Marit Bjørgen had seen the scenario play out before. Poland’s World Cup leader, Justyna Kowalczyk would suddenly decide it’s time to ski faster, and off the 30-year-old would go.
Come catch me, she’d beckon. Many would try; few ever did.
But when you’re Bjørgen, Norway’s most decorated female with 12 World Championships golds and three Olympic titles, that’s not an act you readily follow. In Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic mass start at World Cup Finals, Bjørgen certainly wasn’t going to let it happen without a fight.
The 33-year-old kept her head down as Kowalczyk opened a few-seconds lead at the start of the last lap. The Pole was pulling away from Bjørgen and two other Norwegians, Therese Johaug and Heidi Weng, but she still had some three kilometers to hold it. And in Falun, Sweden, that’s a tough task.
The 3.3 k course is unforgiving, marked by the infamous Mörderbacken hill that requires a lengthy climb followed by a multiple-tiered descent. If you can lead through the high point, that’s one achievement, but the real test comes on the downhill.
Bjørgen kept all this in mind as Kowalczyk strided away up the long climb. With about two kilometers to go, the Norwegian nearly reined her back in, trailing by just 2 seconds while Johaug followed 0.8 seconds back. Weng kept them all in sight with a 7.4-second deficit.
The second chase group, led by Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen at 8 k, was more than 36 seconds back and six strong with Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, Finland’s Anne Kyllönen, Yulia Tchekaleva of Russia, Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen, and Katrin Zeller of Germany.
But with three Norwegians and a Polish favorite up front, all eyes were on the leaders. Bjørgen rode up alongside Kowalczyk during the descent, skiing on the outside of one curve and using her speed to take control up the next climb.
With about a kilometer remaining, Bjørgen led into the final steep rise, and Kowalczyk suddenly slipped behind. Her kick had worn off on the klister day, with temperatures just above freezing. Kowalczyk would have to fight for bronze with Weng, while Bjørgen and Johaug cruised down into the stadium.
There, Bjørgen continued to push the pace and won comfortably in 28:06.7 minutes, 3.9 seconds ahead of Johaug in second.
The two looked back to see if Weng could pull off the Norwegian sweep as she entered the finishing straight with Kowalczyk. The 21-year-old did just that, outlunging Kowalczyk by one-tenth of a second, 11 seconds after Bjørgen crossed the line.
“I just thought that I should have the third place,” Weng told NRK, according to a translation. “I stiffened bad when Kowalczyk caught, but when I saw that she struggled in the last hill I saw hope.”
“She was nervous and fiddled with her porridge a lot at breakfast,” Bjørgen said at a post-race press conference. “But Heidi skied a fantastic lap and I’m very proud of what she did.”
The 1-2-3 finish was about as good as Norway could have asked for, especially with Bjørgen leading the way with her second-straight victory of the Finals. With one race remaining in the mini tour, Bjørgen would enter Sunday’s freestyle pursuit with a 46-second lead on Kowalczyk. However, after the race, Kowalczyk announced she would not be competing.
“I’ve decided not to go on Sunday,” she said a press conference, according to NRK. “I did not have the chance to win mini tour anyway.”
Kowalczyk said she was past her best races of the season, and after competing in essentially every one possible, she needed a break.
“I’ve only been home a few days throughout the year and long for a holiday,” she added.
She’s also struggling with leg pains, and her personal doctor has suggested she might need surgery in the offseason.
The news came as a surprise to Bjørgen, who was excited about the gap she’d built on her longtime rival.
“I had expected her to be here and fight,” Bjørgen told NRK. “But it has been a long season for her and it’s a choice she has to make.”
Kowalczyk is currently 674 points ahead of Johaug in the overall World Cup standings, which will be finalized Sunday. Bjørgen is more than 1,000 points behind in sixth after a heart arrhythmia in December led her to skip several World Cup races, including the entire Tour de Ski.
Even so, Bjørgen has achieved an incredible statistic of making the podium in 23 out of 23 consecutive starts. The last time she didn’t make the top three was more than a year ago on March 18, when she was fifth in the 2012 World Cup Finals pursuit in Falun.
“It is [rare] what she does and shows that she is the world’s best skier,” Johaug told NRK. “I’m terribly proud of her.”
Alternatively, Kowalczyk has been as far back as 43rd this season, and Johaug once placed 49th. Women’s coach Egil Kristiansen believes that even with a health scare, Bjørgen’s season went about as well as the team could’ve asked for.
“Disease breaks [out] involuntarily, but in general, it has been shown before that Marit [needs] a little break from skiing to rest and train,” Kristiansen told NRK. “We’ve realized that it’s a good recipe for success for her.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s pursuit, Bjørgen’s most concerned about Johaug starting 1:20 back in second.
“Although I have a big gap on Therese, she is very fast and I have to stay focused and do my best,” she said at a press conference.
After the three Norwegians and Kowalczyk took first through fourth on Saturday, Kalla placed fifth (+39.9) and will start third on Sunday, 1:26 behind Bjørgen.
Finland had three in the top 10 with Kyllönen in sixth (+40.2), Niskanen in seventh (+40.6) and Krista Lahteenmaki in 10th (+58.3). Tchekaleva was eighth (+43.9) and Jacobsen finished ninth (+46.3).
Niskanen and Weng will start fourth (+1:37) and fifth (+1:52), respectively, in the pursuit, and Kyllönen will be 1:53 back in sixth.