in Thursday’s 10 k classic mass start, the 29-year-old rebounded from a less-then-stellar skate sprint on Saturday (in which she was 21st) to win the skiathlon. Doing so didn’t seem to be much of a problem; she created a gap of nearly a minute and ended up finishing in 42:51.5 minutes, 34.9 seconds ahead of Finland’s Anne Kylloenen in second.
Just one-tenth of a second behind, Vibeke Skofterud of Norway took third after Kylloenen outsprinted her to the finish. Kristin Størmer Steira (NOR) was fourth (+35.8) after initially trying to hang on to Kowalczyk with Skofterud for the first half of the race. Skofterud dropped off the pace on the second of four laps, but Steira held on.
Kowalczyk opened up an 11-second gap by the transition, and over the next kilometer, Steira fell off the pace. Skofterud picked up the slack and led a six-person chase group, but the 30-second deficit progressively increased. With one lap to go, Kowalczyk was nearly 50 seconds ahead.
“My plan was not so fast the first lap and then … ,” Kowalczyk said with a laugh.
The rest was self explanatory. She created a gap that made her essentially untouchable, even as the group worked together to catch up – albeit slightly – with three kilometers to go. Kowalczyk’s lead went from 52 seconds to about 35 at the finish.
“This was good plan I think,” she added.
Kowalczyk said she expected Steira and Skofterud to stick with her, and was surprised to drop Skofterud relatively early. Meanwhile, Kowalczyk tried to maintain a steady pace in the classic leg and accelerate when she put on her skate skis, and was pleased to find she wasn’t tired at the transition.
“My ski was working better today [and] I feel good,” she said. “It was really nice, not-so-fast snow, perfect for me.
Her win put her atop the World Cup standings ahead of American Kikkan Randall (who was eighth on Sunday) and Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, respectively.
“I have good feelings here, great memories,” she added, acknowledging a crowd with dozens of Canmore-based Polish supporters. “Sprint skating is not perfect for me, but all races, number one or number two is perfect.”
First place was probably preferable on Sunday. Kylloenen, 25, was more than happy with her silver, which matched the previous personal best she set Thursday. Kylloenen hadn’t been on a World Cup podium before this week, and on Sunday, she climbed from skiing outside the top 10 early to do so.
“I know that I’m in very good shape now,” Kylloenen said in a press conference. “I also tried to stay in the group and I know that I’m very strong that last part.”
She edged Skofterud as well as Steira, Masako Ishida (JPN), Valentina Shevchenko (UKR) and Alija Iksanova (RUS), respectively, by less than two seconds at the finish. Kikkan Randall was next across the line in eighth, 1:18.4 minutes back, Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR) was ninth (+1:18.5) and Anna Haag (SWE) was 10th (+1:19.2).
Skofterud said she didn’t feel well during the classic portion, but hung in and found the 7.5 k skate leg was an entirely different race. About 10 seconds back on Steira at the transition, she led the chase group out on the next lap while Steira fell off the pace.
“I had to fight hard to stay in the group and when I get my skating skis I felt better and
better,” Skofterud said. “In the end I was looking forward to the sprint and I was looking for where Kylloenen was because I know she has a good last hundred meters, but I’m happy.”
After placing fourth in Thursday’s 10 k, she was pleased to capture her first individual World Cup podium of the season. The 32-year-old said she’s been having problems with her lungs in Canmore.
“This year I have not been feeling that good so I have been fighting hard to get in shape,” Skofterud said. “Today I felt better than I did Thursday, but still not 100 percent, but it’s going the right way and it’s good to go home to Christmas with better feeling.”
From here, she’ll prepare for the second World Cup period, minus the Tour de Ski. She made the decision to skip the Tour in order to maintain her form and training through the holidays and peak at World Championships. Without the conflict, it was an easy decision to race in Canmore.
“I wanted to race every race before Christmas except for the sprint,” she said. “I think it was positive.”
Narrowly missing the podium in fifth and sixth, Ishida and Schevchenko took turns leading the chase pack, but ultimately, Skofterud drove the pace. Steira also got in the mix after climbing back from seventh place.
“I was surprised [with] myself with this day and that made me feeling even better than I did,” Skofterud said. “When I saw that I had possibilities to take part in the sprint, it was a good feeling and that made me stronger. It was cool to ski down into the stadium in front.”
– Topher Sabot contributed reporting