Neither heart arrhythmia nor iced-over skis could bring Marit Bjørgen down on Saturday. It had been more than a month and the Norwegian queen of nordic skiing had missed four straight weekends of World Cup racing, including the Tour de Ski.
It wasn’t part of her plan; an irregular heartbeat in December sent her to the hospital for an overnight observation just a week before the Tour de Ski. Bjørgen, 32, had intended to challenged the Tour’s defending champion, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, but never got her chance.
Keeping her head high, she resolved to return to racing for the La Clusaz World Cup, in a French alpine village nestled near the Swiss border. Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic mass start would be her first race since she won the Dec. 2 mini tour in Kuusamo, Finland. Up to that point, she was unbeaten – winning every World Cup race to date this season.
In Bjørgen’s absence, Kowalczyk seized every opportunity she could to top the podium and tallied eight total victories, including her fourth consecutive Tour de Ski title. In just one race – the skate sprint in Canmore – Kowalczyk didn’t make the top three. On her 30th birthday on Saturday, that uncharacteristic result of 21st wasn’t on Kowalczyk’s agenda.
With two rivals gunning for the top spot, Norway’s Therese Johaug (back in her first race since placing second in the Tour) also made a point to stay ahead of nearly 60 others in the mass start.
After a mostly cold and dry week in La Clusaz, waxing turned out to be a challenge with some new snow and a little rain varying conditions throughout the three-lap course. It didn’t help that temperatures were well above freezing at the start and reached 7 degrees Celsius (45 Fahrenheit).
US Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said several skiers had to stop during the race to scrape the ice off their skis. A few hundred meters before the finish, Kowalczyk, who led the second half of the race, was one of them.
“It’s the kind of day where if you try to hit it out of the park, you can end up having really slippery or really icy skis,” Whitcomb said. “In general, the entire field was kind of icing over the tops of the course.”
Kowalczyk’s tough break took some suspense out of what was shaping up into three-way fight to the finish, leaving Bjørgen and Johaug pushing for the victory. Bjørgen took it by 2.7 seconds over her teammate in 27:04.6. Kowalczyk came through in third, 18 seconds later, holding off Japan’s Masako Ishida by two-tenths of a second.
After Johaug took the lead two kilometers in, Ishida worked her way up to fourth and stayed there for a majority of the race. The 32-year-old from Japan led the chase group initially then pulled farther ahead at 4.5 k to ski alone for the next two kilometers. By 6.6 k, Ishida nearly caught the lead three: Kowalczyk, Johaug and Bjørgen, in that order.
Ishida finished more than 25 seconds ahead of Norway’s Heidi Weng, who was fifth (+43.6). Led by Anne Kylloenen in sixth, Finland landed three in the top 10, including Aino-Kaisa Saarinen in seventh (tying Norway’s Kristin Størmer Steira) and Kerttu Niskanen in ninth. Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen was the fourth Norwegian in 10th (+1:01.2).
A happy Bjørgen told NRK that she was lucky to pick the track she did near the finish.
“I saw [Kowalczyk] run, and thought, ‘Now you must glide on skis,’ ” she said, according to a translation. “I’m glad I did not go in the same track, it started [tugging] on her shortly after.”
As for Bjørgen’s heart, which has been closely monitored by her personal doctor, she told reporters before the race she wasn’t worried about it. “The heart pump fine and good,” she said after.
Mostly she was thinking about her form after such a long stint off.
“I was wondering if I had that little extra that it takes to win,” Bjørgen said, adding that she knew how fit her competitors were. “It was so fun to win.”
Coming off a fatiguing Tour, Johaug said she was a little nervous about where she’d end up. All things considered, she was pleased with second.
“It’s a little surprising that the body works so well,” Johaug said.
From the start, Johaug and teammate Heidi Weng positioned themselves up front and were tied for the lead by 1.2 k. At 4.5 k, Weng was still in the mix in fourth behind Kowalczyk.
“Therese did a fantastic job today,” Bjørgen said. “It’s especially fun to win when she is number two.”
Kowalczyk remained humble, saying at a press conference that she felt “really good” during the race.
“Today after the men’s race I will celebrate my 30th birthday,” Kowalczyk said. “It will be a perfect day I think.”
After that, Kowalczyk plans to compete in Sochi, Russia, in two weekends. Bjørgen and Johaug said they’ll forgo the next World Cup from Feb. 1-3 to rest up for World Championships. Instead, they plan to race at Norwegian Championships next week.